Of all forms of fame, theatrical fame is the most fleeting. The stars of yesteryear in film are still available for us to see and--in most cases--admirer. But the theater--which, through the twenties and much of the thirties, was considered several rungs above movies in terms of sophistication and seriousness--left little behind aside from the texts of the plays and some productions stills. One must trust the opinions of those who were there as to who were, in fact, the geniuses of the medium.
Broadway's most famous and beloved personality of the 1920's wasn't Al Jolson or Eddie Cantor or the Marx Brothers. It was a woman named Marilyn Miller and while it's possible to view her today--she made precisely three movies during the tumultuous transition from silents to sound--what's not possible is to comprehend the enormity of her popularity, her daunting and much beloved persona. For Miller, like Gertrude Lawrence a bit later, personified Broadway--she defined diva in her day and was stage glory incarnate. A child performer from the mid-west, she was originally spotted in London while in her teens by Lee Shubert, who brought her to New York and featured her in the "Passing Shows" of the late teens. But her true patron (and perhaps Svengali) was Florenz Ziegfield, who saw the tremendous energy and poise in the delicately beautiful young woman. Ziegfield also saw that Miller was a hell of a dancer and he "developed" her as his singing/dancing main attraction, building the show "Sally" (1920) around her. In this show she introduced Jerome Kern's "Look For The Silver Lining" and became the toast of Broadway as a result. (It's impossible, I find, when writing about this period not to slip into period metaphor and language...the "toast" of Broadway? Really now...). "Sally" was a monster hit--running two years--and Broadway shook from the impact. The New York stage world had never known a personality that was embraced by both the sophisticates and the masses--and the businessmen of Broadway had never dreamt of a show that seemed to be incapable of running out of audiences. (I think it must have been similar to Hollywood's stunning realization, around the time of "Star Wars" and "Jaws" that movies were capable of making THAT KIND OF MONEY).
Miller and Ziegfield were also personally involved--somewhat disastrously I take it--and she split from him in the mid twenties to star in "Peter Pan", produced by somebody who wasn't Ziegfield (Charles B. Dillingham for the record). Her immense popularity never waned, though she was back in the Ziegfield fold in the late twenties and appeared in the hit show "Sunny" and the Gershwin scored "Rosalie". With the advent of talkies, First National dusted off the by-now decade old "Sally" and made a movie of it. Miller starred, of course, and it remains the clearest record we have of this performer and her attributes. Below are two clips from "Sally"--both courtesy of the invaluble youtuber PerfectJazz78. First is "All I Want To Do Do Do Is Dance"--in which Miller performs a marvelously energetic and not at all dated quasi-tap dance. The fact that the number remains fresher than most from the period has much to do with the fact that Miller isn't a flapper/jazz-baby dancer; her style is all her own--which is to say Broadway-- and very nervy and polished.
Second is a big number, "I'm Just A Wild Rose", which plays out on a magnificent set of a Gatsby-esque Long Island estate and in which Miller tirelessly wears out a huge chorus of tuxedoed men who simply can't keep up with her (note how they start to fall behind the beat while singing and dancing--this was all recorded live, remember, pre playback). The movie was shot in two-strip technicolor but apparently survives mostly in black and white. The two-strip technicolor suddenly makes itself known a little ways into the number--and what a strage sight it is! For unlike the better known three-strip color systems, two-strip technicolor did not reproduce the full range of color. In particular they had a difficult time registering blue tints. (It's amazing, in retrospect, that there was as much experimentation with color film going on at the time as there was, given the intangibles involved with getting the sound issues stuff straightened out.) In any event, during the late twenties all color films used the two strip process which worked something like this:
Two negatives would be combined in a single strip of film--one being sensitive to the blue-green spectrum, the other to the red/orange. The camera was especially equipped with filters to break up the hues. Upon being projected, light shines through the strips combining the spectrums and resulting in color film. Imagine all that for trouble for a little color? Alas, the imperfections of two-strip were only aggravated by age and most two-strip prints now look rather green--a result of the original process overemphasizing the green and orange hues. Oddly, the green-ish tint gives the films a ghostly quality that I rather like. Who the hell knows what this stuff actually looked (and sounded like) when it was fresh out of the lab and being projected at the Loew's Orpheum?
While I usually carp about how poorly these routines were shot in the stone age that was early talking cinema, this one is an exception--not because it's especially well shot (it isn't) but because somehow you get the feeling of what it was like sitting in the theater watching Miller prance up and down the stage...and the director John Francis Dillon (a very obscure name--he was an actor first, then a director through the late twenties and early thirties and died in 1933 shortly after directing Clara Bow's swan song "Call Her Savage") manages, at the very end of the number, to turn around and give us an impressively non-proscenium bound view of another portion of the mansion set. This couldn't have been easy to achieve and allows us to speculate that "Sally" was, in all probability, a hugely expensive movie--and a bit ticket bet--for First National when they bit the bullet and decided to go ahead with it.
Though Marilyn Miller was only thirty when she appeared in the below clips, she was in the twilight of her career. Two more movies followed, but her alcohol dependence added weight--and the camera is always there to help put weight on you as well. Her last appearance, in 1931's "Her Majesty Love", with W.C Fields, was the finish of her in films. Two years later she had a remarkable stage comeback in the Moss Hart/Irving Berlin satirical revue "As Thousands Cheer". But her health was giving way and her sad personal life--three lousy marriages all of which cost her financially, physically and psychically--began to become the stuff of Broadway insider gossip. Her second husband was Jack Pickford, Mary's good-for-nothing actor/brother who was a famous addict/alcoholic and who reportedly died of syphillis. When Miller went down with what was described as a "nervous breakdown" in early 1936, the word on the street was that the real culprit was the disease that took Pickford out. She died a few months later, of a "brain infection following nasal surgery"...and a massive outpouring of affection was seen for this Broadway diva of an era already past. I've heard from a couple of different sources that a decaying statue of Miller is visible atop a building in the theater district, somewhere in the West Forties off of Broadway. (One source says it's on the roof of a building that now houses a Fridays restaurant). New York still has archeological moments like this--I'm pretty sure that if the decaying statue to this ghost of the great white way still is in its place, it's a result of its existence having been forgotten rather than of any act of preservation. Still I love the idea of that statue; theatrical fame--and Miller was a star of stars--eventually winds down to being represented by a forgotten statue atop a mediocre restaurant. And rests on the hope that the restaurant owners won't notice your likeness and will leave you alone for another seventy years.