Ziegfeld Girl (1941)

Ziegfeld Girl (1941)

Ziegfeld Girl (1941). 132 minutes. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard. Starring James Stewart (as Gilbert Young), Judy Garland (as Susan Gallagher), Hedy Lamarr (as Sandra Kolter), Lana Turner (as Sheila Regan), Tony Martin (as Frank Merton), Jackie Cooper (as Jerry Regan), Eve Arden (as Patsy Dixon), Philip Dorn (as Franz Kolter), Charles Winniger (as “Pop” Gallagher), Ian Hunter (as Geoffrey Collis), and Edward Everett Horton (as Noble Sage). Musical sequences directed by Busby Berkeley.

Ziegfeld Girl is intended to be a follow-up to 1936’s The Great Ziegfeld, but whereas The Great Ziegfeld focuses on Florenz Ziegfeld (founder of the Ziegfeld Follies) and his rise to fame, Ziegfeld Girl charts the careers of three fictitious Follies showgirls. The similarities between the two movies are numerous, and towards its end, Ziegfeld Girl even recycles some of the footage from the earlier film, including The Great Ziegfeld’s famous rotating wedding cake set. While Ziegfeld Girl has many failings—including the fact that it appears to be taking place in the 1940s (whereas the Follies’ heyday was in the 1910s and 1920s) and the musical numbers are not the elegant productions we might expect from either Ziegfeld or musical director Busby Berkeley—its female leads are so endearing that I found myself engrossed in the story nonetheless.

The movie focuses on three young women who are hired by Ziegfeld (whom we never see or hear) as showgirls in his Follies production. They are young Susan Gallagher (played by Judy Garland), a veteran of the vaudeville circuit who must part ways with her father if she is to be a success; Sandra Kolter (played by Hedy Lamarr), who becomes a showgirl accidentally while trying to procure work for her violinist husband, Franz; and Sheila Regan (played by Lana Turner), who abandons her boyfriend Gilbert (James Stewart) for a wealthy patron. The three women perform their first season together, then go on tour with the production to Florida, later returning to New York for subsequent productions. Susan advances in her career to ultimately become the headliner of Ziegfeld’s show. Sandra parts ways with her husband, who disapproves of her career, only to find she really loves him; in the end, she quits the Follies so that she can go on tour with him when he gets his big break as a violinist. Meanwhile Sheila descends into an alcoholic haze. She is fired from the show and, after drinking her way through her fortune, is diagnosed with a terminal heart condition. Confined to bed, she reunites with Gilbert and manages to sneak out of the house to see Susan’s debut as Ziegfeld’s star. Partway through the production, she exits the theater and collapses at the bottom of the lobby stairs, where Sandra and Franz comfort her in what are presumably her last moments.

The three female protagonists are beautiful and engaging. Lana Turner is pitiful as a self-destructive girl who hits the big time and confuses love with money, Hedy Lamarr is charming as the preoccupied beauty Sandra, and Judy Garland is her eternally charismatic self as Susan. Garland’s performance as an experienced vaudeville juvenile who is still attached to her father feels very genuine, but she is not given as much screen time to develop this role as she would be given to flesh out subsequent characters in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and Easter Parade (1948); in those movies she is allowed to be her full girlish, silly, and charming self, whereas sharing the screen with the other leads here means that she is somewhat muffled. In Ziegfeld Girl she also has to do without the stellar musical material of those other movies. Her character’s breakthrough moment in Ziegfeld Girl is her performance of the song “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows,” which in its lyrics resembles “Over the Rainbow,” the Wizard of Oz (1939) anthem that Garland performed on screen just three years earlier. But whereas “Over the Rainbow” blends wistful lyrics with a melancholy tune that together seem eternal and God-given, “I’m Always Chasing Rainbows” is less interesting melodically, less revealing of human truth.

One thing about this movie that I am grateful for is that Garland is made to be a Ziegfeld girl and, late in the movie, the star Ziegfeld girl at that. Garland was always marketed as the girl-next-door type: youthful, petite, and cute, but not beautiful in the way that the smoldering Lana Turner was, for example. I have always thought that this was a great shame. Judy Garland is beautiful in her own way, and her characters are usually so sweet and warm—why can’t they be showstoppers as well? Someone in this production made the radical choice to position Garland in the knockout role, and it made me happy to see the movie appreciating her in that way.

Turner and Lamarr make for the more traditional Ziegfeld girls in terms of their physical type and comportment: Turner with the stunning hair and gorgeous smile, Lamarr looking slightly aloof at all times—distracted, indeterminately European. Lamarr as Sandra, however, is not merely beautiful but also cultured. Sandra’s support of her classical violin-playing husband, also vaguely European, makes her appear artistic and intellectual. Her story is about a woman who is both stunning and refined, trying to hold onto the love of a man who cares for her but who refuses to accept her as a professional glamour girl. Sandra’s situation, like Susan’s, implies that the Follies have room for all kinds of beauties and personalities.

By promoting the unusual Susan to star of the Follies and devoting so much screen time to the women’s offstage lives, the movie makes its legendary showgirls relatable and human. But I am sad to report that just as the movie humanizes its main characters, it also deflates our notion of what a Ziegfeld girl is and does. Throughout, the Ziegfeld girl as a concept does not feel impressive or elite, and what we may have thought of prior to this film as the show’s elegant, untouchable beauties can seem instead unsophisticated and laughable.

The movie transforms our impression of this most classic of showgirls in three ways. First, it makes its protagonists look plain goofy during the Follies performances. Take, for example, the “Caribbean Love Song” sequence. In that sequence, showgirls appear with coral growing out of their heads and arms, enormous inflatable fish attached to their gowns, and in one case, a whole giant stuffed albatross draped around one performer’s neck. Whatever grace accompanies them as they slowly and carefully make their way along those Ziegfeld staircases evaporates when we catch full view of their costumes replete with trailing sea fauna. The effect is decidedly bathetic, and no amount of composure could save any of the women from looking grotesque. But it would be wrong to suggest that “Caribbean Love Song” is an anomaly in Ziegfeld Girl. In fact, it is only one of many garish numbers. Even the very first performance, “You Stepped Out of a Dream,” which sets the tone for so many others, is in questionable taste. In this sequence, the women are fringed in flashy, shiny tinsel-like fabric that makes them look cheap, like 1940s Christmas trees.

That brings me to a second and related point: everyone in this film, whether on stage or off, is dressed in 1940s fashion. No one wears the clothing of women from any era in which there was an actual Ziegfeld production (roughly 1907-1931 with a brief resurgence in 1934 and 1936). Characters in this movie sport enormous shoulder pads, arrange their hair in styles typical of the 1940s, and are embellished with jewelry that is characteristic of that era. If, in exaggerating its showgirl costumes with fish and fringe, Ziegfeld Girl is attempting to provide us with the over-the-top and outlandish (with the result that its showgirls actually appear less glamorous), in its adherence to the fashion of the movie’s own era, it strangely seems to be minimizing the antique quality of the story. The result is a sense of further deflation.

Third, Ziegfeld Girl strangely and brazenly asserts via a speech by a Follies employee that what happens to the women during their time in the Follies would happen to them even if they never joined the show. This bit of wisdom is picked up by the characters and repeated later in the film, and the film seems to be speaking through them at these moments. But is it really fair to state up front that the Follies bear no responsibility for any of the things that happen in the movie? I appreciate the thought that the character who originally says this explicitly to the nervous showgirls on their opening night is trying both to downplay the dramatic nature of what is happening to them in an effort to calm them and also to ascribe responsibility to individuals and their choices. But Ziegfeld’s show is supposed to be special. It potentially brings a unique kind of wealth and fame to its performers. If the movie is really about the character’s lives independent of the Follies, and not about how their lives change as a result of the show, then they could be shown working in other professions with the same effect.

After having watched two Ziegfeld-related movies now that are both overall only so-so, I am beginning to wonder what it would take to make a great movie about the Follies. There must be some filmmaker out there who can find more to say about the stunning women who walked down those staircases and how the audience felt about them. Isn’t there a tremendous opportunity here to meditate on beauty ideals and what we value in the appearance of the female sex? And it cannot all be about beauty—surely some of these women were clever, even shrewd. The real Ziegfeld girls included among their number Barbara Stanwyck and Norma Shearer. Both were smart and talented businesswomen who went on to become two of the top-earning Hollywood actresses and highest-paid American women of their time. I am holding out hope that a modern-day filmmaker will seize upon this topic as fodder for a new film, and then one day I will get the Ziegfeld movie of my dreams.