Thursday, October 23, 2008

Favorite Classic Film Stars - BILLIE BURKE

Billie Burke, was born on August 7th, 1884 in Washington, D.C. as Mary William Ethelbert Appleton Burke (how's that for a mouthful!)

This Oscar nominated American actress is primarily known to modern audiences for her unforgettable role as Glinda the Good Witch of the North in the musical film "The Wizard of Oz".

Known as Billie Burke, she toured the United States and Europe with a circus because her father, Billy Burke was employed with them as a singing clown. Her family ultimately settled in London where she was fortunate to see plays in London's historic West End.

Burke wanted to be a stage actress. In 1903, she began acting on stage, making her debut in London and eventually returning to America to become the toast of Broadway as a musical Broadway star. She was praised by the New York Times for her charm and her brightness. Thanks to her representation by famed producer Charles Frahman, Burke went on to play leads on Broadway in "Mrs. Dot", "The Runaway", "The Mind-the Paint-Girl" and "The Land of Promise" from 1910 through 1913.

There she caught the eye of producer Lorenz Ziegfeld, marrying him in 1914. In 1916 they had one daughter - Patricia Ziegfeld Stephenson (1916-2008). Burke was quickly signed for the movies, making her film debut in the title role of "Peggy" (1916). She continued to appear on stage and sometimes she starred on the screen, but she loved the stage more than the movie business, not only because it was her first love, but also because it allowed her to have speaking parts (impossible in silent films). But when the family's savings were wiped out in the Crash of 1929 she had no choice but to return to the screen.

In 1932, Burke made her Hollywood comeback on "A Bill of Divorcement" directed by George Cukor. Thought the film is more famous for the film debut of Katherine Hephburn (Burke played her mother). Despite the death of Lorenz Ziegfeld during the films production, Burke resumed filming shortly after his funeral.

In 1936, MGM filmed a biopic of her deceased husband (The Great Ziegfeld), a film that won Oscars for Best Picture and Best Actress (Luis Rainer as Ziegfelds common law wife Anna Held). Burke was herself a character in the film, but she was not cast as herself. Myrna Loy portrayed the role of Burke.

In 1933 Burke was cast as Mrs. Millicent Jordan, a scatterbrained high-society woman hosting a dinner party in the comedy "Dinner at Eight", directed by George Cukor and starring, Lionel Barrymore, Marie Dressler, John Barrymore, Jean Harlow and Wallace Berry. The movie was a great success and revived Burkes career. She subsequently starred in many comedies and musicals typecast as a ditzy, fluffy and feather brained upper class matron, due to her helium-filled voice.

In 1937, Billie appeared in the first of the "Topper" series of films, about a man haunted by two socialite ghosts (Cary Grant and Constance Bennett), in which she played the tremulous and daffy Clara Topper. Her performance as Emily Kilbourne in "Merrily we Live" (1938), resulted in her only Oscar nomination.

In 1938, at the age of fifty three, Burke was chosen to play Glinda "The Good Witch of the North" in the Oscar winning seminal 1939 musical film "The Wizard of Oz", followed by "Father of the Bride" in 1950 and "Father's Little Dividend" in 1954.

Billie Burke died in Los Angeles of dementia thought to be Alzheimer's at age eighty five on May 14 in 1970, and was interred at Kensico Cemetary, Vahalla, Westchester County, NY. She was survived by her daughter and her four grandchildren.

Quote from Billie Burke: "Age is something that doesn't matter, unless you are a cheese".

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