Billie Burke’s most fondly remembered role – as Glinda the Good Witch in the Wizard of Oz – isn’t typical of the characters the actress played throughout her career. Glinda, a candyfloss confection of bouffant blonde hair, sweetness and light, was a break from the characters she was normally typecast into – commonly naïve and witty roles that made a lot of her charm (including her ‘disturbed-chandelier tinkle of a voice and sparrow like flutter of hands’) but not her acting talent.
Too often, Burke’s achievements are overlooked thanks to her marriage to Florenz Ziegfeld; an oft-heard tale of a woman’s ambition and talent playing second fiddle to a mans. Although Burke enjoyed stage success in Sir Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Amazons before meeting Ziegfeld many detractors claimed her Follies roles were purely the result of her connections – although apparently she had to audition just like everyone else. It’s also an oversight because the marriage was not a happy and harmonious one. Burke put her own money into several Ziegfeld productions and was forced to endure her husband’s poorly concealed dalliances with chorus girls. That paints Ziegfeld in a poor light, but Burke must’ve seen something worth staying for, as the two remained married until his death in July 1932.
Like so many of the early film stars, Burke started young. An only child, she toured the US and Europe with her father Willy Burke, a successful circus clown, who worked for the Barnum & Bailey Circus. After eventually settling in London, she first appeared on stage in 1903, making her debut in The School Girl. Amongst the chorus girls, you can imagine how Burke’s vibrant red hair stood out. Many reports suggest that the stage was Burke’s first love and – despite the almost 80 roles she appeared in on screen – it was the magic of performance that truly thrilled her. Those early roles were supplanted by screen success – Burke’s breakout roles were in Peggy (Giblyn and Ince, 1916) and Gloria’s Romance (Colin Campbell, 1916), a lost silent film serial comprised of more 20 chapters. Critics reviewed these early roles favourably – Burke’s natural comic timing translated well to the screen and allowed her character to shine through. However, after starring in several more silent, she returned to the Broadway where, between 1917 and 1944, Burke would star in 12 plays, including three by W. Somerset Maugham.
As often happens, life intervenes – in this case the stock market crash in 1929. Ziegfeld suffered badly, and much of his savings were wiped out. Realising that being funny on screen paid more that the stage, Burke returned to Hollywood. Starring as Katharine Hepburn’s mother (it was Hepburn’s first major role) in the George Cukor-directed A Bill of Divorcement, Burke set the standard for the roles she would later play. Playing the much-maligned Margaret – a long-suffering wife who is about to divorce her husband – Burke is both funny and empathetic.
Later key roles included Mrs Topper in the three Topper fantasy films, Olivier Hardy’s wife in Zenobia (1939) and Mrs Kilbourne in Norman McLeod’s Merrily We Live (1938). The latter role earned Burke an Academy Award nomination, although she didn’t win it was a well-deserved nod to her oft-overlooked talent and a rare example of the establishment paying homage to her work. Although she played in the side-lines, and was dismissed as a ‘serious’ actress, Burke’s peers respected the roles she played. At her memorial service in Los Angeles, George Cukor told the assembled congregation: ‘She was an actress in the most romantic tradition, with the magic of the theatre’. That ‘magic’ that sustained her earlier dreams spilled over into her film roles. She played each character with an easy charm and enthusiasm that was all her own.
Billie Burke might be a well-remembered footnote in Florenz Ziegfeld’s life and rightly so – as is so often the case, behind every successful man stands an equally (just lesser recognised) woman. But Burke was so much more than that; a true talent in her own right who’s been relegated to history because she pursued a career as a character actress rather than a leading star. Perhaps – understandably – she never wanted the full limelight, but it’s a shame that players much less deserving than her remain bathed in it.
This post is my (very belated) contribution to the What A Character! blogathon, hosted by the wonderful Once Upon a Screen, Outspoken & Freckled and Paula’s Cinema Club. Do check out all the other entries; this is a very special blogathon celebrating lots of under-repped strars.