ZIEGFELD GIRL is interesting and diverting alright. It’s in some ways the complete MGM film — it returns to the Follies, a subject of obsession for the studio, it would seem, and it reprises the formula of all those late silent/early soundie Joan Crawford movies (OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS, OUR BLUSHING BRIDES etc), featuring three girls (the title sells it short) with dreams of success. In such stories there’s always a Bad Girl who has sex, we are led to believe, out of wedlock and for reasons of business rather than love, and her success is short-lived with a bitter aftermath. The Good Girl usually achieves what the Bad Girl wanted by holding back on sex until it’s been sanctified by a priest and the Hays Office. There’s also an In-Between Girl who can show a middle path or be comedy relief or, in this case, be Judy Garland, whose storyline has nothing to do with sex or romance at all.
What’s interesting is to see the MGM studio machine trying to digest Busby Berkeley. There’s less black and much, much more white in these numbers than one would get at Warner Bros, and there’s slightly more of an attempt to weave the musical numbers into the plot and to make us believe they might really be happening on a stage, though of course we’re not fooled.
Busby’s earlier work had something to do with death — actual fatalities feature as part of the choreography in ROMAN SCANDALS, GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 and 42ND STREET. Here, there’s what ought to be a great opportunity for him, with Lana Turner (the Bad Girl) passing out drunk during a show and nearly suffering a severe accident while dressed as an exotic tree. But it feels like MGM have subdivided duties on this, with Robert Z Leonard (The Z that stands for Zigler) handling Lana’s swaying and woozy closeups, while Berkeley just stages a big musical number without reference to the turmoil beneath the surface. Although I guess it IS a particularly grotesque, distended and peculiar one, and Judy Garland IS more than usually maniacal. But there’s no welcome sense that this is due to any subjective affect emanating from Lana.
Later, Lana leaves her sickbed to attend one last Follies show as customer, an amazing colossal extravaganza (which, loooong as it is, seems to have been truncated by MGM from some previous, unimaginably huge form) and again we miss the chance to experience a Busby Berkeley number through the eyes of a dying audience member. But I will admit, Leonard pulls out all the stops for Lana’s eventual demise, a kind of glam La Boheme.
It made me a bit angry that Lana has to die — she’s already REFORMED at this point, ffs. What more do you want from the girl? I guess killing her off was an opportunity for more emotion, but of course you could theoretically kill any of the characters off and have that — for Lana to croak, there has to be an offensive underlying sense that this is natural justice or divine justice or something. Sex is as fatal under the Production Code as it is in a slasher movie.
But she does look awfully good expiring. I realize I haven’t seen many of her earlier films or if I have (e.g. THE GREAT GARRICK), I don’t recall paying any attention to her. Seeing her at this age is like seeing young Liz Taylor after being slightly puzzled by her in later films. Suddenly everything makes sense — my God, she IS beautiful. The implausibly large, narrowed eyes, the tiny, stoma-like mouth, with fleshy lips that make is almost as tall as it is wide, the adorable snub nose. All so white — perfect for the whiteness of MGM and Cedric Gibbons sets. A deco cherub. The girl with the ice-cream face.