Glorifying the American Girl (1929)
It’s nice to hear Mary Eaton speak frankly to her boyfriend (a dreamy Edward Crandall) about wanting to live a little and see what she can do before settling down and raising children. He’s visibly hurt, but not petulant or insulting (like every boyfriend/husband in Ziegfeld Girl and The Dolly Sisters). He does wait for her and seems genuinely supportive of her success…, but eventually settles for available girl-next-door Gloria Shea — who actually is treated pretty badly by the film: abandoned and hit by a car! That’s what chasing love gets you….
Eaton discovers her beau has moved on just before she goes out for the finale in the Follies, and you see the emotions hit her as she struggles under the weight of an enormous headpiece that cascades around her like a fountain. Ok, so it’s not exactly deep, but at least she doesn’t die of alcohol poisoning or get slapped around like in the exploitational Ziegfeld Girl.
The production numbers are tame but realistic by Hollywood’s standards, and we wait the whole film to finally see one of Flo’s evolving stage contraptions (it’s worth it). Most of the numbers are arranged in tableau including a gorgeous scene involving a mermaid pulled from the sea in a fisherman’s net as a bishop and various neoclassical figures stand by…. Tableaus don’t make interesting cinema, but I was happy to see some man flesh in the mix as nearly nude males (like Johnny Weissmuller, sigh) have apparently been excised from Hollywood’s re-interpretations of Ziggy’s stagework — ironic since Flo had his first success displaying the muscular Sandow so you know he wasn’t shy about it.
Eddie Cantor has an overly long vaudeville scene as a Jewish tailor, but is actually funnier in a brief exchange with a haughty showgirl, Rudy Vallee might have been a somebody back then but he sure doesn’t show it here. Helen Morgan sings her signature torchsong from atop a piano (a schtick she invented by necessity as she was too short to be seen in many music halls). She is excellent in the film APPLAUSE which also came out in 1929 where she played an aging showgirl trying to keep her daughter out of theater life, but unfortunately her performance here suffers from the antique recording.
Ted Shawn is the imaginative choreographer who arranges the dancers up and down Ziegfeld’s stairs dressed as exotic animals, graceful swans, and Art Nouveau beauties clutching glass globes. Shawn would create the Jacob’s Pillow dance festival and was instrumental in forming a uniquely American branch of Modern Dance.
Silent stock-footage from a theater premier was edited in so we get a glimpse of Ziegfeld and Billie Burke, as well as other Broadway dignitaries of the age. It’s a tragedy the technicolor scenes are lost as this is the only film Ziegfeld personally worked on. There’s a lot of history here, and the opening montage is almost Fritz Lang-esque, but I wouldn’t try to show the whole film to any of my friends. All-in-all it’s not that bad. The pre-code heroine isn’t “punished” for having career ambitions but she experiences some bumps and bruises along the way (mostly from her crocadilian mother and an unscrupulous partner/manager). She loses the cute guy but he still comes to congratulate her when she stars in the Follies and that seems like a fair compromise — much better than the later lurid propaganda plots that would slap down (or just kill off) any woman who chose to be a Ziegfeld Girl instead of a wife.