DVDs of old movies can serve a variety of purposes. Of course, they can simply offer entertainment, but they can also fill in the blanks in some of our knowledge of theater of the past.

Take, for example, the Warner Archive DVD of the 1929 hollywood version of the Broadway musical Sally that made a huge book-musical star of Marilyn Miller, moving her up from her perch as a huge star of revues.Combine this with their DVD of her second film, the 1930 movie version of another huge Broadway book-musical hit, Sunny, and you can begin to appreciate her special attraction.

Musical theater historian Gerald Bordman called Miller “the unquestioned queen of Broadway musical comedy in the 1920s.” Her first big breaks came in the nineteen-teens, however. She’d been working vaudeville and touring the world when Lee Shubert caught her act in London and brought her back to the U.S. to light up the stage of New York’s Winter Garden in his The Passing Show of 1914. Florenz Ziegfeld hired her away for his Follies of 1918.

In 1920, Sally, with a score by Jerome Kern, gave her not only book-musical stardom, but a theme song that would be her signature: “Look For The Silver Lining.” Her other big Jerome Kern hit song was “Who,” which she introduced in Sunny in 1925. As the 20s came to an end, she found yet another hit with the Gershwin/Romberg Rosalie.

But her last appearance on a Broadway stage came in 1934 at the end of the run of Irving Berlin’s As Thousands Cheer. She died in 1936 at the age of 37 of complications of surgery for a chronic nasal problem. As a result, unless you are well into your eighties, you never had the chance to see her in a live performance.

But you can still see her in performance. On DVD she dances, sings, acts, jests and charms. Her star quality may not have made the transition to the silver screen as completely as some others, but there is enough of a hint of something special in these two films to give you some idea of what the highest paid star on Broadway in the 1920s was like.

Shirley Temple was only 20 months old when the film of Sally opened two days before Christmas in 1929, and she hadn’t yet made her first movie. If she had, the review of Sally might have said that Miller had an almost Shirley Temple like cuteness, but it was combined with a youthful sexuality.

More modern eyes might see it a bit differently, however. Cinematic technique has become more refined. In his NPR feature when these DVDs were released, critic Lloyd Schwartz said “She sings with a trained, almost operatic voice that seems disconnected from her characters’ down to earth speaking voice – a quality more designed for a theater where vocal projection was more important than in films where amplified sound and intimate closeups are more suited to realism than theatrical stylization.”

At the time of filming for these two movies, the “talkies” were a new phenomenon and Hollywood was just starting to figure out how to use the new technology. Al Jolson’s “Wait a minute! Wait a minute! You ain’t heard nothing yet!” in The Jazz Singer sparked the craze of features with sound dialogue and music. That movie really was a silent film with a couple of songs. While Jolson threw in a few spoken lines, most of his “dialogue” was printed out on the screen.

That was only two years before Sally. In those two years, some, but not all of the techniques of using sound as well as picture to tell a story had been developed. Hollywood was pulling out all the stops to capitalize on the fascination of the public for what became “talkies.” The first big effort was to push into the theaters all the musical movies the studios could come up with. Some were titles already in preparation as silent films but which had sound quickly added. Others were quick-start productions, some drawing from plays popular on Broadway.

Musicals glutted the market, however. Miller’s Sally and Sunny were well timed to hit the streets as the rage was peaking. In his book All Talking, All Singing, All Dancing: A Pictorial History of the Movie Musical, John Springer says that “By mid-1930, people were staying away from them and exhibitors were putting up signs to announce ‘This is not a musical.’” For that reason, Miller’s final film, 1931′s Her Majesty, Love was a “semi-musical” co-staring W. C. Fields. Both Sally and Sunny tell their stories primarily through dialogue scenes, and Miller shows a good deal of charm as well as acting skill that easily match those of her contemporaries attempting to find the right intensity of emoting for the screen.

Neither story is terribly involving. Both were light weight fare as book musicals. Intentionally so – that wasn’t a drawback to success, but a path toward it. The screen adaptations make use of these skeletal structures to find places to hang comic bits, photogenic locales and only slightly motivated large dance sequences. All it takes for Miller in Sunny to segue into a dance in an otherwise non-musical sequence is to say “Come on, lets have some fun.”

And fun is exactly what her dances look like. Whether she’s doing a flat out clog routine in a tap dance, or an on-toe ballet turn, she genuinely looks as if she’s having the time of her life. Perhaps that is what came across the footlights on Broadway as well. These discs help you know what her special magic must have been.

There is also a bio-musical ostensibly about Miller available from Warner Archive, but Look for the Silver Lining with June Haver as Marilyn Miller, is so fictionalized that it is not a valid representation of either her art or her life. The film leaves out her health problems, her drinking problems and her early death. The musical numbers, staged by LeRoy Prinz, tend to be more “Hollywood” and less “Broadway.” Haver does the dances quite well but her co star, Ray Bolger, is the more impressive hoofer here.

Look for the Silver Lining bears more relationship to Miller, however, than does the bio-musical of Jerome Kern, MGM’s Till The Clouds Roll By which is available in multiple releases on DVD. It has two numbers and a scene for Marilyn Miller’s character as portrayed by Judy Garland, but it does not appear that Vincent Minnelli attempted to stage Garland’s numbers in Miller’s style. The film, while enjoyable and offering some marvelous production numbers, is even less biographically reliable than Look for the Silver Lining. Anyone who didn’t know better would come away thinking that Kern wrote most, if not all, of his own lyrics – there is a passing acknowledgment that Oscar Hammerstein II had something to do with some of the words, but there’s nary a mention of Dorothy Fields, Schuyler Green, Otto Harbach, Herbert Reynolds, or P. G. Wodehouse!

Warner Archive Video

Warner Archive Video

Look For The Silver Lining
Warner Archive Video

List Price $26.99 each 

August 8, 2012

Marilyn Miller on DVD