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The Silent Collection
By Tammy Stone
Featuring:
Billie Burke

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#72 Most Popular - 1917

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1917 Billie Burke Kromo Gravure Trading CardBillie Burke in the 1939 Wizard of Oz Card GameI have to admit that Billie Burke is close to my heart. The Wizard of Oz (1939) in one of my favourite films of all time, for its mastery of colour and structure, its perfectly drawn characters and for the fact that despite having gone through four directors and eleven screenwriters, it comes across as one of the most seamlessly-wrought cinematic pieces in movie history. The film made young Judy Garland a star, but for Billie Burke, who played the Good Witch of the North, it was yet another masterpiece in a long and illustrious career as a feisty entertainer.

Billie was born with the very odd full name of Mary William Ethelbert Appleton Burke on August 7, 1884. Her father Billy – whose name she eventually adopted – was a performer, meaning that young Mary had a life on the road. While still a child, she traveled across America and Europe watching her father entertain global audiences as a singing clown; he was actually quite famous at the time in this capacity. Eventually, after his tenure with the circus was over, he settled his family down in London, England, where Mary was privileged enough to have access to some of the world’s best theatre productions. As you can imagine, it wasn’t long before Mary decided she wanted to entertain like her father. The stage was calling.

By 1903, her dream was starting to come true. She found role after role in London, and this ultimately led her back to the United States, where she quickly rose to fame on Broadway while still in her early 20s. Billie, as she was now called, was pixie-like and charismatic; her lust for life showed, and she became known for her comedic turns. Of all the things she could do well, she was particularly gifted at winning crowds over by making them laugh. Between 1910 and 1913, with the help of renowned producer and star-groomer Charles Frohman, Billie landed several starring roles on stage, including those in “The Runaway” and “Suzanne”. When “The Amazons” was brought back to the stage in 1914, she got a supporting role in the Sir Arthur Wing Pinero production. It was during this time that she met the famed Florenz Ziegfeld of Ziegfeld Follies fame; they married that very year. Two years later, baby Patricia was born; she would be their only child.

You couldn’t really travel in more prestigious circles at that time, and the flood of movie producers descending on New York set their sights on the talented Billie. She had her debut as Peggy in a film of the same name, in 1916. Unlike many of her contemporaries, at least as far as reports go, Billie wasn’t so quick to give up the theatre, and continued to waffle between the two media. It’s hard to keep in mind today that at the time, theatre was the most predominant and dazzling form of entertainment out there, and films were just not seen on the mass scale that they are today, though they were immediately popular after they started to be shown to public audiences in the early 1900s. Billie considered herself an entertainer through and through, and it would have been hard for her to consider leaving the excitement of live theatre behind. Also, of course, the theatre allowed her to do something she wouldn’t be able to do in the movies for at least a decade: use her voice and interact directly with her adoring audience.

Her silent screen career, then, wasn’t quite as prolific as that of some of her peers. She remained on stage throughout these years, even though the money in the movies was starting to become very competitive. Among her notable film roles then were those in: The Philosopher in the Apple Orchard (1911), The Land of Promise (1913), c. 1922 Billie Burke Color Tobacco Card from the UKJerry (1914), A Marriage of Convenience (1918), Caesar’s Wife (1919), The Intimate Strangers (1921), Annie Dear (1924) and The Happy Husband (1928).

What really turned things around for Billie in terms of her film career was the stock market crash, which left her family bankrupt in 1929. Though she was making movies only sporadically at this time, she knew this is what she needed to do to get back on her feet financially. Still, it was three years before she really made a big splash, in the starring role of Margaret Fairfield in world class director George Cukor’s A Bill of Divorcement (this film is generally better known as the first in which Katherine Hepburn appeared). Tragedy struck during the making of this film; her husband Florenz died, taking her off set for a few days. The consummate professional, however, Billie was very soon back at work in the film that would really set her film career on fire.

Over the next few years, the heyday of the new sound era, Billie appeared in several high profile films, including Cukor’s Dinner at Eight (1933, co-starring Lionel Barrymore, Marie Dressler, John Barrymore and Jean Harlow), the film that for once and for all put Billie back in the limelight. Here’s where her career took on the epic and prolific turn that most of her contemporaries had already mastered during the silent era. She made many films, mostly in the highly entertaining genres of the musical and comedy, finally making use of her comedic gifts again. Some notable films include: We’re Rich Again (1934), Becky Sharp (1935, the first film to use Technicolor’s three-colour process that would dominate colour cinematography for over two decades), Splendor (1935), My American Wife (1936), and The Young in Heart (1938). Interestingly, a film was made about Billie’s husband’s life and work in 1936 (The Great Ziegfeld), but didn’t star Billie, who appeared in a small role. Myrna Loy played Billie in the film that won Academy Awards for Best Film and Best Actress (for Luise Rainer as Ziegfeld’s first wife).

Bille was 55 and a seasoned film actress in 1939, when she was cast in her immortal role of Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, in The Wizard of Oz. Though her performance is restrained and elegant, she displays the whimsy, love of life and sheer charisma that was really given a chance to shine in her more audacious starring roles.

Throughout the forties and fifties, Billie did a lot of radio work (including the popular The Billie Burke Show between 1943 and 1946) while continuing to star in films like Father of the Bride (1950) and Vincente Minelli’s Father’s Little Dividend (1951). It’s clear that no matter how much time passed, and no matter how aged she became, she continued to attract the attention of the most talented and famous directors in the business.

But theatre remained her true love. When she was sixty years old, she returned to the New York stage, though the two productions she participated in didn’t live too long. She also graced the stage in California, thought by the late 1950s, she didn’t have the verve she once had. She soon retired from the entertainment industry that had literally been her entire life, after appearing, in 1960, in John Ford’s Sergeant Rutledge. She died a decade later, on May 14, 1970, in Los Angeles. She was 85 years old. Unlike many of her peers, her career blossomed in the sound era and thanks to this, many of her films are still around for our viewing pleasure. The wit, spunk and pizzazz of Billie Burke live on.
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Tammy Stone is a freelance writer and journalist based in Toronto. Watch for her regular column on the greats of the Silent Screen in each issue of The Movie Profiles & Premiums Newsletter.  Tammy invites you to write her at tammystone444@yahoo.ca  with any questions or comments on her column.


Other Billie Burke Pages:
Billie Burke Quiz -- I scored a 5/10.  Pretty cool, I only tried it once so I can't say for sure if the quiz ever changes.
Billie Burke on the Internet Broadway Database -- See a detailed list of Billie's stage credits dating back to 1907.

Denny Jackson's Billie Burke Page -- The "Scatter-Brained" Actress!
Jim's Witches of Oz Page -- A page about both Billie Burke and Margaret Hamilton as the appeared in "The Wizard of Oz"