I 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),
(1914), A Marriage of Convenience (1918), Caesar’s Wife (1919),
The Intimate Strangers (1921), Annie Dear (1924) and The Happy
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.
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 email@example.com 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.
Jackson's Billie Burke Page -- The "Scatter-Brained" Actress!
Witches of Oz Page -- A page about both Billie Burke and Margaret Hamilton
as the appeared in "The Wizard of Oz"