A sequel to the 1936 film, The Great Ziegfeld starring William Powell, Myrna Loy and Luise Rainer, Ziegfeld Girl was supposed to be made in 1938 and star Joan Crawford, Virginia Bruce and Walter Pidgeon. But by 1941, it was decided that “newer” talent would be used, and so Lana Turner, Hedy Lamarr and Judy Garland were cast, despite some footage, most notably the closing dance sequences of the film, being recycled from its predecessor.
Ziegfeld Girl was Hedy’s sixth film in Hollywood, and in that time she had already starred with leading men such as Charles Boyer, Robert Taylor and Clark Gable. By this time she was already a major box office draw, and MGM was keen to keep this winning streak going, as well as continue to highlight Hedy’s stunning looks.
According to the Sass Mouth Dames podcast, Hedy readily accepted a role in the film because she wanted a departure from her more serious roles. Her view of the film was markedly different from Lana Turner’s. Lana saw this as her first serious role, and said it marked a real interest in the profession for her, even going so far as to say that she felt that she should have been nominated for an Academy Award. Hedy and Lana’s differing view of the film is further highlighted by the fact that Hedy devotes only a paragraph to the film in her memoirs, in which she says that it was lovely to make the film and be given a change of pace; whilst Lana devotes quite a bit of her autobiography to the film.
The film begins with a nostalgic description of the Ziegfeld Follies and pictures of past Follies on the wall of the lobby of Ziegfeld’s theatre.
The film then cuts to Sheila Regan (played by Lana Turner), who is an elevator operator in a large department store. She tells her boyfriend, Gil (played by James Stewart), that she met Florenz Ziegfeld in the elevator earlier, but Gil dismisses this as impossible because “What would Ziegfeld being doing in an elevator?”, before telling Sheila that he might be getting promoted at work.
Despite Gil’s protests, Sheila is proven right, and Ziegfeld’s associate, Mr Noble Sage (played by Edward Everett Horton), tells her that she has been selected as a Ziegfeld Girl. Sheila is delighted and tries on a beautiful leopard skinned fur as a declaration of the prosperity to come.
Susan (played by Judy Garland) is performing an outdated vaudeville act with her father, ‘Pop’ Gallagher (played by Charles Winniger), and hoping that Mr Ziegfeld will pick up their act for his next revue. After their performance, Sage tells Susan that she has an audition with Ziegfeld, but that it does not include her father. Despite her protests that she is nothing without her dear old papa, Pop persuades Susan to go to the audition.
At said audition, Sandra (played by Hedy Lamarr), is supporting her violinist husband, Franz, who is trying to secure a position in Ziegfeld’s orchestra. Although she is patiently waiting for her husband to return, Mr Sage sees her and immediately introduces her, offscreen, to Ziegfeld. Franz does not get the job, but Sandra informs him that she has been hired as a Ziegfeld Girl for $75 a week. Franz is, of course, displeased, as he would rather starve than have his masculine pride injured by Sandra supposedly putting herself on display for other men. Sandra accepts the job despite Franz’s declaration that it will mean their separation.
In the dressing room on opening night, the girls are given a pep talk-come-warning about being a Ziegfeld Girl by one of the show’s managers. This pep talk-come-warning will prove to be portentous for the three main characters.
Sheila, Sandra and Susan appear in the “Dream Number” dressed as celestial bodies. Sandra is singled out on a platform by the show’s lead male singer whilst she is dressed in a fantastic star costume. Sheila is then shown gliding down the stairs, before she and Sandra are side by side at the end of the lavish number.
After the show, Sheila is courted by potato millionaire, Geoffrey Collins, and lauded in the newspapers as a sensation. Gil, like Franz had been with Sandra, is critical of Sheila’s success, and is jealous of Geoffrey. He wants her to quit the show before showing her his prized five tonne truck, which he is thrilled about, despite not receiving a raise for the extra responsibility.
Sandra is courted by Frank, the lead male singer in Ziegfeld’s revue, despite their mutual marriages. Sandra thinks this means that she is safe from becoming too involved with Frank, despite his insistent pursuit. Geoffrey and Sheila go on a date, where he gives her a diamond bracelet and she allows him to kiss her. Sandra cautions Sheila about her involvement with Geoffrey, and makes a wistful, and slightly sad, observation about the transience of love and romantic relationships. Sheila is largely unmoved.
Gil gets into a fight at work when one of his colleagues puts up a picture from the newspaper in which Sheila is shown in one of her Ziegfeld Girl outfits. He then visits her at her apartment, where he slut shames her whilst proposing to her. Sheila explains how important her success is, as she no longer feels deprived and looked down upon as she has her entire life. Gil angrily leaves her apartment before he becomes involved with bootleggers so that he can make more money and win Sheila over.
Susan secures another audition in the Follies to show her singing ability, but when the vaudeville style in which her father instructed her to sing it is not well received, she sings it as a ballad. Pop cannot accept her independent success and feels humiliated. Susan runs after him in tears. Despite her reluctance, Pop once again convinces her to stay with the Follies, and he goes on the road with an old associate of his, Al.
In Palm Peach, the Follies’ latest fixture, Sandra spells Franz’s name in the sand. She then rubs it out, and allows Frank to kiss her.
Sheila has started to drink habitually, which worries Susan. Susan tries to persuade Geoffrey to marry Sheila, which, much to her delight, he is receptive to. Sheila is drunk at the party they attend, and rebuffs Jimmy Walters’, a crass prizefighter’s, come ons. She then sees Gil, now a full-fledged gangster and bootlegger, who coldly rebuffs her after kissing her goodbye. Geoffrey witnesses this exchange, and doesn’t ask Sheila to marry him after all.
Susan is incredibly nervous about her first performance as a principle in the upcoming show, and Sandra comforts her. Frank’s wife, who was also once a Ziegfeld Girl, approaches Sandra and asks her not to marry him. Sandra realises that she still loves Franz, much to Mrs Merton’s relief. Sandra persuades Misha, Franz’s friend, to help her get Franz back by pretending that he has a sick uncle, so that Franz can temporarily take his place in the Follies’ orchestra.
Sheila visits Gil in prison, as he has been convicted of bootlegging. He insults her again, causing her to go on another drinking binge. Her brother visits her at her apartment, and she refuses to return to Brooklyn despite pernicious rumours about her promiscuity and lifestyle. Her brother then accuses her of thinking herself above others.
Because she is so drunk, Sheila is told to not perform her part in the revue. She ignores this order, despite Patsy (Eve Arden), an ex-Ziegfeld Girl’s warning that she should value Gil, and as well as stay off the stage that night, if she wants to maintain any shred of happiness and dignity. During the show, Sandra sees Franz in the orchestral pit and smiles. Sheila begins to feel unwell and falls off of her platform on the stage, causing her to be fired from the Follies. Franz and Sandra are reunited, with Mr Sage telling them that Franz is employed in the Follies’ orchestra for the next show.
After the end of the show’s theatrical run, a newspaper article unsurprisingly shows that Sandra has given up her career in the Follies in order to support her husband on a concert tour.
Sheila has sunk so low that she can no longer afford to pay for her own drinks, and has to accept beer from an equally down and out Jimmy Walters. After calling her a tramp, Jimmy strikes her and she collapses. Sheila goes home to live with her parents. Once Gil is released from prison, he visits her, and her brother tells him, that she has heart damage. Only her brother and Gil are privy to this information, with Sheila and her parents unaware of the severity of her condition. Gil asks her to marry him and raise ducks with him that he will sell to restaurants on Coney Island. A very physically weak Sheila happily accepts.
In order to stop Susan from leaving the Follies and rejoining her father on the road, Pop Gallagher and Al are given a chance to perform a comedy act in the new Follies revue. Much to the amazement of the show’s producers, their act is a big hit with the audience.
Sheila decides, despite her poor health, to attend the show. Sandra also attends with Franz. Sheila feels unwell and leaves the show early. She walks down the lobby stairs as if she were once again a Ziegfeld Girl, and then collapses at the foot of the stairs. She is taken to Sage’s office, where she tells Sandra, in a faint voice, about her future plans with Gil. Her fate is left uncertain.
The film ends with Susan as the star of the show, and the last remaining of the trio to be a Ziegfeld Girl.
Hedy gives a solid performance throughout the film, but as discussed on the Sass Mouth Dames podcast, she is largely relegated to eye candy, as shown by her nickname throughout the film, which is ‘Beautiful’. She is also made to act out the part of a dutiful wife, who pursues a career not out of ambition, but necessity, and happily gives it up for her supposedly more talented, controlling artiste husband.
Lana Turner is the real star of the picture, although she is fourth billed, and her character is punished for being purely ambitious, unlike Judy and Hedy’s characters, who are willing to put the men in their lives first. Judy is allowed to be the star at the end not necessarily because of her glittering talent, but because she makes sure that her good old Vaudevillian pops isn’t left out in the cold.
Despite Lamarr’s description of glamour as comprising of a girl standing still and looking stupid, she never looks even remotely stupid throughout the film, even though she does a lot of standing. Her incredible beauty makes her unforgettable, especially in Adrian’s splendid costumes, but she also manages to imbue a rather limited character with pathos and world weariness. Especially when she observes the destructive capacities of loneliness and a lack of self care in regards to Turner’s doomed character.
She shows Sheila compassion, not disapproval, in their final scene together. Allowing her friend to concentrate on future possibilities, instead of the seeming inevitability of an early death. This may not be Hedy’s most demanding role, but it is most definitely her most glamorous, for she seems made for Adrian’s creations, and she is definitely very memorable, even if Lana steals the show and Judy gets to top the wedding cake at the end.
This is my first entry in the Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Blogathon hosted by Musings of a Classic Film Addict. Please check out her blog to find out more and read everyone else’s entries.