Directed by Robert Z. Leonard
Written by William Anthony McGuire, Marguerite Roberts, Sonya Levien, and Annalee Whitmore
Spoiler alert: it's easier to predict the ending than in the actual Ziegfeld biopic, but I'll keep it to "moderate"
In 1932, Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. died. Four years later, MGM memorialized his life in a style he would've appreciated—garish, long-winded, devoid of narrative structure, full of babes, and hugely expensive, but also hugely profitable. Of course, the problem with true stories that end with their heroes' deaths is that it's rather difficult to continue them, no matter how profitable they are. Eventually Arthur Freed would actually solve that problem, but in the meantime, even though the Ziegfeld Follies themselves had declined precipitously under Billie Burke's new ownership, so that by the late 1930s they were very nearly already a thing of the past, the name still had marketability, and thus MGM dedicated itself to its exploitation. Nevertheless, this "sequel" (delayed by some three years, so not really striking while the iron was hot) wound up obliged to take a very different perspective. As The Great Ziegfeld had dealt with the life of the man, 1941's Ziegfeld Girl dealt with... well, perhaps that's self-explanatory.
In fact, it's a little misleading, for Ziegfeld Girl deals with three of Ziegfeld's glorified girls, each fictional woman tailored to a stereotype in order to more purely represent a different aspect of life in the Follies. (Indeed, it's so schematic that their names even all start with the same letter.) Accordingly, Ziegfeld Girl permits three possible outcomes for a Follies girl, and I mean that it does so explicitly, in a monologue by a tertiary character who hangs out in the ladies' dressing room for what I will charitably assume are professional reasons. So: some will wind up stars with their names in lights; some will wind up happily retired, with husbands and kids; some will wind up in the gutter. It's conceivable that you might not be able to guess what happens to whom just by knowing that the movie stars Judy Garland, Hedy Lamarr, and Lana Turner, but even then, that's mainly just because, theoretically, Lamarr and Turner could both end up in the gutter. Either way, I don't think it would take so much as half an hour's worth of actually watching Ziegfeld Girl before you were able to predict, in fine detail, exactly how it all shakes out.
That first half-hour, anyway, deals with how our Ziegfeld girls join Ziegfeld's ranks: we meet elevator operator Sheila (Turner) as she gushes to her truck driver boyfriend Gilbert (Jimmy Stewart) about how the previous day Ziegfeld had complimented her figure and suggested she take a job in his show, a compliment confirmed when Noble Sage (Edward Everett Horton), Ziegfeld's groanworthily-named assistant, shows up to complete the deal; Sandra (Lamarr) is discovered on set during her violinist husband Franz's (Philip Dorn's) audition, and she gets a job even though he doesn't; and Susan (Garland) is plucked out of an act in vaudeville (the kind of vaudeville you'd prefer to pronounce with three syllables) that she's been doing for years with her dad (Charles Winniger). Naturally, Ziegfeld himself is never seen. He serves instead as the kind of thing you'd like to call "a structuring absence," but unfortunately you can't, because nobody involved—the five screenwriters, director Robert Z. Leonard (who'd also directed The Great Ziegfeld), the actors—knew how to generate that kind of imposing offscreen emanation. Thus it feels like the Follies just kind of exist and organize themselves; it all but cries out for a William Powell cameo, but I suppose that just wasn't in the cards, at least this time.
Well, the complications that begin to define the women's lives flow inexorably. Susan's reluctant to surpass her father, and so as her star rises in the Follies, they have to find stuff for him to do, but he's too proud to accept their charity. Sandra's husband just straight-up abandons her, resentful of her success, and she seeks comfort (but neither love nor sex) in the company of another married Ziegfeld dancer, Frank (Tony Martin), only to be surprised when it turns out he is seeking love and sex from her. Finally, in the A-plot that occupies by far the largest part of Ziegfeld Girl, Sheila's singled out as the great beauty of the Follies, and pursues the affections of a wealthy admirer (Ian Collins). As she pushes everyone who loved her for who she was out of her life, Sheila begins to drink even more than she had been, and the truth is she was already drinking more than one should. By the end, then, two characters get their happy endings and one slut gets punished in the midst of trying to say she was sorry.
Obviously, it's not great. Garland probably gets the best of it overall in her B-plot, in that Susan's story is sweet and actually feels grounded in something specific that both she and Winniger are able to mine some actual emotions out of, rather than grand gesticulation. But Lamarr's C-plot isn't bad, either, and though Sandra gets the least screentime, her confrontation with Frank's wife (Rose Hobart) is almost undoubtedly the single best (narrative) scene in the film. (It might be the best scene in the film, period, but we'll get to that shortly.) It turns out Frank's missus is a former Ziegfeld chorine herself, and both Lamarr and Hobart are permitted to avoid histrionics in lieu of human-scaled sadness, as they take an uncomfortable poke at the brief lives women get in show business or as objects of men's desire, which the screenplay (written, incidentally, by three women) is bitterly aware often amounts to more-or-less the same thing.
And then there's Turner, who's never allowed to avoid any histrionics, including several moments of outright awful Acting! of the type where you put your palms up to your temples and pretend to have a stroke. Most of it's not this bad, and she's arguably better in general than Stewart, who gives probably the worst performance I've ever seen him give, just grinding through the mean-spirited surfaces of his wounded character without finding much in the way of any of Stewart's usually considerable charm—which itself would be fine, if it meant accessing the inner darkness he was equally capable of but didn't always get to bring out in his roles. It's a role not too far away, in fact, from his resentful husband in Ice Follies of 1939, which is not a very good movie about ice dancing but an absolute top-notch movie about ugly self-lacerating masculine pride. There are only flashes of such things here: when Gilbert's made it as a bootlegger and tells Sheila off, there's an edge to Stewart that's compelling; and "worst Stewart performance I've ever seen" is still a reasonably high floor. But the material is just so perfunctory it doesn't allow for either Stewart or Turner to do much with it. That it's also well over half the movie makes it a bit of a problem, and considering the ending laid out for Sheila and Gilbert, if it doesn't affect you at all, and it didn't affect me, it's not too much to say Ziegfeld Girl has failed.
This leaves the "musical" part of this backstage musical, and that's potentially very exciting, considering that it combines Busby Berkeley's choreography with MGM resources. (Berkeley had already been working at MGM for a couple of years by this point.*) I don't want that "potentially" to make it sound like I have complete disdain for Ziegfeld Girl as a musical, because I don't, but, for starters, it really doesn't have a lot of gas as a musical: it has songs from a grab-bag of songwriters sprinkled in here and there, mostly for Garland to sing, and it has a comic number or two. But there are only two major production numbers, despite the movie being an unwieldly two hours and twelve minutes long—the biggest thing it has in common with The Great Ziegfeld is that it's too long, but when The Great Ziegfeld was too long at 177 minutes, it says nothing good about Ziegfeld Girl that it can be equally "too long" at 132. Regardless, two big numbers are not going to be nearly enough, unless those numbers are amazing. Unfortunately, as a Berkeley musical, it's a big step back. It's damned near a step back to before Whoopee!, eleven years prior and Berkeley's first film. One's suspicion is that Ziegfeld Girl is so committed to its drama that Berkeley's customary elaborations weren't welcome; otherwise, he came to the idea himself that Ziegfeld Girl would involve very little that he couldn't have done for Ziegfeld back when he worked with him on Broadway.
The first of the big ones, "You Stepped Out of a Dream," is at least the most classically Berkeleyesque—which is as much to say, it's classically Ziegfeld Follies, in that it revolves around a sleepy love song and hot ladies descending very large staircases in absurd costumes. Unlike with The Great Ziegfeld's "wedding cake," or its subsequent Adrian Greenburg costume showcase, these are dialed down from "utterly unbelievable as a Broadway production, and therefore cinematic" to merely "very weird and terrifyingly Deco, but I can still see how you could go about staging that in an actual theater." It's very likeable but not apt to blow your mind, especially not with The Great Ziegfeld sitting right there. (That said, Adrian's costumes here are still pretty great, and definitely one of the more palpable connections to its predecessor.) The other big Berkeley number is also Garland's centerpiece—she was not Berkeley's favorite person by this point, and vice versa, but there's at least a feigned affection for the star in this celebration of her screen presence. (Then again, its conclusion involves putting her in a curious bamboo jail.) This is "Minnie From Trinidad," which, as you might've guessed, is a tropical-themed song-and-dance number as were popular in the 1940s. The camera and Berkeley's cutting is more engaged than "filmed theater" would suggest (and it starts off with a dreamy, Berkleyesque cut from another scenario with Lamarr), but it winds up so close in spirit to "filmed theater" that I'd only barely hesitate to use that term. (As a song, it's high-energy, but the rhymes are kind of irritating, and it ends on a bizarrely dark note that its lyrics fail to satisfactorily explore.) It slides off the brain, then; certainly, the combination of Berkeley and a fantasy of an undifferentiated global south comes off much more fully-formed in Fox's The Gang's All Here.
Even so, it's fine. (It's even valuable: I've frequently wondered if Berkeley had much of a middle ground between "all-time great" and "miscalibrated failure," and now I have two more entries to put in that underpopulated category.) What does fill me with disdain for Ziegfeld Girl, however, is its finale, which is a montage of stock footage from The Great Ziegfeld's own greatest hits, plastered into the movie with absolutely shameless barbarism. It's not even a good montage; it abbreviates everything to where all it can do is remind you of a much more ambitious production, and of course "the end" is the wrongest possible place Ziegfeld Girl could've put it. (It wants, also, to create some kind of contrast between its Turner and Garland threads, the agony versus the ecstasy, and I can't imagine a more distractingly stupid way for it to have gone about this.) The most interesting thing about it is that it drops in an image of Garland atop a partial recreation of the infamous "wedding cake," and of course the interesting thing about that is the question of how they'll manage to pull the illusion off. The answer is a brutally crappy dissolve from the new footage to stock footage, and so the very final shots of Ziegfeld Girl become an open admission of just how inferior it is. It's not even really a bad movie—it's not a good one, but a more-or-less watchable product of the MGM machine—but the last few minutes really do test that proposition hard.
*And this is a salutary reminder that I need to get back on my Berkeley series, but I'm so sure In Caliente is bad.