Sunday, June 5, 2011

Glorifying The American Girl

Glorifying the American Girl, the 1929 film produced and supervised by Florenz Ziegfield himself, is about as close as any of us are going to get to seeing the Follies live. Which still, isn't very close.

I love the very early talkie musicals from the late twenties and very early thirties, when they were just figuring out the medium which, because of that incredible genius Busby Berkeley, got figured out pretty quickly. They're all backstage show biz tales, and that goes triple for Glorifying the American Girl. It's tells a simple story, but it's far more realistic than the ones told in Gold Diggers of 1933 or 42nd Street.

Ziegfeld star Mary Eaton plays aspiring singer and dancer Gloria Hughes who, as the film begins, works as a singer in a department store. Now, let me explain this archaic mode of employment. Gloria works behind the counter of the sheet music department, and when a customer wants to hear what a song they are interested in purchasing sounds like, she sings it, accompanied on piano by her wholesome boyfriend, Buddy. The sheet music industry at the time was huge, and deserves a post of its own for sure.

Back to Gloria. While attending a company picnic at which the management has provided variety entertainment, she meets tap dancer Miller of the vaudeville act of "Miller & Moody". After seeing her dance, he asks Gloria to become his partner. She does and goes off on tour, her avaricious harpy of a stage mother in tow. It's a grueling tour of five a day shows and one night stands - quite realistic in other words. It soon becomes clear that Miller has cycled through many, many Moodys over the years, and that he is something of a hack. A nasty, greedy piece of work, who hates other's success with a passion and expects sexual favors from his dance partners. After havong been on the road a good long while, Gloria is spotted by a Ziegfeld scout and she and Miller return to New York.

One of the things we found most exciting about this film here at Cabinet headquarters was its New York location shooting. There's a long sequence in which the streets around Grand Central are seen from driver's eye view and it's pretty amazing. I'm also pretty sure The New Amsterdam is played by The New Amsterdam. Florenz Ziegfels was at the peak of his glory when this film was shot and it shows. There's a sequence in which a crowd of luminaries are announced as the enter the theatre, including: Mayor Jimmy Walker, Noah Beery, Texas Guinan, Paramount head Adolph Zukor, and Mr. Ziegfeld himself, accompanied by his wife, Billie Burke.

We then get to watch about half an hour of a Ziegfeld spectacle. We see a long (very, very long) Eddie Cantor comedy routine, a song sung by Rudy Vallee (who I will love forever for his hilarious turn in Palm Beach Story), and Helen Morgan boozily sings a torch song from atop her piano. Make no mistake: these were the some of biggest stars alive at the time this movie was made. And there are girls. Girls and girls and more girls, wearing some of the most extraordinary costumes, and dancing and gliding across some of the most magnificent sets ever created. The Follies was both wonderful and boring. It wasn't particularly hip at the time - there were jazzier, younger, sexier and faster reviews. The Follies was an American institution, and one critic likened it to an achievement more on par with Ford's, one of automation, something to be admired, but fundamentally unsexy. In other words, it was a great deal like the sort of shows we now find in Las Vegas.

The film was written by chorus girl expert, J.P McEvoy. He was a screenwriter, short story writer and the creator of Dixie Dugan, a comic strip based on the most legendary of all chorus girls, Miss Louise Brooks. He will be featured in a post later this week. Needless to say, he knew the lay of this starry eyed though hard-bitten land well, and it shows.

And what of our heroine, Gloria? She becomes a great Ziegfeld star, of course. And in one of my favorite plot twists ever - she doesn't get the boy. Being a star is awfully time consuming, and though she weeps, no doubt everyone will be happier as things turned out. And in real life, Mary Eaton was a great Ziegfeld star, and is thus completely believable once she fufills her destiny. When Glorifying the American Girl was originally released in 1929, much of the final reel was in color, extraordinarily enough. Sadly, the versions currently available are in black and white only, and some footage was snipped post-Code because of some mild Show Girl nudity. But, all hail YouTube! Much of the color footage still exists, some of which can be seen below. Hopefully one day it will be reintegrated with the film (Martin Scorcese, are you listening, Sir?)

And what of Mary Eaton, our chorus girl heroine? From a family of show biz siblings, she is most well known today for being the sister of fellow Ziegfeld girl Doris Eaton, who became the oldest living Ziegfeld Girl prior to her death last year at the age of 106. Doris is the subject of Lauren Redniss's amazing pictorial-graphic-collage-biography, Century Girl, which is an absolutely must have for anyone with an even passing interest in Ziegfeld, chorus girls, American social history, show business, or anything at all, really. Mary was one of those complete entertainment packages that proliferated at the beginning of the last century: she could act, do light comedy, sing, tap and dance en pointe. He career wained with the fall of variety and she succumbed, like so many other talented performers both before and after, to alcoholism. She died of liver failure in 1948.

If you would like to see more of the lovely Mary Eaton, she was also featured in the early Marx Brothers film, Cocoanuts.

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