Saturday, August 7, 2010

Happy Birthday: Billie Burke!

Billie Burke, toured the U.S. and Europe with a circus because her father, Billy Burke, performed as a singing clown. Her family lived in London where she attended plays in London's West End. She wanted to be a stage actress. In 1903, she began acting on stage, making her debut in London, later returning to America to become a Broadway musical comedy star.

With the help of producer Charles Frohman, Billie Burke performed Broadway leads: Mrs. Dot, Suzanne, The Runaway, The "Mind-the-Paint" Girl, and The Land of Promise from 1910 to 1913, along with a supporting role in, Sir Arthur Wing Pinero’s The Amazons.

There she met and married producer Florenz Ziegfeld, in 1914. In 1916, they had one daughter, Patricia Ziegfeld Stephenson. Burke signed on to perform in the movies, making her first film in the title role of, Peggy (1916). She continued to perform on stage. She loved the stage more than movie-business, not only because it was her first love, but also because it allowed her to have speaking parts.

In 1932 Billie Burke performed as Margaret Fairfield in A Bill of Divorcement, directed by George Cukor, though the film is better known as Katharine Hepburn's film debut (Burke played Hepburn's mother). Florenz Ziegfeld, died during the film's production, Billie Burke went back to filming shortly after his funeral.

In 1933, Burke was cast as Mrs. Millicent Jordan, in the comedy Dinner at Eight, directed by George Cukor, co-starring with Lionel Barrymore, Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Jean Harlow and Wallace Beery. She performed in many comedies and musicals, typecast as a feather-brained upper-class matron due to her high pitched voice.

In 1936, MGM filmed a biopic of her deceased husband (The Great Ziegfeld), a film that won Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Actress (Luise Rainer as Ziegfeld's common-law wife, Anna Held). Actress Myrna Loy played the role of Burke.

In 1937 she performed in the first of the Topper films, about a man haunted by two socialite ghosts (played by Cary Grant and Constance Bennett), in which she played Clara Topper. Her performance as Emily Kilbourne in Merrily We Live (1938), won her only Oscar nomination.

In 1938 (at age 54) she was chosen to play Glinda, "the Good Witch of the North", in the Oscar-winning musical film The Wizard of Oz(1939), directed by Victor Fleming, with Judy Garland.

Burke also had performed in another film with Garland called, Everybody Sing, in which she played Judy's mother. Another star connected with Ziegfeld, Fanny Brice, performed as the family's maid in that picture. Another successful film, Father of the Bride (1950) and Father's Little Dividend (1951), both directed by Vincente Minnelli and starring Spencer Tracy, Joan Bennett, and Elizabeth Taylor.