“To survive [in Hollywood],” actress Billie Burke said, “you need the ambition of a Latin American revolutionary, the ego of a grand opera tenor and the physical stamina of a cow pony.” The scope and length of her movie career—78 features in 44 years—would indicate possession of all those qualities, plus a talent for creating memorable characters in a sea of star-laden ensemble films. Burke, the wife of theater impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, began acting on the stage in 1902, moved onto silent films in 1916, then came back in 1917 to her preferred format of live theater, where at least her voice could be heard. The stock market crash of 1929 necessitated her return to the more lucrative business of motion pictures—now well into its talkie phase—where she graced the screen with sincere performances distinguished by her high, fluttery voice and often featherbrained persona. She retired from filmmaking in 1960 and died of natural causes at the age of 85 in 1970.
A Bill of Divorcement (1932)
After a career of silents, Burke made her big screen comeback as mother to Katharine Hepburn, who was making her movie debut in this George Cukor-directed drama. Burke’s husband, Florenz Ziegfeld, died during the film’s production.
Dinner at Eight (1933)
Burke is all nervous dithering as the host of a dinner party where the minor molehills of a less-than-full seating arrangement and the potential lack of a lion-shaped aspic become major mountains for her character. The actress entertainingly holds her own against the likes of John Barrymore, Marie Dressler, Wallace Beery, Lionel Barrymore and Jean Harlow.
Burke plays Clara, the wife of Cosmo Topper (Roland Young), who is haunted by two very smart-looking ghosts in the shape of Cary Grant and Constance Bennett. The film’s popularity resulted in a series of sequels in which the actress reprised her role as the dotty Mrs. Topper.
Merrily We Live (1938) Norman Z. McLeod’s comedy of errors sees Burke as a wealthy matron who hires a series of tramps to work as servants in her increasingly off-kilter household. For the part as Emily Kilbourne, she received her only Academy Award nomination.
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
If anyone in the worlds knows who Billie Burke was, it is likely because of this film, where, as Glinda, the Good Witch of the North, she oversees a candy-colored community of wee people who helps a Kansas girl (Judy Garland) return to her sepia-toned farm. Burke’s line when the Wicked Witch of the West (Margaret Hamilton) departs—“Oooh, what a smell of sulfur!”—still delights.
Father of the Bride (1950)
The actress stars alongside Spencer Tracy, Elizabeth Taylor and Joan Bennett as Doris, the mother of the wonderfully named groom Buckley Dunstan (Don Taylor). Burke would return the following year for the film’s sequel, Father’s Little Dividend (1951).