Thursday, October 16, 2014

Stage to Screen Blogathon: Marilyn Miller in "Sally"

This is my entry in the Stage to Screen Blogathon hosted by the Rosebud Cinema and Rachel's Theater Reviews. 
This article is a pastiche of several articles I have written about Marilyn Miller

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: One of Ziegfeld's greatest stars
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.

The first Marilyn
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). As you can see from this video, everyone who was anyone was there and the star-studded affair held on the grounds of Pickfair.

Newlyweds Jack Pickford and Marilyn Miller
After the honeymoon, the marriage quickly turned toxic and 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. "Sally" was brought to the screen by Warner Brothers in 1929 and Marilyn was famously part of the package. Her salary was exorbitant and her demands that of a diva. Thrifty Jack Warner acquiesced to her demands and fell for her charms. Marilyn was a gal who knew how to get what she wanted. Filmed entirely in early Technicolor, "Sally" only survived for many years in a tattered black and white version. Seeing Marilyn like this it is hard to fathom her appeal. She looks like a painted doll, as the Technicolor make-up looks flat and harsh in black and white. Added to unflattering looks, her singing voice is less than attractive. However, once she starts dancing, well, it all becomes clear. Filmed in full body shots like Fred Astaire a few years later, her love of dancing and entertaining cuts through all of the technical drawbacks of the era. 

Her leading man, Alexander Gray, was a wooden manly baritone, but she has some sweet scenes with Joe E. Brown as a displaced royal down on his luck. One of the supporting stars is Pert Kelton, later the mom in another Broadway to Hollywood film, "The Music Man."

After 2 other films, Marilyn Miller headed back to Broadway. Musicals were dying at the box office and this diva was not interested in failure. Sadly, after one last stage triumph, Marilyn Miller would die in 1936 at the age of 38 from complications related to a sinus infection. 

The footnote that Hollywood was to her fabulous career preserved her great stage success. 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.

Sally's famous "Butterfly Ballet" on Broadway.
How great it would have been to see this in color
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. Here, she is much lovelier (the make-up now giving her a flattering glow) and her elegance, joie de vivre and enthusiasm is on full display. Filmed on a set that was over 90 degrees, the energy of the dancers is impressive.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.

"Sally" in her wedding dress - the full Hollywood treatment

Marilyn Miller, though no longer a household name, continues to be ever-present on Broadway, her true home. In the late 1920s the I. Miller Shoes (no relation) building was adored with statues of four great theater 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 an Express clothing store on street level. But if you stand on the corner and look up, there is Marilyn, surveying her empire. Still.


Vintage Cameo said...

Great review! TCM just aired this movie a week or two ago, and nearly every review I found said Marilyn was incredible in it. Glad I taped it—I'll definitely have to check it out sooner than later.

I can't believe I've NEVER noticed those statues, either! Thanks for pointing them out—I'll have to make an effort to spot them the next time I'm in the city!

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Vintage Cameo. I had to seek the statues out, but they are there. The first time I saw them they were covered in dirt and soot, but they have since been cleaned and look pretty good.

Patricia said...

As always, a wonderful column. Thanks so much for the photo of the statues. I lived in NYC all my life and missed these. Can't wait to get there to see them!!!

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

"Back in the 1920s it was inconceivable that Marilyn Miller would someday be largely forgotten." A great lead, and a great post on this long-ago star.

FlickChick said...

Thank you so much, Patricia. I just love that Mary & Marilyn are side by side for eternity. I'll bet if you stand close you can hear then growl.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Jacqueline. It is hard to imagine that such a big star is largely unknown.

The Lady Eve said...

What a great profile of Marilyn Miller. I've been curious about her since reading that Fox casting director Ben Lyon suggested the first name "Marilyn" for the emerging Miss Monroe because he'd once been in love with Marilyn Miller. The film clips go a long way to give a sense of her great appeal.
(Did Mary Pickford like any of Jack's wives, I wonder...seems to me she didn't much care for Olive Thomas either). Wonderful research, loved learning so much more about Marilyn Miller's life.

FlickChick said...

Thank you, Lady Eve. I love spreading the word about this great star who barely made a flicker in film. But thank goodness she did, otherwise we would have no record of her talent.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful post! I love learning more about long-forgotten stars. Showbiz really can be a cruel world, especially where legacy is concerned. I found a great site that explores a lot of the 'forgotten' women in film:


I knew only that Marilyn died young... and, wow, how much I learned with your post! I was surprised with the Technicolor footage: Marilyn looked like a hummingbird with her fast and suave dance movements!

FlickChick said...

Girls - thanks for the link to that very interesting site!

FlickChick said...

Hi Le - yes, she did look like a beautiful bird, didn't she?