DirectorRobert Z. Leonard
Release Date(s)1941 (June 7, 2022)
Studio(s)Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer/Loew’s Inc (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: B
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: A
- Extras Grade: B
MGM made three feature films based on the legendary showman Florenz Ziegfeld, infusing the productions with glitz, glamour, and stars. Ziegfeld Girl, released five years after the Academy Award-winning The Great Ziegfeld, focuses on three young women who dream of becoming a showgirl in one of Ziegfeld’s stage extravaganzas but follow different paths once their goal is achieved.
Susan Gallagher (Judy Garland) must leave her family vaudeville act since Ziegfeld wants only her, not the entire act. This saddens her dad, Pop Gallagher (Charles Winninger), but he encourages her to take the job anyway.
Sheila Ryan (Lana Turner) drops her faithful boyfriend Gilbert Young (James Stewart), who turns to bootlegging to compete with Sheila’s new beau, the wealthy Geoffrey Collis (Ian Hunter). Sheila enjoys the material favors bestowed on her by affluent stage-door Johnnys. Meanwhile, Susan falls in love with Sheila’s brother, Jerry (Jackie Cooper).
Sandra Kolter (Hedy Lamarr) becomes so dazzled by the show biz milieu that she ignores her poor violinist husband (Philip Dorn) as she achieves greater financial success and fame.
The supporting cast includes Tony Martin, Edward Everett Horton, Eve Arden, Dan Dailey, and Mae Busch. Martin introduces the lovely You Stepped Out of a Dream, which he sings as beauty after beauty descend staircases, wearing enormous, fanciful headgear, and elaborate designed-by-Adrian gowns accessorized with all manner of froufrou.
Martin and Stewart have nowhere near the screen time as the three female leads but manage to add their good looks to a production whose visual splendor is a major appeal. Winninger and Al Shean recreate the number Mister Gallagher and Mister Shean that the original Gallagher performed with Shean in the Ziegfeld Follies of 1922.
Of the three girls’ interwoven tales, Lana Turner’s storyline dominates. The studio was promoting her career and wanted Ziegfeld Girl to showcase her dramatic skills, since the role of Sheila required a good deal of emotion. Hedy Lamarr is breathtaking and doesn’t need to do much more than look beautiful whenever the camera is on her. Judy Garland gets to perform the lovely I’m Always Chasing Rainbows and serve as the centerpiece for a huge production number, Minnie from Trinidad.
Robert Z. Leonard doesn’t have the flair or ease with musical movies of fellow MGM director Vincente Minnelli. The staging of the musical numbers is credited to Busby Berkeley, who uses inventive camera angles, a constantly moving camera, artfully choreographed dancers, and little stories within the numbers to create memorable set pieces befitting the grand style of Ziegfeld. The finale combines new material and clips of musical numbers from The Great Ziegfeld.
Despite its myriad musical treats and beautiful girls, Ziegfeld Girl is far too talky. Some of the dialogue scenes could have been trimmed or completely eliminated. This makes for parts that drag and kill narrative momentum as they frequently enter the realm of melodrama.
Garland is a delight as the show biz veteran and has an excellent rapport with Winninger, playing her father. There’s far less chemistry between Garland and Cooper, a relationship that’s never developed adequately.
Turner, unfortunately, couldn’t handle the heavier dramatic scenes and appears out of her depth. Often, it looks as if she’s spoofing a melodramatic moment with her lack of subtlety and finesse. The ability to convey honest emotion—essential in a film—is sorely lacking. Scaling back her role would have showcased her better and tightened the film’s pace.
The plot of Ziegfeld Girl deals with the effect of fame on the lives and loves of young women who achieve initial success in show business. It’s an all-star production only MGM could have mounted and is worth seeing for the elaborately staged musical numbers and Garland’s amazing talent.
Ziegfeld Girl was shot by cinematographers Ray June and Joseph Ruttenberg (uncredited) on 35 mm black-and-white (sepiatone) film with spherical lenses, finished photochemically, and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The visual quality of Warner Archive’s Blu-ray is exceptional, with a silvery look, particularly in the musical numbers. The Busby Berkeley-staged You Stepped Out of a Dream is a highlight, with one beautiful showgirl after another descending long staircases, dressed in gorgeous gowns and headgear. The camera moves with, around, and past the girls, giving the number constant mobility and allowing for close-ups with the girls moving closer to the camera as they walk elegantly. Lighting is high key, bathing the girls in bright illumination that adds to their ethereal appearance. Black levels are deep and velvety, and grey levels provide excellent contrast. Photography-wise, the Minnie from Trinidad number is the most elaborate. Ruffles, stripes, costume jewelry, flowers, shirts with banana sleeves, appliques, and straw hats provide a dizzying collection of patterns, compensating for the lack of color. The three female leads are photographed with care and all look sensational, especially in their close-ups.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 mono DTS-HD Master Audio. Optional English SDH subtitles are available. Dialogue, more abundant than in typical musicals, is clear and distinct throughout. When Turner is supposed to be feeling the effects of liquor, she slightly slurs some words but can be easily understood. Jimmy Stewart attempts a Brooklyn accent, which disappears along the way. Tony Martin’s baritone echoes the many male singers in Ziegfeld shows who sang as dozens of long-legged beauties paraded in front of audiences. Herbert Stothart’s musical score recorded by the MGM Orchestra is magnificent, and provides appropriate grandeur to the production numbers.
Bonus materials on the Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray release include:
- Introduction by Garland Biographer John Fricke (5:19)
- We Must Have Music MGM Promo Short (10:56)
- Melodies Old and New Our Gang Short (10:58)
- Audio-Only Outtake 1: Too Beautiful to Last – Tony Martin (3:39)
- Audio-Only Outtake 2: We Must Have Music Finale – Tony Martin & Judy Garland (2:17)
- Theatrical Trailer (3:56)
John Fricke’s introduction provides a brief overview of the career of Florenz Ziegfeld. He mentions the trilogy of Ziegfeld films made by MGM: The Great Ziegfeld (1936), Ziegfeld Girl (1941), and Ziegfeld Follies (1946). Ziegfeld Girl was originally to star Joan Crawford, Eleanor Powell, and Margaret Sullavan, but delays caused the film to be recast with newer talent. Charles Winninger had starred as Captain Andy in the Ziegfeld production of Show Boat. Though the film bears his name, Ziegfeld never appears in Ziegfeld Girl.
We Must Have Music – This 1941 short begins with a brief history of music in the movies, from accompaniment for silent pictures, to background scores, to elaborate musical productions, and concludes as a highlight reel of recent and upcoming releases from MGM. Busby Berkeley is shown rehearsing dancers for the Hoedown number in Babes on Broadway and Rise Stevens sings America the Beautiful.
Melodies Old and New – This 1942 short features Spanky, Buckwheat, Froggy, and Mickey (Bobby Blake). Needing money for football uniforms, the Our Gang kids decide to put on a show. In white tie and tails, a quartet sings a medley of old-time tunes, a tap ensemble performs, and two incredible kids do a wild jitterbug.
Theatrical Trailer – Longer than typical trailers of the period, the Ziegfeld Girl trailer heralds “Lavishly Produced” as musical and dramatic excerpts are shown interspersed with on-screen words hyping the film. The stars of the film are depicted inside star shapes moving across the screen.
Ziegfeld selected girls from obscurity, taught them how to walk and smile while balancing enormous headdresses and luxurious gowns, and gave them a shot at instant stardom. The dazzle of the spotlight was illuminating for some but blinding for others. Ziegfeld Girl focuses on a trio of these girls against the background of MGM’s opulent production design, luxurious costumes, and exceptional musical talent.
- Dennis Seuling