Twenty-two-year-old ex-stenographer and former nightclub singer Ethel Merman achieved overnight superstardom when, in 1930, she first belted out "I Got Rhythm" in the Broadway production of Girl Crazy. Merman's subsequent stage hits included Anything Goes, Red, Hot and Blue, Panama Hattie, Annie Get Your Gun, Call Me Madam, and Gypsy. While her Living Legend status was secure on the Great White Way, Merman was less fortunate in the movies. She was upstaged by Ed Wynn in Follow the Leader (1930), by Bing Crosby and Burns and Allen in We're Not Dressing (1934), by Eddie Cantor in Kid Millions (1934), and -- most ignominiously -- by the Ritz Brothers in Straight, Place and Show (1938). While she was permitted to repeat her stage roles in the movie versions Anything Goes (1936) and Call Me Madam (1954), she had to endure watching Betty Hutton wail her way through the film adaptations Red, Hot and Blue (1949) and Annie Get Your Gun (1950), and withstand the spectacle of a miscast Rosalind Russell misplaying the part of Mama Rose in the 1963 filmization Gypsy. Perhaps Merman's talents were too big and bombastic for the comparatively intimate medium of films; or perhaps she just didn't photograph well enough to suit the Hollywood higher-ups. Merman's best movie work includes the two Irving Berlin catalogues Alexander's Ragtime Band (1938) and There's No Business Like Show Business (1954), and her character role as Milton Berle's behemoth mother-in-law in It's a Mad, Mad, Mad World (1963). Ethel Merman's final film appearance was a cameo in Airplane! (1980): she played the unfortunate Lieutenant Hurwitz, who is confined to the psycho ward because he thinks he's Ethel Merman.
by Hal Erickson biography