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Audrey Kupferberg: Glorifying The American Girl

Kino Classics recently released Florenz Ziegfeld’s Glorifying the American Girl, a primitive 1929 sound film – a musical starring Mary Eaton and Rochester NY native Dan Healey, and featuring popular 1920s stage talents Eddie Cantor, Helen Morgan, and Rudy Vallee.

The feature film was restored by the UCLA Film & Television Archive.  Previously, it was available in an incomplete black-and-white version.  UCLA was able to locate, preserve, and restore a number of two-strip Technicolor sequences that had been thought lost.  The restoration means that instead of a creaky backstage musical starring two forgotten names, Florenz Ziegfeld’s Glorifying the American Girl now is an example of 1920s artful entertainment. In fact, Ted Shawn, “the father of American  dance,” designed the ballet sequences.

Mary Eaton plays a young woman who works in a store selling sheet music.  She gets a break in showbiz and has a romance.  Other films of the period feature this storyline.  When a sleazy lizard of a guy sees her dancing at a company picnic, he offers her the opportunity to be his partner.  Eaton was well known to Broadway fans of the teens and 1920s.  She was a leading member of the Ziegfeld Follies, only second in fame to Marilyn Miller. 

The Follies had a much-touted mission, to glorify the American girl.  Ziegfeld produced and devised the productions to feature musical numbers and tableaux vivants of tall, strikingly attractive young women dressed in posh, exotic, revealing costumes.  There was nothing cheap or distasteful about the Follies; the Ziegfeld girls, as they were called, were very classy.  It was a look-but-don’t-touch way of presenting sex without vulgarity. 

The first hour of Glorifying the American Girl disappoints.  Eaton was 28 when she filmed the movie.  In another line of business, that age would be fine, but for the storyline, she is a bit over the hill.  I was fortunate to have an elderly friend many years ago who was a featured Ziegfeld girl.  She explained that many of the chorus girls and featured beauties were in their teens. 

In fact, Eaton was at the end of her career in 1929, and while she may have convinced live audiences of her unadulterated beauty, the lens of the movie camera was not so considerate.  In fact, Eaton found trouble getting work shortly after the release of this film.  That year, she married the film’s director, but he died in 1935.  She drank too much and died of an alcoholism-related illness at the age of 47.

While the first hour of Glorifying the American Girl is a washout, the last 36 minutes are worth the wait.  This portion of the film presents legendary Eddie Cantor an antiquated  comedy skit.  It is funny, albeit a negative stereotypical view of Jews in the garment district.  Rudy Vallee, a questionable phenomenon, sings his signature song, “I’m Just a Vagabond Lover.”  The most powerful moment comes when torch singer Helen Morgan sings “What Wouldn’t I Do for That Man?” It isn’t a feminist rant, and I am a devout feminist, but the emotion is searing.

Stephen Sondheim could not have written the now classic hit musical Follies without knowledge of this film.  Evidence is in the Technicolor segment featuring the song “Loveland” which he tribute.  The Technicolor sequences present real Follies gals and guys onstage.  They are scantily-dressed and posing, singing, looking generally gorgeous.  Amid the bodies beautiful is Olympic swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller who would later play Tarzan.  

Glorifying the American Girl is a piece of history.  Without early, creaky film musicals, the format would not have developed to a point of 42nd Street, the Golddiggers films, and later Singin’ in the Rain and The Bandwagon, and Bye Bye Birdie, followed eventually by La La Land.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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