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Judy Garland, Hedy Lamar and Lana Turner--three of the most glamorous leading ladies of the Golden Age of Hollywood--star with Jimmy Stewart as young women each chosen for a life of fame on stage as a Ziegfeld Girl. Susan Gallagher (Academy Award winner Garland--The Wizard of Oz, A Star is Born) leaves her vaudevillian father to climb the ladder of stardom; Sheila Regan (Turner--The Postman Always Rings Twice) drops her loyal beau, Gilbert Young (Academy Award winner Stewart-- It's a Wonderful Life, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington) for socialite Geoffrey Collins (Ian Hunter--Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde), and Young resorts to bootlegging to earn the money to win Regan back; and the exotic Sandra Kolter (Lamar--Tortilla Flat, Samson and Delilah) nearly destroys her marriage with her struggling violinist husband (Philip Dorn--I Remember Mama). Now, as part of the most glamorous show ever staged, these ladies have attained their dreams ....]]>
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That austerity measure is the primary reason this great musical feast was produced in the less-expensive, always-acceptable (and, at the time, "the norm") black-and-white rather than as a fantastic Technicolor feast. Musicals did not YET rule the lot of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer although they would, soon enough, keep that studio in the black.
Nevertheless, this movie is one of the most beautiful black-and-white musicals ever produced. As Leonard Maltin has said in his TV book of movie reviews, the MGM glitter has never shined more brightly.
Among the most notable things about this film is that it was a turning point in the career of Judy Garland. Here, for the first time, Judy goes from being a young girl living at home with her father to becoming an independent young woman who becomes a star of the Ziegfeld follies. From child to grownup in one movie. And that turning point hinged on the improbably set-up presentation of her singing audition in which her pop had her ham up "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" and, in a second chance, using her own gut instincts to sing the song better than anyone had sung it before...and better than anyone has sung it since.
Lana Turner was not yet a major MGM star, but she became one with this film in which she was given the full glamour treatment. She has a very meaty part as a beauty who gets her shot in the Ziegfeld follies. She has Jimmy Stewart (who was a star in his own right) as a ne'er-do-well boyfriend who she drops when rich men start paying attention to her. Along the way on her path to fame and infamy, she encounters an impossibly young, incredibly handsome Dan Dailey, who portrays a fighter. In the film, he wins a boxing title in a match that Lana sees with one of her rich boyfriends. When Dailey encounters Turner in a night spot, he comes on to her. Sizing her up and letting her know who he is, he tells her, "Ya seen me when I done it." Once she realizes what he means, she agrees she was there, and then gives him the brush-off. Later in the film, when they're both on the skids, he runs into her in a dive. He offers to buy her a drink and reminds her of who he is. He then treats her badly. It's a terrific scene between them, and it's a terrible character for the young Dailey to have played, but it was a standout.
Happily, though, Turner got one of the best scenes any actress has had in a career. And it is, allegedly, a scene that MGM's resident musical genius (the true talent in the Freed Unit) Roger Edens wrote specifically for her while the film was shooting because it was felt her character needed a little something more dramatic. In this scene, the mortally ill Lana goes to the Ziegfeld Theater to see a revue of previous Ziegfeld triumphs. Growing visibly sicker as she watches the show, she gets up to leave. As she reaches the top of the balcony staircase, the theater orchestra starts playing "You Stepped Out of A Dream", which was the big number in her first Ziegfeld hit. Per Edens' instruction, Turner threw back her shoulders, lifted her chin, and began descending the stairs as a Ziegfeld girl would do it on stage. After a few steps, she collapses. It's one HELL of a scene and Turner delivers it in spades.
This film IS a great musical wallow. Tony Martin was a perfect leading man in this film. "You Stepped Out of a Dream" is one of the great "show girl" anthems of all time. His voice was terrific and he wooed the impossibly beautiful Hedy Lamarr onstage and off. Lamarr brought that beauty to her role, if little else, although she portrayed a noble character with honorable intentions.
There are many movies in which the sum of the parts do not necessarily equal a masterful whole, but this is one of those movies in which the sum of the parts DO EQUAL great entertainment that rewards time and again. The music is tuneful/memorable, the sets and costumes are lavish and the Busby Berkeley numbers are imaginative and eye-filling.
If you love musicals, this is for you!
- Sheila Hale (Lana Turner), an elevator operator for a toney New York department store,
- Susan Gallagher (Judy Garland), the younger half of a father-daughter vaudeville act, and,
- Sondra Kolter (Hedy Lamarr), the wife of a would-be concert violinist.
This was MGM at its best when it came to musicals, though "Ziegfeld Girl" is not necessarily one of their better-known ones nor their strongest. As a Judy Garland fan, I must admit my bias toward the "Minnie from Trinidad" sequence as well as when Judy sings the classic "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" in an audition scene. But perhaps the best-known musical number in the entire film is "You Stepped Out of a Dream" with Tony Martin's superb vocals as well as Judy, Hedy & Lana among the scores of young women dressed in the astounding outfits created for this movie by the legendary designer Adrian.
"Ziegfeld Girl" also features a solid supporting cast including James Stewart as Sheila Hale's truck-driver fiance, Jackie Cooper as Sheila's brother, Charles Winninger as Susan Gallagher's father, Eve Arden as a wise-cracking veteran of the Follies, Paul Kelly as the no-nonsense stage manager, and Edward Everett Horton as the harried publicity director ("Mr. Ziegfeld's strong right arm"). There is also a rare movie appearance by Al Shean of the legendary Gallagher & Shean vaudeville comedy team thrown in for good measure.
In short, "Ziegfeld Girl" is a lavish glimpse at a legendary part of American musical theater history that has long since passed.
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