Thursday, 10 April 2014

Movie Review: Ziegfeld Girl 1941

Title: Ziegfeld Girl
Year: 1941
Produced by: MGM
Directed by: Robert Z. Leonard
Starring: Judy Garland, Hedy Lamarr, James Stewart and Lana Turner
Costume Design by: Adrian
Genre:  Romance, Drama

Aside from my passion for vintage sewing, I am very interested in classic films. In a previous post I was discussing my finds at a flea market, one of which was a picture of Hedy Lamarr in Ziegfeld Girl, 1941. Seeing her in that costume made me want to give the movie a second viewing. I had seen bits and pieces of it on TCM but I had never finished watching it. A few days ago I sat down and watched the film from start to finish. I wasn't disappointed!

First, I should explain what a Ziegfeld girl is in case you aren't familiar with the term. Ziegfeld girls were chorus girls of the Ziegfeld Follies. The Follies were popular revues performed on Broadway in New York City in the early 20th century. Ziegfeld girls were notable fashion icons both onstage and offstage. Ziegfeld girls would don elaborate gowns by notable designers like Lady Duff Gordon or Erté. These girls were all roughly about the same size and had similarities in their appearances; this was the beginning of the super model when beauty was becoming standardized. Many starlets were turned down by the Follies, including Joan Crawford (and she was pretty). You had to be one hot tamale to be a Ziegfeld girl!

Lana Turner, Judy Garland and Hedy Lamarr

The film is about three very different women who secure stardom in the Ziegfeld Follies. It begins with Sheila Regan (Lana Turner) who is discovered by Mr. Ziegfeld while she is working as an elevator operator. Sheila comes from an ordinary working class family in Brooklyn. She is not accustom to the lavish lifestyle of the Follies and it begins to take its toll on her relationship with her boyfriend Gil (James Stewart). Sheila develops a drinking problem which has a great impact on her work and social life. The second girl to be discovered is Susan Gallagher (Judy Garland). Susan is the youngest of the group and comes from a performing family. She visits the Ziegfeld office where she attempts to pitch her father's vaudevillian act. Susan is disappointed to find that Mr. Ziegfeld is only interested in her and not the act. She reluctantly chooses to become a Ziegfeld girl, breaking up the act and leaving her father to find employment for himself. This works in her benefit, however, as she finds her own voice and becomes a main attraction at the Follies. Sandra Kolter (Hedy Lamarr) is the next girl to be hired, she is discovered after she accompanies her husband to the orchestra audition. Sandra willingly accepts the job offer because the couple has been struggling financially. Her husband is clearly feeling emasculated when he hears the news that his wife is now the breadwinner. He also dislikes the idea of her being eye candy for other men. Sandra faces a great deal of difficulty in keeping her marriage together while being a Ziegfeld girl. Throughout the film the women struggle with their new found fame and the romantic interest that it attracts.

How would you rate this film? ★★★☆☆

What did you like about the movie? I enjoyed each girl's story and found there was enough variety to hold my attention. Although the story is rather cliché (each girl comes from humble beginnings into wealth) there was something different in its presentation that I enjoyed. It's as though each girl represents a stage of life: Susan, being the youngest, represents the child that is full of spirit and has nothing but good intentions. She wants to support her father and tries to get him into the Follies. She is selfless. Sheila on the other hand is like the out of control teenager. She has a thirst for excess and is completely self-absorbed. She doesn't think before she acts and therefore her life begins to unravel. Sandra is like the mother of the group, she is older and wiser. She attempts to impart her wisdom on Sheila, explaining that love matters more than money but Sheila hardly pays her any attention. Each character provides a moral lesson and although their endings are a tad predictable they are satisfying, nonetheless.

What did you dislike? Firstly, even though it's Judy Garland singing, I didn't care much for the musical numbers. The only one that really sticks out to me is Minnie from Trinidad. It was fun and catchy but that's about it. She performed wonderfully, she just didn't have the best material to work with. Also, her story seemed cut short to me. Perhaps she had so many musical numbers that Susan's romantic life couldn't be explored in depth. For a film that is often described as three young women finding romance, Susan's character barely even needs to search! She meets Jerry (Jackie Cooper) and likes him. It's not even a real passionate relationship, nothing really happens between them. It's sort of matter-of-fact. I guess much of the romance takes place off screen? It was rather disappointing. Also, I wish that Hedy Lamarr was given more lines, they seem few and far between. The way she acts, she's so endearing, it's a shame not to give us more time to appreciate it. 

Lana Turner as Sheila Regan

Who was your favorite character? Sheila Regan! Maybe because I was a bad girl myself once, lol. Really though, Lana Turner owned this film. She upstaged Judy Garland! There is something very convincing and sincere in her portrayal of Sheila. When you're first introduced to Sheila she is gabbing with a co-worker and laughing it up. Later you watch her life go into a downward spiral and it's difficult to endure. If Lana had delivered her lines with more hostility or if they were more unfeeling, you wouldn't give a damn about what happened to her but there's something in the way she speaks, even when the words are bitter, that makes you think she's good on the inside. There is one scene in this film where her acting is so bad it's laughable, but it is a very brief moment and the rest of her performance outshines it. 

How did you feel about the costume designs? Of course this would not be a blog about fashion if I did not discuss fashion! The costume designer for this film is a favorite of mine, Adrian. He is known for his over the top, super sexy designs, and what better designer to choose for showgirl costumes? However, I realize there are many people who dislike the designs created for this film. They certainly do not reflect the era in which the film is set (1920's) instead they are more reflective of contemporary design. Yet, I see this error occurring frequently in old costume dramas; a little peek-a-boo of a 1950's hairstyle in a film set in the 1800's. It happens all the time but in this film it is very obvious. But why? I can only surmise that they wanted the film to resonate with contemporary audiences. What benefit is there to show a film so filled to the brim with out-of-date fashions? Remember, the real Follies were only twenty to ten years prior to when this film was made, by then the fashions were well out of date. Today's films aren't 100% honest in their costume designs either. There are plenty of costume dramas that change the lines of old fashions to make them look more aesthetically pleasing to today's audience. Do you remember how there were lots of ugly things in the 80's? Well how come movies about the 80's don't have ugly things? Get it? Regardless, I found the designs to be sexy or at least amusing. I adore the starlet costumes from the first number and I do get a sense of the early 20th century from them. They conjure memories of Georges Méliès films. Maybe the makeup and hair isn't quite right, but I get a kick out the costume designs. 

Images from The Judy Room

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