Pretty, blond, and charismatic, Marilyn Miller sang and danced her way into the hearts of thousands of Americans during the 1920s and ’30s. Born in Indiana on September 1, 1898, Miller began performing at a young age in her family’s vaudeville act. When she was 16, she was discovered by Broadway producer Lee Shubert. For three years, Shubert gave her lead roles in several shows including Fancy Free and Show of Wonders. Although these shows were mostly unsuccessful, they at least brought Miller to the attention of Florenz Ziegfeld.
After Ziegfeld polished her singing and tap dancing skills, she achieved overnight stardom in the 1918 Ziegfeld Follies where she sang the music of Irving Berlin. In 1920, she starred in the title role of Ziegfeld’s production of American composer Jerome Kern’s Sally. Her rendition of the character’s solo, Look for the Silver Lining, was her ticket to immortality. Click here to see rare footage of Miller in the 1929 film adaptation of Sally.
In 1924, Miller experienced the closest thing to a slump she would ever have during her entire career. After a fight with Ziegfeld, she performed in Charles Dillingham’s unsuccessful production of Peter Pan. However, in 1925, Miller became one of the highest paid celebrities on Broadway after she performed in Kern’s new musical Sunny. In 1928, she starred in George Gershwin’s Rosalie.
In 1929, Miller began a short lived film career. After starring in the film adaptation of Sally, she once again reprised a Broadway role in the 1930 adaptation of Kern’s Sunny. Miller’s third and final film, Her Majesty, Love, was released in 1931.
Miller’s film career would, most likely, have continued if it had not been for her rapidly deteriorating health. Despite her signature happy-go-lucky persona, Miller was quite miserable in her personal life. Her first husband, Frank Carter, died in a car accident a year after their marriage. Her second marriage was to Hollywood playboy Jack Pickford. The marriage was completely unhappy and ended in divorce in 1927. It is very likely that Pickford, who was known to be an alcohol and drug abuser, was the cause of Miller’s drinking problem. Her dependency on alcohol increased the frequency of the sinus infections she had suffered all her life. At times, the pain caused audible discomfort when she sang.
Miller returned to Broadway in 1933 and performed in Berlin’s As Thousands Cheer. At this time, Miller married future Broadway stage manager Chester Lee O’Brien. This marriage was also unsuccessful and, in 1936, Miller announced her plans for a divorce.
In March of 1936, Miller suffered a nervous breakdown. She was admitted to a hospital where she underwent nasal surgery. After developing severe complications, she died on April 7, 1936. More than 2,000 fans came to the funeral to bid farewell to the musical queen.
Miller was portrayed by a singing, dancing, and very blond Judy Garland in the 1946 biopic about Jerome Kern titled Till the Clouds Roll By. In 1949, she was portrayed by June Haver in a rather inaccurate biopic titled Look for the Silver Lining.
Those who want to learn more about Broadway’s musical queen should read Warren G. Harris’ The Other Marilyn.