Thursday, February 02, 2006


Glinda the Good Ditz

By Edward Copeland
In my neverending quest to try to see every film that scored a major Oscar nomination, I recently got around to seeing 1938's Merrily We Live, which garnered Billie Burke a nomination for best supporting actress. Two of the five nominees, Beulah Bondi in Of Human Hearts and Miliza Korjus in The Great Waltz, I have yet to see — but in my opinion Burke beats Spring Byington in You Can't Take It With You and the winner, Fay Bainter in Jezebel, hands down.

Burke is probably best known these days (and for decades really) as Glinda the Good Witch in 1939's classic The Wizard of Oz, but she also appeared in such notable films as Topper and Dinner at Eight and she was married to Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld until his death.

Merrily We Live is slight, but fun. It's a decided knockoff of 1936's My Man Godfrey, but it boasts a solid comic ensemble including Constance Bennett, Brian Aherne, Alan Mowbray, Patsy Kelly, Ann Dvorak, Bonita Granville and Clarence Kolb. It was directed by Norman Z. McLeod, who directed the early Marx Brothers classic Monkey Business.

While there is much to admire in the slight, breezy fun of Merrily We Live, Burke is really the standout. Her character of the wealthy wife of a rich businessman who likes to give hobos and tramps a try as chauffeurs may seem similar to others we've seen before and since, but Burke puts such a delightfully dizzy spin on Mrs. Emily Kilbourne that everything old seems new again. It's a corny phrase but nothing says it better than "She's a stitch."

While there are certainly oodles of better Hollywood films from the 1930s, Burke alone made this one worthwhile for me. I have to think that if Fay Bainter hadn't also been nominated that year for lead actress for White Banners (making the Academy feel like it had to give her a consolation prize), Burke would have won the prize hands down, even without having seen the last two nominees.

At least I think she should have anyway.

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It's worth noting that Jezebel didn't even represent the best supporting performance Bainter gave in 1938 - to my way of thinking, she was much better as a jealous spinster nursing a seething hatred for sister-in-law Joan Crawford in The Shining Hour. Obviously, Jezebel was a much better film with more Awards traction, but Bainter's work doesn't register very strongly when pitted against the hyperkinetic theatrics of Bette Davis in peak form (it doesn't help that her character has so little relevance to the plot).

I haven't seen Merrily We Live, but I'll make a point of doing so based on your recommendation - hopefully it will pop up in TCM's rotation again soon. It seems to me that 1938 was a rather lean year for standout supporting performances, resulting a rather unmemorable crop of nominees (you haven't seen Bondi or Korijus, but you haven't missed much). My favorites from that year would be May Robson as a crochety dowager reacting to the chaos of Bringing Up Baby, Vivien Leigh as an ambitious actress who uses lovestruck Charles Laughton to get ahead in St. Martin's Lane, Una O'Connor as a the clucking companion to ravishing Olivia De Havilland in The Adventures of Robin Hood, and especially Ann Sothern as a wisecraking broad mixed up in the shipboard intrigue of Trade Winds. Any of them might have been a more worthy choice for the ultimate honor than Bainter's Aunt Belle.
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