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On the strength of the reviews and box office returns that were garnered by The Great Ziegfeld (1936), the powers-that-be at MGM were keen to develop another musical property to which the legendary stage impresario's name could be attached. The effort that ultimately resulted, Ziegfeld Girl (1941), didn't match the original as a dramatic achievement, but has few equals as a showcase example of the production opulence that MGM's musical wing could attain.
Great Ziegfeld scenarist William Anthony McGuire was retained to craft a story that would focus on the lives of the showgirls that Florenz Ziegfeld so famously glorified on Broadway. A 1938 release date was announced, with a slated cast headed by Joan Crawford, Eleanor Powell, Virginia Bruce, and Walter Pidgeon. Multiple factors, including McGuire's passing, spurred numerous production delays, and the project had to be completely recast before the cameras finally commenced rolling for studio standby Robert Z. Leonard.
The narrative (completed by Marguerite Roberts and Sonya Levien) focuses on a trio of young beauties and how they entered Ziegfeld's orbit. Brooklynite Sheila Regan (Lana Turner) is a department store elevator operator who discovered to her mortification that the patron who offered her a Follies audition wasn't just handing her a line. The song and dance skills of teenage vaudevillian Susan Gallagher (Judy Garland) get her in the door, despite the hopelessly old-school coaching provided by her trouper father (Charles Winninger). Emigre Susan Kolter (Hedy Lamarr) merely waited dutifully in the wings as her struggling classical violinist husband (Philip Dorn) halfheartedly auditioned for the Ziegfeld orchestra, and obtained a contract on the spot with her exotic beauty.
Of the three, it's Sheila's story arc that drives Ziegfeld Girl forward. Although she initially promises her minimum-wage trucker fiancee (James Stewart) that nothing would change between them, the lure of penthouse living, late night clubbing, and wealthy stage-door johnnies bearing gifts proves too much for the relationship to bear. Over time, the fast lane leaves Sheila ever more dissolute and sickly; the embittered Gil drifts into bootlegging, finally pocketing the big money that he could never offer her.
Susan struggles chiefly with the guilt of leaving her dad and his hokey stylings behind in order for her career to take off. Sandra's husband chafes at her becoming the primary breadwinner, and she is driven to a dalliance with handsome Ziegfeld tenor Frank Merton (Tony Martin), who also happens to be very married.
Pandro S. Berman, on his first effort for MGM since shepherding RKO's musical unit through the '30s, culled the foremost talent working to develop the look of Ziegfeld Girl. Cedric Gibbons designed the remarkable spiral staircase sets on which the ladies paraded, each bedecked in costumes by Adrian that seemed to try to top one another for outrageousness. (One chorine's swan bodice seemed to presage the Oscar-night look adopted by Bjork a few years back.)
Moreover, Busby Berkeley was brought in to helm the film's two most lavish set pieces - Garland's rousing calypso number "Minnie From Trinidad," and the finale in which Martin introduced the Gus Kahn/Nacio Herb Brown staple "You Stepped Out of a Dream." "Each girl emerged from a misty cloud effect, dripping with silver sequins," cinema's consummate showman recalled for The Busby Berkeley Book. "With all due respect to the master, Ziegfeld could never have done on a stage what we did in that finale."
Acknowledgment has to be given to the other members of the large supporting cast, all of whom acquit themselves well. Edward Everett Horton and Paul Kelly click as Ziegfeld's seen-it-all right-hand men, and Ian Hunter brings weight as Sheila's primary old-money suitor. Dan Dailey is memorable as a pug Sheila encounters on the way up (and on the way down) and Eve Arden, dependable as a been-around-the-block chorus veteran. Jackie Cooper gets to pull the plots together as Sheila's kid brother and Susan's love interest. Longtime Laurel & Hardy foil Mae Busch is on hand as a wardrobe mistress; vaudeville veteran (and uncle to the Marx Brothers) Al Shean joins Winninger in a redemptive reprisal of Mr. Gallagher And Mr. Shean.
Of the principals, Turner reaped the greatest professional benefit from Ziegfeld Girl, as the project's success lifted her from series and programmers and placed her squarely on the A-list. Stewart, who ostensibly got top billing for a supporting performance on the prestige of The Philadelphia Story (1940), would have to wait for the Armistice to resume his career in Hollywood. While Garland privately despaired of her role's lack of adult glamour relative to those of her co-stars, her vocal performances in the film burnished an already impressive portfolio and remain amongst her most fondly remembered.
Producer: Pandro S. Berman
Director: Robert Z. Leonard
Screenplay: Marguerite Roberts, Sonya Levien, William Anthony McGuire (story)
Cinematography: Ray June
Film Editing: Blanche Sewell
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: George Stoll
Cast: James Stewart (Gilbert Young), Judy Garland (Susan Gallagher), Hedy Lamarr (Sondra Kolter), Lana Turner (Sheila Regan), Tony Martin (Frank Merton), Jackie Cooper (Jerry Regan), Ian Hunter (Geoffrey Collis), Edward Everett Horton (Nobel Sage), Eve Arden (Patsy Dixon), Charles Winninger (Ed 'Pop' Gallagher).
BW-133m. Closed captioning.
by Jay Steinberg