Mary William Ethelbert Appleton Burke, in Washington, D.C., 7 August 1886
(some sources say 1885); daughter of William (Billy) Burke, an
internationally celebrated Barnum and Bailey circus clown.
Married theater impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, 1914; daughter: Patricia.
Toured Europe and the United States with the circus that employed her
father, 1890s; made stage debut in London, 1903; came to New York to
appear on the stage in
, with John Drew, and continued appearing on Broadway, 1907; made her
screen debut in
, 1916; retired from screen acting, and returned to Broadway, 1921;
returned to screen acting when hers and husband Florenz Ziegfeld's
assets were wiped out in the stockmarket crash, 1929; played Glinda, the
Good Witch, in
The Wizard of Oz
, 1939; appeared in the television series,
Of a heart ailment, Verdugo City, California, 14 May 1970.
Peggy (Giblyn, Ince) (as Peggy Cameron); Gloria's Romance (Campbell, Edwin) (serial) (as Gloria)
The Mysterious Miss Terry (Dawley) (as Mavis Terry); Arms and the Girl (Kaufman) (as Ruth Sherwood); The Land of Promise (Kaufman) (as Nora Marsh)
Eve's Daughter (Kirkwood) (as Irene Simpson-Bates); Let's Get a Divorce (Giblyn) (as Mme. Cyprienne Marcey); In
Good Gracious, Annabelle! (Melford) (as Annabelle Leigh); The Misleading Widow (Robertson) (as Betty Taradine); Sadie Love (Robertson) (as Sadie Love); Wanted: A Husband (Windom) (as Amanda Darcy Cole)
Away Goes Prudence (Robertson) (as Prudence Thorne); The Frisky Mrs. Johnson (Dillon) (as Belle Johnson)
The Education of Elizabeth (Dillon) (as Elizabeth Banks)
Glorifying the American Girl (Harkrider, Webb) (as Herself)
A Bill of Divorcement (Cukor) (as Margaret Fairfield)
Christopher Strong (Arzner) (as Lady Elaine Strong); Dinner at Eight (Cukor) (as Millicent [Mrs. Oliver] Jordan); Only Yesterday (Stahl) (as Julia Warren)
Finishing School (Nichols, Jr., Tuchock) (as Mrs. Radcliffe); Where Sinners Meet (Ruben) (as Eustasia); We're Rich Again (Seiter) (as Linda); Forsaking All Others (Van Dyke) (as Aunt Paula)
Splendor (Nugent) (as Clarissa); Society Doctor (Seitz) (as Mrs. Crane); She Couldn't Take It (Garnett) (as Mrs. van Dyke); A Feather in Her Hat (Santell) (as Julia Trent Anders); Doubting Thomas (Butler) (as Paula Brown); After Office Hours (Leonard) (as Mrs. Norwood); Becky Sharpe (Mamoulian) (as Lady Bareacres)
My American Wife (Young) (as Mrs. Robert Cantillon); Piccadilly Jim (Leonard) (as Eugenia Willis); Craig's Wife (Arzner) (as Mrs. Frazier); The Great Ziegfeld (Leonard) (advisor only)
Topper (McLeod) (as Mrs. Topper); Parnell (Stahl) (as Clara Wood); The Bride Wore Red (Arzner) (as Contessa di Meina); Navy Blue and Gold (Wood) (as Mrs. Alyce Gates)
Merrily We Live (McLeod) (as Mrs. Emily Kilbourne); Everybody Sing (Marin) (as Diana Bellaire); The Young in Heart (Wallace) (as Marmy Carleton)
Remember? (McLeod) (as Mrs. Louise Bronson); Eternally Yours (Garnett) (as Aunt Abby); Broken Suite (Thiele) (as Mrs. McGill); Topper Takes a Trip (McLeod) (as Mrs. Topper); Zenobia (Douglas) (as Bessie Tibbitt); The Wizard of Oz (Fleming) (as Glinda, the Good Witch)
Hullabaloo (Marin) (as Penny Merriweather); The Ghost Comes Home (Thiele) (as Cora Adams); Dulcy (Simon) (as Eleanor Forbes); And One Was Beautiful (Sinclair) (as Mrs. Lattimer); Irene (Wilcox) (as Mrs. Herman Vincent); The Captain Is a Lady (Sinclair) (as Blossy Stort)
The Wild Man of Borneo (Sinclair) (as Bernice Marshall); Topper Returns (Del Ruth) (as Mrs. Topper); One Night in Lisbon (Griffith) (as Catherine Enfilden)
What's Cookin'? (Cline, Lantz) (as Agatha); Girl Trouble (Schuster) (as Mrs. Rowland); The Man Who Came to Dinner (Keighley) (as Mrs. Ernest Stanley); In This Our Life (Huston) (as Lavinia Timberlake); They All Kissed the Bride (Hall) (as Mrs. Drew)
You're a Lucky Fellow, Mr. Smith (Feist) (as Aunt Harriet); So's Your Uncle (Yarbrough) (as Minerva); Hi Diddle Diddle (Stone) (as Liza Prescott); Gildersleeve on Broadway (Douglas) (as Mrs. Laura Chandler)
Swing Out, Sister (Lilley) (as Jessica); The Cheaters (Kane) (as Mrs. Pidgeon)
Breakfast in Hollywood (Schuster) (as Mrs. Cartwright); The Bachelor's Daughters (Stone) (as Molly)
Silly Billy (White) (short); Billie Gets Her Man (Bernds) (short)
And Baby Makes Three (Levin) (as Mrs. Fletcher); The Barkleys of Broadway (Walters) (as Mrs. Livingston Belney)
Three Husbands (Reis) (as Mrs Whittaker, the Wife); The Boy From Indiana (Rawlins) (as Zelda Bagley); Father of the Bride (Minnelli) (as Doris Dunstan)
Father's Little Dividend (Minnelli) (as Doris Dunstan)
Small Town Girl (Kardos) as Mrs. Livingston)
The Young Philadelphians (Sherman) (as Mrs. J. Arthur Allen)
Pepe (Sidney) (as Guest Star); Sergeant Rutledge (Ford) (as Mrs. Cordelia Fosgate)
With a Feather on My Nose , with Cameron Shipp, New York, 1949.
With Powder on My Nose , with Cameron Shipp, New York, 1959
Cantor, Eddie, and David Freedman, Ziegfeld: The Great Glorifier , New York, 1934.
Ziegfeld, Patricia, The Ziegfelds' Girl: Confessions of an Abnormally Happy Childhood , Boston, 1964.
Badrig, Robert H., Florenz Ziegfeld: Twentieth-Century Showman , Charlottesville, New York, 1972.
Higham, Charles, Ziegfeld , Chicago, 1972.
Carter, Randolph, The World of Flo Ziegfeld , New York, 1974.
Duval, Katherine, Ziegfeld: The Man and His Women , N.p., Paradise Books, 1978.
Ziegfeld, Richard, and Paulette Ziegfeld, The Ziegfeld Touch: The Life and Times of Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. , New York, 1993.
Wolf, Rennold, "Billie Burke, Married and at Home," in Green Book , November 1914.
"Jolo," " Peggy ," in Variety (New York), 21 January 1916.
"Billie Burke Dead; Movie Comedienne," in New York Times , 16 May 1970.
"Billie Burke," in Films in Review (New York), December 1970.
* * *
There will be no more lasting screen image of Billie Burke than Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, in The Wizard of Oz. Her entrance—inside a multi-colored ball of light—is breathtaking. From the light, she appears before Dorothy and the Munchkins in a sparkly, pink organdy gown, her waves of strawberry red hair topped with a tall silver crown. Speaking in cheerful comforting tones, and waving her enormous fairy wand, Glinda instructs the ruby-slippered Dorothy to follow the yellow brick road. Burke's performance inspires audiences to take heart: the Kansas farm girl will live to see her Aunt Em once more.
Glinda is an icon of goodness in the fairytale land of Oz that otherwise is ruled by evil sister witches and an impotent wizard. Her diction is British and highborn; she rolls her R's majestically. She is dainty and frilly and feminine, delicate and sweet—but not fragile. Dorothy says she is beautiful.
What more fitting way for Billie Burke to be remembered? After all, during the first twenty years of her career she was a popular and attractive actress, much-adored by theater audiences as a comedienne and ingenue. She endorsed many beauty products and set styles: the "Billie Burke Collar," a flat, lacy ruff, was a favorite among women prior to World War I. She attracted the attentions of the most famous entertainers and writers, including Mark Twain, Enrico Caruso, and W. Somerset Maugham. During this period, Burke was looked upon as "beautiful" much in the way that Dorothy views her. However, because none of her plays were classics and no records of her performances exist, this part of her life floats off in the distance somewhere between legendary and forgotten.
In fact, even her early film career has been overlooked. Burke's first appearance in a motion picture is in the title role of Peggy. She plays a lovely young orphan-heiress who is forced into leaving the party-filled Westchester social scene to join her legal guardian in a remote Scottish village. In a favorable review, Variety critic "Jolo" remarks, " Peggy is a fine photoplay feature, which will live its allotted time, but what is of greater importance to the film industry is that there has been launched a new juvenile comedienne of the first rank. There cannot be any question of this."
What is outstanding in Burke's debut is her ability to fool the camera about her age. During the cinema's silent years, most screen stars who played sweet, virginal characters were teenagers. By the time Burke played her first ingenue role, she was thirty years old. Her fine, petite features allowed her to play these types of innocent young leading roles into the early 1920s.
The second phase of her screen career—the part that is well-remembered—began shortly after the stock market crash of 1929. By choice, Burke had remained off-screen for the entire decade. But now, she made an effort to recover from the heavy financial reverses encountered by herself and her husband, Florenz Ziegfeld, by reentering films. By then her age—she was in her mid-forties—disallowed the opportunity for more ingenue parts. Her delicate girlish features had ripened, and she appeared small and birdlike. Furthermore, the high-pitched, British accent that made her such a believable socialite on stage sounded quite stodgy and very comical in talking pictures. And so, the Billie Burke of sound films was cemented. Her character is rich, social, ditsy. In one film after another she twitters about in a world of her own, not willing to listen to others' needs and not understanding the lack of cooperation offered her as she pursues frivolous goals.
The most full-bodied examples of this character are found in Dinner at Eight and Topper. In Dinner at Eight , Burke's self-absorbed character is flustered by the uneven number of men coming to her upcoming dinner party, and offers her husband no sympathy as he struggles with devastating business problems and even suffers a heart attack of sorts. If that were not enough, her daughter has become entangled in an illicit affair that will topple the young woman's legitimate prospects for true love—and the Burke character is so busy with the details of her party that she first fails to listen to the information her daughter attempts to impart and then trivializes the dilemma.
In Topper , Burke plays another dysfunctional wife. In this film, and in several Topper sequels, she is the force who keeps Thorne Smith's title character from loosening up and enjoying life in the manner that ghost couple George and Marion Kerby do. Burke played variations of this comedic socialite-matron throughout the 1930s and 1940s.
As entertaining as the actress is in those roles, it is comforting that her best-remembered moment is Glinda in The Wizard of Oz. For there, as in a Technicolor dream, Burke gives audiences a taste of the glamorous, dazzling beauty that characterizes the early, "lost" years of her career.