Friday, June 27, 2008
The Ziegfeld Dream When It Dies, As It Must ... A Brilliant Movie Musical Discovery....
Lucking Out at the Movies on TV...
To have known the spotlights of fame and fortune, to have known the acclaim of a thousand raving fans seeking your favors, and then the pain of withdrawal that follows when they are no longer there — this is an experience precious few mortals face. The rest of us can only imagine how harrowing the last ride down to the final exit must be. Some marquee idols make the transition; many wither away in remorse and anger, depression and booze and suicidal solitude.
Recently on Turner Classic Movies, actually a half hour into the film, I discovered a riveting old black and white movie musical from 1941, Ziegfeld Girl. It’s lucky heroine, Sheila Regan, is a looker who lives two lives. One is that of a Ziegfeld Follies girl in the gold digging fast lane that lands her in the graces of an older man whose gifts and security she can't resist. The other life resurfaces when her stage value fades and the fellow she really loves from a Brooklyn childhood, a truck driver turned gangster, Gilbert Young, played (believe it or not) by a young Jimmy Stewart, returns. Finally, it appears, he will win his true love back. They are about to leave New York to raise ducks upstate. Yes, ducks. And yet, and yet, our fading star is hopelessly addicted to the highs of tinsel and applause.
Just one more time, Sheila wants to see what the new Ziegfeld girls look like and so she steps up to the ticket window to purchase a seat, and a ticket is handed her free by a seller who knows that Mr. Ziegfeld would never allow such a thing. While sitting alone up in the balcony watching the latest ladies sing the song she once sang — “You stepped out of a dream" — Sheila feels an uncontrollable urge to step back into one. She rises out of her seat and makes her way uneasily to a staircase, and down it she steps, as if to be stepping back down into the number itself — an eerie juxtaposition — now a part of the action in her mind. I can’t think of a single scene I have ever witnessed that dramatizes with such mesmerizing force the psyche of a once-famous stage actress clinging to a lost career. At the foot of the staircase, she collapses. And Sheila Regan is played, another great and grateful discovery for me, by none other than Lana Turner.
Against the impression made that her life is over, the studio inserted a scene to make it appear that she would live on. Preview audiences found the original ending too depressing. How I wished the director had held out. I can’t ever recall witnessing in art the lingering attachment to a lost career as it is so vividly captured by Lana Turner in this remarkable film, no matter its imperfections. Engaging story. Fabulous recreation of a Ziegfeld production number, directed by Busby Berkeley, that glorified the female body like no other. A rare vaudeville cameo by an older actor finally getting his chance to appear in the Follies and charming the audience. Judy Garland holding her own. A young Dan Daily showing a tougher persona that fame and typecasting would gradually erase out.
I was left utterly in awe.