Marilyn Miller c. 1922
|Born||Mary Ellen Reynolds
September 1, 1898
|Died||April 7, 1936
New York City, New York
|Cause of death||complications of surgery|
|Occupation||actress, singer, dancer|
(m.1919-1920; his death)
(m.1934-1936; her death)
Marilyn Miller (September 1, 1898 – April 7, 1936) was one of the most popular Broadway musical stars of the 1920s and early 1930s. She was an accomplished tap dancer, singer and actress, but it was the combination of these talents that endeared her to audiences. On stage she usually played rags-to-riches Cinderella characters who lived happily ever after. Miller's enormous popularity and famed image were in distinct contrast to her personal life, which was marred by disappointment, tragedy, frequent illness, and ultimately her sudden death due to complications of nasal surgery at age 37.
Miller was born Mary Ellen Reynolds in Evansville, Indiana, the youngest daughter of Edwin D. Reynolds, a telephone lineman, and his first wife, the former Ada Lynn Thompson. The tiny, delicate-featured blonde beauty was only four years old when, as "Mademoiselle Sugarlump," she debuted at Lakeside Park in Dayton, Ohio as a member of her family's vaudeville act, the Columbian Trio, which then included Marilyn's step-father, Oscar Caro Miller, and two older sisters, Ruth and Claire. They were re-christened the Five Columbians after Marilyn and her mother joined the routine. From their home base in Findlay, Ohio, they toured the Midwest and Europe in variety for ten years, skirting the child labor authorities, before Lee Shubert discovered Marilyn at the Lotus Club in London in 1914.
Miller appeared for the Shuberts in the 1914 and 1915 editions of The Passing Show, a Broadway revue at the Winter Garden Theatre, as well as in The Show of Wonders (1916) and Fancy Free (1918). But it was Florenz Ziegfeld who made her a star after she performed in his Ziegfeld Follies of 1918, at the famed New Amsterdam Theatre on 42nd Street, with music by Irving Berlin. Sharing billing with Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers and W. C. Fields, she brought the house down with her impersonation of Ziegfeld's wife, Billie Burke, in a number entitled Mine Was a Marriage of Convenience.
She followed as a headliner in the Follies of 1919, dancing to Berlin's "Mandy", and reputedly became Ziegfeld's mistress, though this was never proven. Miller attained legendary status in the Ziegfeld production Sally (1920) with music by Jerome Kern, especially for her performance of Kern's "Look for the Silver Lining". The musical, about a dishwasher who joins the Follies and marries a millionaire, ran 570 performances at the New Amsterdam. In 1921, a still-obscure Dorothy Parker memorialized her performance in verse:
From the alley's gloom and chill / Up to fame danced Sally. / Which was nice for her, but still / Rough upon the alley. / How it must regret her wiles. / All her ways and glances. / Now the theatre owns her smiles, / Sallies, songs, and dances. ...
After a rift with Ziegfeld, she signed with rival producer Charles Dillingham and starred as Peter Pan in a 1924 Broadway revival, then as a circus queen in Sunny (1925), with music by Kern and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein. A box-office smash, it featured the classic Who?, and made her the highest paid star on Broadway. In 1928, after reuniting with Ziegfeld, she starred in his production of the successful George Gershwin musical Rosalie, then in Smiles (1930) with Fred Astaire, a rare Ziegfeld box office failure.
Miller's movie career was short-lived and less successful than her stage career. She made only three films: adaptations of Sally (1929); and Sunny (1930); and Her Majesty Love (1931), with W. C. Fields. Her last Broadway show, marking a major comeback, was the innovative 1933-34 Irving Berlin/Moss Hart musical, As Thousands Cheer, in which she appeared in the production number, "Easter Parade".
As it turned out, her appearance in As Thousands Cheer was her last professional outing. Miller quit the show after her boyfriend and future husband Chester O'Brien (a chorus dancer who served as the production's second assistant stage manager) was fired for allowing the Woolworth department store heir Jimmy Donahue to sneak onstage during a scene in which the actress was impersonating Donahue's cousin, the heiress Barbara Hutton. After Miller's death, this incident gave Irving Berlin the inspiration for a film musical, On the Avenue, for which he received a script credit in addition to writing the songs.
At the time of her death, Miller was described as having been in retirement.
Engagements and marriages
Miller was married to:
- Frank Carter, an actor and acrobatic dancer, whom she married on 24 May 1919 at the Church of the Ascension in New York City. He was killed in a car accident in Cumberland, Maryland, on 9 May 1920. Carter was portrayed by Gordon MacRae in the Marilyn Miller biopic Look for the Silver Lining and by Walter Willison in "Ziegfeld: The Man and His Women (film)".
- Jack Pickford, an actor and the brother of film star Mary Pickford; previously married to the popular movie actress Olive Thomas, he was a drug and alcohol abuser. They were married in 1922, separated in 1926, and divorced in Versailles, France, in November 1927. Miller had attempted to secure a divorce in the Paris courts in the spring of 1927, but her published comments about how easy it would be to end her marriage in France "stirred the ire of the Paris Tribunal with the result that the court would take no action on Miss Miller's petition". The actress filed for divorce the following July in the nearby city of Versailles, whose tribunal eventually ended the marriage.
- Chester Lee O'Brien, a chorus dancer, whom she married on 4 October 1934, in Harrison, New York. Several years older than her groom, Miller reportedly spent more than $56,000 on O'Brien during their brief time together. O'Brien, who later was known professionally as Chet O'Brien, went on to become a stage manager for such Broadway productions as Brigadoon and Finian's Rainbow. He also was the stage manager and an actor on Sesame Street from the premier of the show in 1969 until 1992.
In 1930, Miller was briefly engaged to the actor Michael Farmer, who later became a husband of Gloria Swanson. In 1932, she announced her intention to marry the movie actor Don Alvarado, but the wedding did not take place.
Illnesses, alcoholism, and death
Miller had a long history of sinus infections, and her health was compromised by an increasing dependency on alcohol. According to reports shortly before her death, she entered a New York hospital in early March 1936 in order to recover from a nervous breakdown. Three weeks after she entered the hospital, however, she developed a toxic condition and died from complications following surgery on her nasal passages. She was 37. She died in New York City on the morning of April 7, 1936 and was given a funeral at Saint Bartholomew Church on Park Avenue which drew 2,500 people, including former mayor Jimmy Walker, Beatrice Lillie, and Billie Burke.
Miller's last name was taken from her step-father, Oscar Caro Miller, while her first name was a combination/adaptation of her birth name, Mary, and her mother's middle name, Lynn. Initially calling herself Marilynn, she would drop one of the n's, at the urging of Florenz Ziegfeld.
Census records reveal perhaps a half a dozen "Marilyns" in the United States in 1900; by the 1930s, following Miller's stardom, it was the 16th most common first name among American females.
In the late 1940s, Norma Jeane Baker (née Mortenson) changed her name to Marilyn Monroe, at the urging of Ben Lyon, a one-time actor turned casting director at 20th Century Fox, who said she reminded him of Marilyn Miller (Lyon had played Miller's love interest in Her Majesty, Love). Marilyn Monroe would 'become' Marilyn Miller herself when she married the playwright Arthur Miller in 1956.
In 1949, a sanitized biopic, appropriately titled Look for the Silver Lining, starred June Haver as Marilyn Miller. Miller was also portrayed by Judy Garland in MGM's film biography of Jerome Kern, Till the Clouds Roll By (1946). In 1978 the story of Miller's tempestuous relationship with Ziegfeld was portrayed in the Emmy winning made for TV biopic "Ziegfeld: The Man and His Women", starring Pamela Peadin as Miller, Paul Shenar as Ziegfeld, and Walter Willison as Frank Carter. Rare film footage of the real Miller in the 1929 film version of Sally can be seen in the 2004 PBS documentary series Broadway, the American Musical.
Statue and legacy
A sculpture of Miller, in the title role of Sunny, can still be seen atop the former I. Miller Shoe Company [no relation] Building, 1552 Broadway (aka 167 West 46th Street) in Times Square, Manhattan. It is one of four statues sculpted by Alexander Stirling Calder between 1927 and 1929 for the building's facade, representing famous theatrical professionals of the time. In 2013, after years of neglect, the building and sculptures were restored.
In the only published biography of Marilyn Miller, author Warren G. Harris called her "Ziegfeld's most dazzling star" and the premier musical comedy star of the Jazz Age. "She had rivals who may have been better dancers, singers, actresses, or mimics, but no one individual could equal her when it came to combining all those talents."
All three films survive in some form, but Sally, filmed entirely in two-color Technicolor, now exists only in black-and-white except for one fragment (most of the "Wild Rose" musical number) that has survived from an original Technicolor print.
- "Marilyn Miller's Mother Dies", The New York Times, 20 March 1942, page 19
- "Marilyn Miller, Stage Star, Dies". The New York Times. April 8, 1936. Retrieved 2010-07-22.
- Parker, Dorothy. "Marilyn Miller." Life. December 15, 1921. p. 5; Silverstein, Stuart Y., ed. (1996, paperback 2001). Not Much Fun: The Lost Poems of Dorothy Parker. New York: Scribner. p. 103. ISBN 0-7432-1148-0. Check date values in:
- "The Theatre: Prank". Time. 15 October 1934. Retrieved 12 May 2010.
- "Marilynn [sic] Miller Married", The New York Times, 20 June 1919
- "Marilyn Miller Gets French Divorce", The New York Times, 3 November 1927
- "Marilyn Miller Wed to Chester L. O'Brien: Musical Comedy Star Bride of Dancer Who Was in Chorus", The New York Times, 4 October 1934
- "Charge of Support By Wife Irked O'Brien: Marilyn Miller's Sister Says He Resented Talk -- Neglect of Her Denied in Court", The New York Times, 20 April 1937
- Marilyn Miller at the Internet Broadway Database
- "Marilyn Miller Engaged to Wed". The New York Times. 24 March 1930.
- "Marilyn Miller To Be Wife of Don Alvarado". The New York Times. 10 December 1932.
- "Marilyn Miller Worse", The New York Times, 31 March 1936
- "Marilyn Miller, Stage Star, Dies", The New York Times, 8 April 1936
- Harris, Warren G. The Other Marilyn. Arbor House. ISBN 0877955840.
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