Marilyn Miller: The Jazz Age’s Forgotten Heroine
In the 1920s there were two types of girls in the movies. First, there were the angelic waifs. Second, there were the flapper girls brimming with ‘It.’ One diminutive, blonde actress embodied both types. She was at once traditional and defiant of old conventions. She bobbed her hair and was never dependant on a man for money, but she enjoyed receiving the conspicuous gifts Stage Door Johnnies lavished upon her. She gave up dozens of marriage offers from wealthy middle aged men, favoring the old adage that marriage must be based on love. Who was this girl?
Her name was Marilyn Miller. At the peak of her success between 1918 and 1928, she personified the youth of the Jazz Age. She began as a sprite-like ballerina in the Ziegfeld Follies and came within a hair’s breadth of being cinema’s new ‘It’ girl before her tragic, premature death. Marilyn Miller, though almost forgotten today, is as much the tragic heroine of the Jazz Age as Jean Harlow was of the 1930s and Marilyn Monroe was of the 1950s.
Like another great symbol of the 1920s, Zelda Fitzgerald, Marilyn grew up in the South. Born in 1898, she lived with her grandmother until 1903, by which time she was old enough to join her mother, stepfather, and two siblings’ travelling theater act called The Five Columbians. “I was put on stage because a living had to be earned,” Marilyn later said. “It’s not a very pleasant childhood to remember.” She lived a rootless existence, and dirty dressing rooms and theater cellars were the environments that most surrounded her as a child. However, Marilyn coped with her tumultuous lifestyle by coming to see it not as work, “but like the most fascinating kind of play…” The Five Columbians proved to be popular not only in America but abroad. Just by the names critics lavished upon her, it was obvious how the young girl charmed all those who watched her. She was called everything from a powder puff to a bon bon to a pen nib.
By the time Marilyn reached her teenage years, she had bloomed into a pixieish young woman who looked no less like a “bon bon” than she did as a child. From 1914 to 1918, she starred in Broadway revues produced by the powerful Shubert brothers. Critics loved her, declaring, “She dances as if he enjoyed it” and calling her a “dancing sprite—musical and lovely.” The buoyancy she brought to the stage was all the more impressive considering that she suffered from chronic sinusitis, a condition that resulted in blinding migraines, as well as abuse at the hands of her stepfather. He continued to strike the now sixteen year old girl across the backside if he thought her rehearsals insufficient. Marilyn played the obedient child with as much conviction as she did with her impersonations on stage. However, beneath the surface she was ready to explode– and in 1918, she did.
It was Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld’s wife, Billie Burke, who unwittingly lit the fuse. After seeing Marilyn in the latest Shubert production, Show of Wonders, she was so impressed that she immediately told her husband of her discovery. She described Marilyn as “a confection of a girl” who would be perfect for the Follies. Ziegfeld promptly hired her. Marilyn felt like a true adult now, making and keeping her own money. She relished being away from her domineering stepfather and vowed to never again have a man control her affairs. Her thirst for independence grew stronger when she met and fell in love with her Follies co-star Frank Carter, much to the chagrin of Ziegfeld. Marriage could mean the end of her career, and thus a loss of profit to the producer. Already, she had become the hit of the Follies through her charming spoof on Billie Burke. Ziegfeld tried to woo his new star from Frank by pampering her, most conspicuously by providing her a fresh costume for every performance at the cost of $175. Marilyn all but thumbed her nose at his manipulations, as well as her parents’ strict rule that Frank was not welcome in their home. She continued to see Frank during clandestine meetings fellow Follies star Eddie Cantor helped to arrange. It was before the opening of the Follies of 1919 that Frank and Marilyn decided to elope. When Ziegfeld discovered what they had done, he fired Frank. If Frank had not received another job offer from the Shuberts right away, Marilyn likely would not have stayed with Ziegfeld. Resentful as she was toward her boss, she made his 1919 Follies the best in the show’s history. Most memorable in the production was the song “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” which would forever afterward be associated with Marilyn.
Frank and Marilyn’s marriage proved to be as successful as their stage careers. Both encouraged the other’s career and gave each other love, confidence, and comfort. For their first anniversary, Frank planned to buy a luxurious, $10,000 Packard touring car his wife had admired. But the night he bought it as a surprise, he crashed while taking a sharp curve. The car was destroyed, and Frank was killed instantaneously.
Marilyn fell into a period filled with despondency and anger. Though falling apart inside, she continued to appear on stage every night, waiting until she disappeared in the wings to crumple into tears. “I always lose myself when I dance. I seem to be another, projected personality,” she explained. Those close to Marilyn, including fellow Ziegfeld Girl Doris Eaton, noticed that it seemed as if another personality did indeed take over Marilyn after Frank’s death. Eaton recalled that she became “much more escapist and fun seeking” and “appeared to go from one relationship to another.” She also dropped all her former efforts to be the obedient daughter/star. She wanted to be a new woman– fast living, defiant of convention, and apathetic to old-fashioned expectations. Part of Marilyn’s defiance manifested in her frustration at Ziegfeld. “At times she treated him so…profanely…that it appeared she had a strange hold on him,” Eaton said. In Marilyn’s mind, she did have something over him: Frank’s death. As if to atone for it, Ziegfeld lavished more attention on his star, ultimately building a show around her. The show, entitled Sally, elevated Marilyn to an unprecedented level of celebrity status. Through Sally, she became the girl every boy would love to take home to meet his mother—yet at the same time she was the Jazz Age goddess with “a ruthless charm, a glitter than made every man in the room turn when she walks in.”
Sally is the tale of an orphan (Marilyn) who dreams of becoming a dancer and, in the end, wins both love and fame by landing a role in—what else? A Ziegfeld show! Marilyn charmed audiences and provoked a feeling of nostalgia through her rendition of “Look For the Silver lining,” a song that “offered a plea for optimism” that “was the kind of sermon audiences wanted to hear in that time of postwar depression.” At the same time, she embodied modernity and the risqué in her “Wild Rose” number. Its lyrics could be a flapper girl’s ballad: “I’m just a wild rose, Not a prim and mild rose; Tame me if you can, I’m a rose to suit any man. Some passion flower, This is my hour, Who’ll get me no one knows, I’m such a wild, wild rose.” While singing these words, she kicked, turned, pranced and gave a stagey wink that every man in the audience was sure was meant for him alone.
The show was the hit of the decade and ran for three years. Marilyn was not immune to getting a swelled head. Ziegfeld indulged her with costumes made of ermine and satin and even built a ramp that extended out into the audience to show off her dancing feet. However, when Ziegfeld came backstage to introduce his daughter, Patricia, to Marilyn, the star greeted him with “Hello you no-good bastard.” After complaining about “this piece of crap you call a costume” that weighed “a thousand tons,” she ended the visit by throwing a jar of cold cream at his departing figure. Patricia likened seeing Marilyn backstage, so different from the ever-smiling nymph on stage, as being like the side of a Christmas ornament with the price tag and tin showing through.
Marilyn in WB’s adaptation of “Sally,” 1929
Marilyn’s behavior became increasingly hedonistic. Between performances of Sally, she breezed to the Plaza Hotel to lunch and dance with up to forty Harvard boys at a time. At night she attended parties that often made for scandalous headlines. One such party, hosted by a playboy art dealer, was broken up by police when a drunken showgirl auctioned herself off to the highest bidder. Rumors abounded that Marilyn was engaged to the playboy host, but she responded to the gossip with a devil may care shrug, sighing that she was only mildly fond of the man. Marilyn lived the high life despite the increasing severity of her sinusitis. She enjoyed herself by sheer will while desperately attempting to ignore her blinding migraines.
By the time Sally was nearing the end of its record-breaking run, Marilyn again made headlines when she announced her engagement to Mary Pickford’s wayward brother, Jack. His name had been connected to scandal ever since the mysterious death of his wife, ex-Ziegfeld Girl Olive Thomas. Ziegfeld was staunchly against the union. His warnings that Marilyn would meet the same end as Thomas only spurred the willful girl more toward marriage. She grew livid over Ziegfeld’s statements to the press that Jack was not only responsible for his late wife’s death, but was also a draft dodger, drug addict, and alcoholic. Marilyn got her revenge on Ziegfeld by making a furious statement to the papers that he made love to chorus girls and would divorce his wife in a minute to marry her if it were not for his daughter. Ziegfeld and Marilyn’s long and profitable partnership thus ended, and Marilyn headed off to California to marry her new husband in fairytale fashion on Mary Pickford and Douglas Fairbank’s estate, Pickfair.
Marilyn did not want to admit it, but Ziegfeld’s predictions came true all too soon. Jack went on constant alcoholic binges and jealous rages and both husband and wife carried on extra marital affairs–Jack with silent movie vamp Bebe Daniels and Marilyn with an ever changing string of beaux including Clifton Webb, Jack Donahue, and Ben Lyon. The significant time spent apart put further strain on the marriage. Marilyn, having signed a contract with Ziegfeld’s competitor Charles Dillingham, kept busy in New York while Jack remained in Los Angeles. Marilyn was enjoying a triumph in Sunny, a virtual copy of Sally but with the backdrop of a circus rather than a Ziegfeld show. However, after Sunny, Dillingham had no satisfactory shows in the works for his new star.
With gritted teeth, Marilyn returned to Ziegfeld. She signed both divorce papers and a new contract with her old employer in 1927, and by 1928, she was again Ziegfeld’s greatest star in his new musical, Rosalie. The show did good business, but it was not as big a money-maker as Marilyn’s previous hits. Marilyn, in a rare moment of weakness, broke down in tears in front of Ziegfeld and cried, “I can entertain them when they come into the theater, but I can’t go outside and drag them in!” Ziegfeld allowed her to temporarily leave his employ and accept an offer from Warner Brothers for a $100,000 per picture contract. Warner Brothers enthusiastically groomed Marilyn as a sort of blonde Clara Bow in her first assignment, an all-talking adaptation of Sally with musical sequences done in two-strip Technicolor. Marilyn was highly insecure about how her presence on stage would transfer to film and, to mask her wariness, she played the role of prima donna. She demanded a new wardrobe from the studio (including chinchilla coats) and a dressing room with a sunken tub. Marilyn’s insecurity proved groundless; the film was a hit with moviegoers.
Marilyn’s screen success came almost simultaneously with the Crash of 1929. Suddenly, audiences found her films depicting an idyllic world of luxury irrelevant. It only made Marilyn feel more outmoded when her next show with Ziegfeld, Smiles, garnered not her, but her co-stars Fred and Adele Astaire glowing reviews. Critics relegated Marilyn to “an older order of musical comedy.” To add further insult to injury, her next two films, an adaption of Sunny and a romantic comedy, Her Majesty Love, flopped at the box office. She began to feel evermore outmoded as other symbols of her generation began to die: first Ziegfeld and then Jack Pickford. Marilyn, as fast as she had ascended to stardom, fell into obscurity.
In the following years, Marilyn desperately tried to recapture her youth and the adoration she had received in her fullest bloom. She fell into an abusive relationship with ballroom dancer Don Alvarado, often receiving bruises and black eyes from him. The girl who had appeared so independent and free from the domination of men since her break with her step father years before was now telling fan magazines, “You have to love, you have to have someone to please…in order to make life worthwhile…love is life to me.”
In 1933, Marilyn made a brief comeback in the Moss Hart and Irving Berlin revue As Thousands Cheer. In the show, audiences heard her sing the now standard tune “Easter Parade”. Offstage, she was as desperate as ever to maintain her youth. As if reliving her elopement with Frank Carter, she married a chorus boy several years her junior named Chet O’Brien. She appeared to still be living the life of flapper girl, but her friend Lloyd Pantages saw through her façade: “I think she was humiliated by her overall failure in movies…For her, I fear, life was starting to lose its zest.”
Perhaps Marilyn would have further resuscitated her stage career had it not been for her sinusitis. It had become so severe that she was absent for much of the run of As Thousands Cheer. In 1936, she sought the help of a “miracle doctor” who injected her with insulin, promising it would relieve her pain. Instead, it caused Marilyn to lapse into a coma. She flitted in and out of consciousness for days until on April 7, 1936, she opened her eyes, gave those at her bedside “a comfortable smile,” and passed away. Though she was only thirty-eight years old, her early death can be viewed as strangely merciful given her intense fear of aging.
Following her passing, Hollywood made two attempts at preserving the memory of Ziegfeld’s greatest star; first in Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), a film celebrating the music of Jerome Kern in which Judy Garland admirably portrays Marilyn in three musical numbers, and second in a highly fictitious biopic entitled Look for the Silver Lining starring June Haver. Neither come close to conveying the real Marilyn—an actress “intended only to smile” but was, in reality, a complicated, willful woman. In the words of a friend, she always “…seemed so happy…that no one suspected the depth of her feelings and her capacity…for pain.” On stage, and indeed, in the precious few films that document both her flaming youth and elfin charm, Marilyn epitomes a pretty girl who, like a melody, haunts you night and day.
–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.