When Florenz Ziegfeld opened the first “Ziegfeld Follies” show on Broadway, it was a hit. The show was an extravaganza of acts featuring W.C. Fields and Bob Hope. But it was Ziegfeld’s beautiful, undiscovered girls that really made it worthwhile. Louise Brooks, Marion Davies, Joan Blondell and a fifteen-year old Barbara Stanwyck were among them.
The glamorous girls and featured dancers in a chorus line of the “Follies” were known as Ziegfeld Girls. Ziegfeld considered himself the “Glorifier of the American Girl.” He personally auditioned each girl. But before he wanted to see what they could offer the show, he wanted to see them walk – “There’s more sex in a walk than a face or even in a figure,” Ziegfeld determined. The required measurements were rumored to be a 36-inch bust, 26-inch waist and 38-inch hips.
Among the girls turned down by Ziegfeld were Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford and one beloved redhead, Lucille Ball. In the future, Ball would imitate a Ziegfeld Girl in an “I Love Lucy” (1951) episode entitled “The Audition” – She wore a lampshade on her head.
In 1932, after losing his money to The Wall Street Crash, Ziegfeld died and his reign on Broadway ended. There were two films dedicated to Ziegfeld Follies and its legacy. First, “The Great Ziegfeld” (1936), which featured singer Fanny Brice who was a part of the stage production for many seasons. That film was nominated for seven Oscars including Best Picture and Best Dance Direction – it won both of those and one for Best Actress Luise Rainer. The second film was “Ziegfeld Follies” (1946) which featured Lucille Ball as well as Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, and Judy Garland.
When Louise Brooks’s work was rediscovered by film historians in the 1950s, Alfred Cheney Johnston was rediscovered as well. Johnston was employed as Ziegfeld’s photographer to take pictures of the Ziegfeld Girls. Some of these photographs were of them positioned tastefully nude with nothing but a feather fan and masquerade mask, others dressed in only shawls and others were fully clothed. Louise Brooks is among them as well as the rejected Norma Shearer. Now his photographs are worth a fortune.
It is clear that no other showman, including Hugh Hefner, dedicated more time and resources to glamorizing the “American Girl” image than Florenz Ziegfeld.