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 many 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.
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).
"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". 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.
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.
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