Billie Burke: much more than Mrs Ziegfeld

Billie Burke studio publicity

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.

Billie Burke Glorias Romance
Gloria’s Romance (1916)

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.

Billie Burke glorias_romance

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.

Billie Burke Dinner at Eight
Dinner at Eight (1933) with Marie Dressler, John Barrymore and Jean Harlow
Billie Burke Breakfast in Hollywood
Breakfast in Hollywood (1946) with Tom Breneman and Edward Ryan

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 Wizard of Oz 2

Billie Burke Wizard of Oz
The Wizard of Oz (1939)

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.

Studio_publicity_Billie_Burke

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.

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13 thoughts on “Billie Burke: much more than Mrs Ziegfeld

  1. I admire Ms. Burke’s abilities very much. She perfected her comic creation and nobody could touch her in that realm. “Doubting Thomas” was the movie that made me first come to truly appreciate how fine an actress she was. She was in a few movies with Raymond Walburn, and two scene-stealers like them are almost too much for one movie to handle.

    1. Scene-stealer is the perfect description! I haven’t seen Doubting Thomas (the main reason why I didn’t mention it here!) but I added that (and a few more) to my watch list.

  2. I ADORE Billie Burke. She is so talented and so funny, and you can’t help but cheer for her in every role. It really is too bad she’s mostly recognized for being the Good Witch (although she was very good) and as Mrs Z. So glad you featured her on your site. She deserves more attention for her career.

    1. Thanks Ruth. She had such a long career this post could’ve gone on much longer. It’s a shame ‘Glinda’ defines her – it’s a great role but doesn’t come close to encapsulating all her talents.

  3. Beautiful post! Billie Burke was such a classy lady. I of course loved her performance in The Wizard of Oz but I also enjoyed her role as a very overdramatic mother to Judy Garland in “Everybody Sing,” which I believe was released a year before Oz.

  4. Fabulous homage to a lovely lady!! Have you read “With Powder on My Nose”? It’s got a lot of frilly bits in it, but she also talks very movingly about why she never remarried after Flo. Thank you again for giving this woman the attention she deserves!!

    1. I haven’t read it, although I did come across excerpts in my research. I love memoirs like that, you learn as much about the ‘industry’ and the culture as you do the individual life stories.

  5. Indeed, a charming and enthusiastic actress! The last film I’ve seen her in was Topper, and I have to say she steals some scenes from that brilliant cast.
    Kisses!

  6. Great piece – it sounds as if the portrayal of the marriage in ‘The Great Ziegfeld’, where Myrna Loy plays Billie, isn’t altogether accurate, if I’m remembering the film right! I was pleased to see you mention ‘A Bill of Divorcement,’ as she is fantastic in that.

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