Thursday, September 16, 2010

Marilyn Miller - Look for the Silver (Screen) Lining

Back in the 1920s it was inconceivable that Marilyn Miller would someday be largely forgotten. I came upon her quite by accident, seeing her name in books about early Hollywood musicals. I had no idea who this great Broadway star was or why she was so famous. After some furious research I got up to speed, read all I could lay my hands on about her and poured over tons of photos. She was a huge star! Why had I never heard of her? And - more important - how could I see her? Photos are one thing, but  I hungered to see her perform.

Marilyn Miller was of the theater. She was a Ziegfeld star in the most rarefied galaxy. Her greatest triumph was in the Jerome Kern musical "Sally," a show that featured her signature song, "Look for the Silver Lining." Before her fame, the name Marilyn was barely found in the U.S. Census records. After America fell in love with her, it was the 16th most popular name in the country. She was known for her talent, her younger than springtime beauty, charm and devotion to her craft. She was also a fashion plate  who was equally famous  for her many love affairs, salty vocabulary and fondness for alcohol. She worked hard and played hard. She was an authentic diva.

Marilyn had a brief brush with silent films and Hollywood in the 1920s when, in 1922, she married Jack Pickford, thus becoming Mary Pickford's sister-in-law (by all accounts, Mary and Marilyn did not hit it off too well). After a star-studded wedding at Pickfair where a great photo of Mary air-kissing Marilyn was taken, the marriage turned toxic . Marilyn, by way of a Paris divorce, beat it back to Broadway.

Once movies were all talking, all singing, all dancing, Marilyn seemed a good bet for Hollywood stardom. Her two great stage successes, "Sally" and "Sunny" were filmed for Warner Brothers and were popular, but after a third film fared poorly, Marilyn and Hollywood parted company for good. The rest of her story is mostly a sad one. After one last Broadway triumph, she died of a sinus infection at the age of 37. The magnitude of her fame and the beauty of her performances faded from memory.

But wait. The footnote that Hollywood was to her fabulous career preserved those two great stage successes. The late twenties and early thirties movie musicals drew scores of Broadway performers to Hollywood. Most tried their luck and headed back east after one or two attempts. The stage and the screen have very little in common when it comes to star power. Al Jolson and Eddie Cantor, who found success in films, were the exceptions. Big stage stars like Fannie Brice, Gertrude Lawrence, Helen Morgan, The Duncan Sisters, Charles King, Harry Richman and Marilyn Miller came and went. In a twist of irony, the medium scorned by the stage served to preserve the work of these artists for future generations.


And so we have Marilyn Miller in "Sally." Originally filmed in early Technicolor, "Sally" only survives in a black and white version. The make up used for Technicolor looks harsh and overdone when seen black and white, making Marilyn look a little bit like a hard-hearted kewpie doll. Her singing voice is a little thin and she is not beautiful in the conventional Hollywood way. But boy oh boy can she dance. And, miracles of miracles, a snippet of "Sally" in its original Technicolor was found. It is the "Wild Rose" number and, in it, she is youthful, adorable and flirtatious. Her joy in performing is evident in every kick and twirl and here, preserved forever, is Marilyn Miller in all her glory. We catch a glimpse of her magic and she is no longer a mystery, just a name or photo in a book.We understand what made her a Broadway legend. Thank you Hollywood! (click "read more" to watch movie clip)



In a case of the fates serving up justice, Marilyn Miller continues to be ever-present on Broadway. In the late 1920s the I. Miller Shoes (no relation) building was adored with statues of four great stars: Ethel Barrymore as Ophelia, representing drama, Rosa Ponselle as Norma, representing music, Mary Pickford as Little Lord Fauntleroy, representing film, and Marilyn Miller as Sunny, representing dance (I wonder how Mary feels being frozen in time next to her despised ex-sister in law?). The building, located at Broadway and West 46th Street in Manhattan, now houses a TGI Fridays on street level. But if you stand on the corner and look up, there is Marilyn, surveying her empire. Still.                                                                                      


There are some nice videos of Marilyn on You-Tube, especially a neat tap dance from "Sunny" and the "Look for the Silver Lining" duet with Joe E. Brown and the Butterfly Ballet from "Sally."

6 comments:

Edna's Place said...

Thanks for the post! Always interesting to read about the stars who have been nearly forgotten. (When you look at film or theatre ads and articles from those days, you can see even more clearly how much has been lost, and good to see people re-finding them.

FlickChick said...

Agreed. It's like finding a treasure. Every time I am in the city and I pass that corner, I love to look up at Marilyn and smile. They are all still there if you know where to look.

Anonymous said...

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FlickChick said...

So glad that Marilyn has fans worldwide!

marilyn miller said...

thnx for the information about the first famous marilyn miller. people used to ask me if i was named after her but i didn't know who they were talking about. now i do, thnx to your website. perhaps ironic, i have tap danced, sang & acted all on an amateur basis.

samantha lutz said...

Loved this article. Found her name in a Marilyn Monroe biography, finding that she was named after Marilyn Miller. Now I see why. I find it eerie that same name same sad ending... But Norma Jean was named Marilyn after a lost beauty, and icon.