Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Ziegfeld Beauties: Hijacked By Hollywood

Florenz Ziegfeld, master showman of Broadway, hated Hollywood. No, it wasn't an east coast-west coast thing. It wasn't even  theater vs. film snobbery. He hated Hollywood (and the movies) because Flo, the great glorifier of the American girl, was constantly having his stable of lovelies stolen by the movies.
It wasn't so bad when movies were largely filmed in New York. At least the stage and the movies could share the young beauties (even if it meant they were a wee bit tired for the evening performance), but when the film industry finally made the big move out west, Ziggy guarded his flock with an eagle eye. Still, the lure of Hollywood proved too great and many of his choice glorified girls made the permanent move out west. Most simply came and went (while beautifying the scenery for a short while), but a few actually made the grade in motion pictures. The one thing they all had in common: their lives were full of drama and rarely ever dull! 

Olive Thomas (1894 - 1920)
Olive Thomas, model and beauty contest winner, was a Ziegfeld Girl who performed first in the regular Ziegfeld Follies and later in Ziegfeld's more risqué "Midnight Frolic." The "Midnight Frolic" was an after hours show staged on the roof of the New Amsterdam Theater and was naughtier than the regular Follies. As a performer in both shows, Ollie, as she was known, was showered with attention, jewels and furs from many wealthy admirers.

In 1918, Olive Thomas signed a motion picture contract and left Broadway. Known as a wild child in Hollywood, she was the very first film flapper and made many successful motion pictures.
Olive Thomas
Olive Thomas is best remembered today for her marriage to Jack Pickford (Mary's ne'er do well but utterly charming younger brother) and her subsequent scandalous death. In 1920, while vacationing and partying hard with her husband in Paris, Olive accidentally ingested mercury biochloride (prescribed for Jack's chronic syphilis) and died several days later. Pickford was heartbroken and would marry another Ziegfeld Follies Girl a few years later.

Mae Murray (1889-1965)
Mae Murray was a Follies Girl and nightclub performer who found great success in Hollywood. Known as "The Girl With The Bee-Stung Lips," Mae's biggest hit was "The Merry Widow" co-starring John Gilbert and directed by Erich Von Stroheim.

Mae lived the life a real Hollywood Movie Star. She was prone to melodramatic outbursts and married four times, the last time to "Prince" David Mdivani, an alleged Georgian nobleman who mismanaged her career and bilked her out of her fortune.

Mae Murray
The advent of talking pictures and bad career advice from the Prince did Mae in. After a few badly-received talkies, she spent the next years fighting for custody of her son, sustaining a humiliating legal defeat when sued by Hollywood fitness expert Sylvia of Hollywood for roughly $2,000 and performing on stage in a Gay 90's type reviews at Billy Rose's Diamond Horseshoe. Her refusal to acknowledge her age and insistence on heavy make-up and ill-fitting clothes only further served to tarnish her image.

Mae lived the last years of her life in poverty. At the height of her fame she and other Hollywood notables, including Douglas Fairbanks, C.B. De Mille, Jesse Lasky, Harold Lloyd and Irving Thalberg, were named members of the board of trustees of the Motion Picture Relief Fund (later the Motion Picture and Television Fund), a charitable organization designed to offer financial assistance to those industry veterans who were down on their luck. At the end of her life, Mae received assistance from that organization and died at age 75, a resident of the Motion Picture Country Home in Woodland, CA.

It has often been suggested that Mae Murray was Billy Wilder's inspiration for Norma Desmond (she had oil wells pumping behind her home, and when commenting on yet another comeback attempt, said "Once a star, always a star!"). However, Mae's reaction to Wilder's film was "none of us floozies was that nuts!"

Billie Dove (1903 - 1997)
Billie Dove was an exquisite beauty who easily made the move from Follies Girl to Silver Screen Beauty. While her career started in silents, Billie Dove was able to make a smooth transition into talking pictures and was a very popular performer.
Billie Dove
Billie Dove was one of Ziegfled's least controversial and most luscious beauties. Her face and figure were always her fortune, landing her prime roles in such silents as "Polly of the Follies", "Kid Boots" and Fairbank's "The Black Pirate." She proved to be a hit in talking films, as well, and worked steadily until 1932. Following a long affair with and broken engagement to Howard Hughes, she married in 1933 and retired (while still very popular) to be with her family (her marriage lasted for 37 years until her husband's death). Billie was also a pilot, a poet and an artist. She, too, spent her last years in the Motion Picture Country Home.

Louise Brooks (1906 - 1985)
Louis Brooks is one of Ziegfeld's most famous beauties to make the leap from Follies Girl to Movie Star. Before Louise worked for Ziegfeld, she was a Denishawn Dancer as well as a performer in the George White Scandals. While working for Ziegfeld, Louise, who apparently had to beat the men off with a stick, was scooped up by Paramount and given the starlet rush.
Louise Brooks in her Follies Regalia
Louise was kept very busy in Hollywood, gradually getting better parts. However, she never took her work in movies seriously. Her two German films with GW Pabst, "Pandora's Box" and "Diary of a Lost Girl" have cemented her iconic fame. At the time, they were flops and Louise was too perverse, too proud and too much in love with alcohol and good times to take the many helping hands that were extended to her upon her return to Hollywood (she allegedly turned down the Jean Harlow role in "Public Enemy").

After a spectacularly successful youth, she endured a middle age of obscurity and limited funds, first in her home state of Kansas and then in New York City. Finally, it was in Rochester, NY, home of the Eastman-Kodak House, where, as a first-class writer on film, she was re-discovered and re-adored as  "The Girl With the Black Helmet," the bobbed Kansas beauty who, by way of Broadway and Berlin, became respected as an actress and keen observer of Hollywood.

Marilyn Miller (1898 - 1936)
Marilyn Miller was one of Ziegfeld's biggest stars. Not a Follies Girl, but a headliner and Broadway musical star and dancer supreme, her stage career was largely associated with Ziegfeld, starring for him in the 1918 and 1919 Follies. Her greatest success came in the Ziegfeld-produced Jerome Kern musical, "Sally." In the role she was know best for, she epitomized the Cinderella girl who "Looks For The Silver Lining." Marilyn had many offers to come to Hollywood in the 1920s, but she wisely refused them.

Off stage, Marilyn was known to have a way with salty language. In 1921, she lost her fist husband, dancer Frank Carter, in a car crash. In 1922, Marilyn Miller married Jack Pickford (widower of Olive Thomas). Able to spend time at her in-laws home, Pickfair, Marilyn had a chance to break into Hollywood in a big way, but still was not swayed. By all accounts it was not a happy union, and she and Jack divorced in 1927.
Marilyn Miller
Talking pictures finally lured Marilyn to Hollywood. She signed a contract with Warner Brothers (she and Jack Warner had a brief but stormy affair) and had a major hit with a screen version of "Sally." Another film version of her Broadways hit, "Sunny" followed and was also successful, but the tide turned quickly against musicals. After a third film that proved unsuccessful, Marilyn traveled east to Broadway, her true home.

Her personal life was filled with sadness and her final years were spent drinking too much and suffering from debilitating sinus infections. It was a botched sinus surgery that caused her early death in 1936 and age 37. Many year after her death, a young starlet's name was changed to evoke the blonde beauty of Marilyn Miller. Thus Norma Jean Baker was crowned Marilyn Monroe.

Other Ziegfeld Girls that had successful careers in Hollywood
While there are many others, here are a few of Florenz Ziegfeld others "Girls" who went on to glory on the silver screen  (and who seemed to master the over the shoulder come-hither look):
Marion Davies: WR Hearst got her away from Ziggy
Dorothy Mackaill: Successful in Silents & Sound
Mary Eaton: Groomed by Ziggy as Marilyn Miler's Replacement
Barbara Stanwyck: Did Her Time as a Follies Girl
Finally, the beautiful Jean Ackerman. She only had a few small roles in films, but she was so stunningly beautiful that I had to include her photo:
Jean Ackerman - Glorifying the American Girl
Flo Didn't Always Know
Astute as he was, Ziggy didn't always have a "cinematic" eye for beauty and let these applicants slip though his fingers: Norma Shearer, Lucille Ball, Joan Crawford and Eleanor Powell. They traveled west and seemed to do pretty well for themselves, in spite of the showman's rejection.


Diane said...

Wonderful, just wonderful. I loved learning more about those ladies. Thanks for a great review.

FlickChick said...

They were so fascinating. I wish I could find out more about Jean Ackerman. If anyone out there knows more about her, I'd love to learn.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful blog post!

FlickChick said...

Thanks so much - and am looking forward to your new blog! Good luck!

VP81955 said...

According to Larry Swindell, when Carole Lombard went to New York in 1930 to film "Fast And Loose" at the Paramount Astoria studios, Florenz Ziegfeld, impressed with her beauty, tried to recruit her for the Follies. But Lombard, a West Coast girl since childhood and smitten with the movie industry (her stage experience was minimal), turned him down.

There is a bit of a sad irony in that a few years later, Lombard replaced one of the stars of the 1931 Follies, Dorothy Dell, in "Now And Forever" following Dell's death in an auto accident at age 19.

FlickChick said...

So many beautiful girls and so many sad stories. I'm glad Carole held out for Hollywood (those head dresses were pretty heavy). I was surprised to learn that Carole was friends somehow with Miriam Cooper. Do you know anything about their friendship?

marynarkiewicz said...

Beautiful Post. Love learning about all these ladies. I'm "studying " Louise Brooks right now so especially loved reading about her. Nice to see Olive Thomas also. You are an encyclopedia of filmdom! One of the most important areas of study!

FlickChick said...

Oh, Mary... I just know you will be enthralled by Louise! I am glad you liked my little post on these gorgeous birds of paradise!

Jan Miner said...

So interesting, full of great tidbits. Thanks for another good read. I am interested in finding out more about some of these women.

FlickChick said...

Ziggy certainly selected a group of interesting women. So nice that so many have their work preserved on film.