Five Character Actors Who Were Once Ziegfeld Stars
We, as classic film fans, have likely all experienced feelings of déjà vu after seeing the same supporting actors and actresses enough, seemingly doing the same things each time we see them. And yet, sometimes we don’t know their names. We find ourselves referring to a certain player as “that one guy with the Irish accent” or “that lady in the Charles Dickens movies.” Even when we don’t know these players’ names, it’s easy to wonder what they did before they entered films. It’s fun to imagine what they looked like as young men and women; did they used to be on vaudeville? Did they used to be leading ladies and gentlemen overseas? After all, Gladys Cooper was once a leading lady dubbed the most beautiful woman in England before she played such character parts as Bette Davis’s cruel mother in Now, Voyager. As the authors of Also Starring and Ziegfeld and His Follies, we were pleased to discover that many of the familiar faces in our first book actually appeared in Ziegfeld shows before they entered the movies. Below are just five of them….
Eve Arden made her name through her convincing portrayals of “the cool, crisp, caustic career-dame who wore brass knuckles on her tongue when she wasn’t dipping it in sulphuric acid.” The tall, blonde actress, more striking than traditionally beautiful in appearance, could potentially have been a leading lady had she not played her type of role so well. As a struggling actress full of quips in Stage Door (1937), Joan Crawford’s sharp-tongued girlfriend and business partner in Mildred Pierce (1945), and as the sardonic but loveable schoolteacher on the sitcom for which she is best remembered, Our Miss Brooks (1952-1956), she played only slight variations of the same resilient woman. Eve declared she had had enough of being “Miss Vinegar year after year” and yearned to portray the soft, domestic woman she was in life. In spite of her good looks and talents, she, even before she entered films, played supporting parts. One of her first significant roles was in the posthumous Ziegfeld Follies of 1934 produced by the Shubert Brothers. She befriended co-star Fanny Brice and became her understudy if ever Brice was unable to appear as Baby Snooks. Additionally, she appeared in a skit in which she played the mother of a bratty child. On Eve’s opening night in the 1934 Follies, she recalled her peculiar lack of fear most novices experience. Eve was a sensation. She could lampoon every type and class of woman with equal wit and acidity, a talent she would put to good use portraying various characters from struggling young women to blasé socialites in her later career. She revisited her role as a Ziegfeld star in Ziegfeld Girl (1941), portraying a jaded show girl with plenty of comebacks for her starry-eyed younger colleagues.
He was a performer from what was once called “that happy yesterday of entertainment…vaudeville.” He may have oversold his songs and overhammed his comedy, but one would not wish him to be any different. His short, chubby frame and twinkling eyes bring to mind a mischievous leprechaun full of vim and vigor at any age (incidentally, he was actually of Austrian lineage though he seemed to play an Irishman in many of his films). The great entertainer in question, Charles Winninger, had an innate joviality that endeared him to generations of theater and film goers. His presence on screen is unique in that he often played only slight variations of himself: loveable old codgers always ready to perform and show young whippersnappers a thing or two about entertainment. Having won fame under such scions of Broadway as Florenz Ziegfeld and George M. Cohan, Charles knew quality showmanship. His signature role, that of Cap’n Andy in Ziegfeld’s groundbreaking Show Boat, required him to portray as master showman. Except for the fact that he was prone to seasickness, the role could have been Charles himself. Andy was jolly with mischievous, salty humor. No doubt Charles used his experience working on a show boat to his advantage in the play. Show Boat was Ziegfeld’s, and Charles’s, greatest success. It ran uninterrupted for two years and was revived in 1932, during which it enjoyed a six month run even at the height of the Great Depression. Charles was happy to go on playing Cap’n Andy indefinitely; he once told Ziegfeld that he would play the part for nothing rather than see it done by another actor. He reprised his role in the 1936 film adaptation, which is generally regarded as the superior screen version of the play.
Edna May Oliver
“With a horse face like mine? What else can I do but play comedy?” So quipped Edna May Oliver, one of the most brilliant character comediennes of 1930s cinema. Her “horse face” proved to be her greatest asset in each role she played. It was ideal for the dour spinsters, busybodies, and aunts she invariably portrayed. But what set Edna apart from other character actresses specializing in these types of roles (namely Margaret Hamilton and Agnes Moorehead) was her unique grand dame manner that made her simultaneously cantankerous and loveable. Her brand of comedy became so recognized and beloved by filmgoers that her distinctive face, tall, bottom-heavy build, and “low, claxonish voice” were fondly caricatured in Warner Brothers cartoons of her day. Edna’s signature utterance in animation and in live action was a consternated “Oh, reallly!” accompanied by a loud sniff of her nose. Outspoken and unconventional in her films, Edna May Oliver was an independent-minded individualist off screen who rivaled her screen characters in eccentricity and quirkiness. Before making her marl in such films as David Copperfield and A Tale of Two Cities, she enjoyed a Broadway career, the highlight of which was her role as Parthy, Cap’n Andy’s irascible wife in Ziegfeld’s Show Boat. Sadly, she did not reprise her role in the 1936 film adaptation.
Billie Burke in 1918 when she was married to Ziegfeld and Billie in the late 1930s during the height of her career as a character actress
Billie Burke, best known as Glinda the Good Witch but also as a flibbertigibbet matron in countless screwball comedies, was a well-established leading lady in both England and America before she became Florenz Ziegfeld’s second wife in 1914. As the darling of Broadway who had once been hailed as the most photographed woman in the world, she did not give up her career upon marrying. Ziegfeld built five shows around her, penned by some of the best writers of the era such as Noel Coward and Booth Tarkington. The shows were drawing room comedies with the exception of Annie Dear, which was a musical. She starred in her first film, Peggy, in 1916 and went on to be one of the silent screen’s most popular stars in a serial Ziegfeld put together for her titled Gloria’s Romance. By 1922, Billie was named Queen of the Movies in a New York popularity poll. After the Crash of 1929 and Ziegfeld’s death in 1932, audiences had all but forgotten the woman who was once the sweetheart of the stage and silent screen. But the steel-spined Billie happily took supporting character roles; she knew she was no longer the leading lady she had been on Broadway. “I have no time to pout by the fireplace about how marvelous I think I used to be,” she stated. Film goers have been thanking her ever since for not pouting by the fireplace and for instead embracing her comedic talent in such masterpieces as Dinner at Eight and Topper. Unlike other middle-aged character actresses, however, she retained her glamourous appearance and was often cast alongside men a decade younger than she!
He was an endearing Milquetoast, “perpetually stammering his way through life” with a timid smile nearly hidden beneath a white mustache. He was known as Hollywood’s first gentleman, for his polite, mild manners and graciousness he showed both on and off screen. His name was Frank Morgan, but few modern film viewers would identify him this way. Rather, they would recall him as the loveable, humbug Wizard of Oz. But Frank’s work reached far beyond the Wizard. Indeed, even in Oz he proved his versatility by playing no less than five roles, ranging from a phony seer to a weepy palace guard. Frank confessed to dying his hair gray far before it lost its color for the express purpose of playing character roles such as these. With his kind, bemused face and trademark fluttery stammer, Frank was perfectly suited for colorful supporting roles. However, by the late 1930s he had become so popular with audiences that it was not uncommon for him to land his own starring vehicle (such as The Vanishing Virginian). He had a successful Broadway career playing both leads and supporting roles. He performed in only one Ziegfeld show, portraying the childish Royal Highness Cyril in the musical production, Rosalie (1928). He actually portrayed Ziegfeld’s rival producer, the fictional Jack Billings, in the biopic, The Great Ziegfeld (1935). Two years later, he played in the film rendition of Rosalie (1937). Frank at his comedic best in the film adaptation. As the king of the fictional country of Romanza, he is more interested in demonstrating his talent at ventriloquism with his dummy, Nappy (short for Napoleon), rather than attend to his royal duties. The comedy of his ineptitude is heightened in scenes he shares with his dominating on-screen wife, Edna May Oliver, who has no patience for him or Nappy. Frank appeared in several pictures alongside Billie Burke as well, including Piccadilly Jim and The Wild Man of Borneo.
Dozens of other character actors appeared in Ziegfeld’s shows including Jimmy Durante, Frank McHugh, and Roland Young. Ziegfeld’s productions showcased not just beautiful showgirls but master comedians and versatile actors and actresses. The next time you’re keeping an eye out for or trying to name your favorite character actors, just think: maybe they were once Ziegfeld stars!
–Sara and Cynthia Brideson for Classic Movie Hub
Sara and Cynthia Brideson are avid classic movie fans, and twin authors of Ziegfeld and His Follies: A Biography of Broadway’s Greatest Producer and Also Starring: Forty Biographical Essays on the Greatest Character Actors of Hollywood’s Golden Era, 1930-1965. They also are currently working on comprehensive biographies of Gene Kelly and Margaret Sullavan. You can follow them on twitter at @saraandcynthia or like them on Facebook at Cynthia and Sara Brideson.