The daughter of a circus clown, American actress Billie Burke became a musical comedy star in the early 1900s under the aegis of two powerful Broadway producers: Charles K. Frohman and Florenz Ziegfeld. Burke's career soared after her marriage to Ziegfeld, which was both a blessing and a curse in that some newspaper critics, assuming she wouldn't have reached the heights without her husband's patronage, gave her some pretty rough reviews. Actually, she had a very pleasant singing voice and ingratiating personality, not to mention natural comic gift that transferred well to the screen for her film debut in Peggy (1915). She had no qualms about adjusting to characters roles upon reaching 40, but she was devoted to the stage and didn't intend to revive her film career - until the crippling debts left behind by Ziegfeld after his death in 1932 forced her to return full-time to Hollywood. At first concentrating on drama, Burke found that her true strength lay in comedy, particularly in portraying fey, birdbrained society ladies. She worked most often at MGM during the sound era, with rewarding side trips to Hal Roach studios, where she appeared as Mrs. Topper in the three Topper fantasy films, played Oliver Hardy's wife in Zenobia (1939) and earned an academy award nomination for her performance in Merrily We Live (1938). A tireless trouper, Burke appeared in virtually every sort of film, from rugged westerns like Sgt. Rutledge (1960) to a pair of surprisingly good two-reel comedies for Columbia Pictures in the late 1940s. If she had done nothing else worthwhile in her seven-decade career, Burke would forever be remembered for her lighthearted portrayal of Glinda the Good Witch in the matchless The Wizard of Oz (1939). In addition to her many film portrayals, Burke was herself portrayed in two filmed biographies of Flo Ziegfeld: Myrna Loy played her in The Great Ziegfeld (1936), while Samantha Eggar took the role in the TV-movie Ziegfeld: The Man and His Women (1978).
photo credit: Warner Brothers
by Hal Erickson biography