And there she is, bending gracefully over us all and doing a splendid job of boosting the Siren's traffic (thanks, Mr. Wolcott!)--voilà, Vera Zorina, pictured above in her Waternymph costume from The Goldwyn Follies. Another final-round question for Silver Screen Trivial Pursuit (congratulations, Jonathan). One of Samuel Goldwyn's found-and-losts, like the gorgeous, luckless Anna Sten. Until recently the Siren knew Vera primarily as George Balanchine's second wife and the woman whom Ingrid Bergman replaced in For Whom the Bell Tolls. But the Fox channel ran one of the ballerina's few starring vehicles, a fluffy thing called I Was an Adventuress. And you know what? Zorina wasn't half bad, even when she wasn't dancing.
She had a refreshingly strong profile and a figure that was sheer perfection--toned beyond belief, more buxom and far less sylph-like than later Balanchine stars like Tanaquil Le Clercq or Suzanne Farrell. (However, upon comparison with the above still, the Siren thinks Zorina was padded quite a bit for Adventuress, a pretty common practice at the time.) Her acting is somewhere around the level of Hedy Lamarr on a really good day--definitely not great, but watchable. She has warmth and presence.
I Was an Adventuress was directed by Gregory Ratoff (hey kids, we all forgot him for Great Comic Character Actors and we shouldn't have). According to IMDB the movie was a remake of an Edwige Feuillère vehicle, J'étais une aventurière, and that's all the site says about the original, except that it was banned in Finland. (Your guess is as good as the Siren's.) Anyway, in the Hollywood version Zorina is the accomplice and lure for two crooks, played with gusto by Erich von Stroheim and Peter Lorre. Stroheim and Lorre have excellent chemistry, more so than the romantic leads. The two con artists give the same sub rosa sense of a bickering couple that you get from the Sidney Greenstreet/Lorre outings, as the Stroheim character tries to rein in Lorre's kleptomania and Lorre swears he'll learn to restrain himself, then lifts another watch.
Zorina poses as a countess in order to set up the trio's high-born marks, and her dancing is worked in too, somehow--she's one of those prima-ballerina-fake-countess-grifters that were littering Europe at the time. Would it surprise you to learn that she falls in love with one millionaire she's supposed to be conning? that the couple marry, and one big scene of domestic bliss finds her doing a perfect arabesque in the bedroom? (That was kind of unexpected, actually.) How about that von Stroheim and Lorre are determined to return Zorina to her crooked ways?
Well, I'll tell you what would surprise you--the ballet sequence at the end. The Siren was not expecting to see Zorina's dance partner arrive in full armor, and as he stomped onstage in this Renaissance Faire getup the Siren murmured "Oh, dear." But she should have banked more on George Balanchine's genius, because not only does the dance still work, it is also quite dark and startingly sexual, a different take on the tragic close of Swan Lake. There's a marvelous moment when Zorina bends away from her partner, the move shot straight-on so that she seems to peel away from him like the petal of a flower.
So the movie is ridiculous, but at the same time very enjoyable, with Zorina looking lovely, Lorre approaching the prime years of his Hollywood period and the Balanchine ballet to savor at the end. You can't look at the film and think the brevity of Zorina's career was as terrible a loss as Frances Farmer or Dorothy Comingore, but the Siren did think it was a pity the ballerina's star didn't survive long enough to see her forge a real career in musicals. She could certainly act as well as Cyd Charisse, and her dancing was magical.
A little background here on Zorina. One of the most poignant parts of A. Scott Berg's Goldwyn biography comes when he describes the producer's one-sided crush on Zorina, which played out as The Goldwyn Follies was filming in 1938. The ballerina was just 20 years old and, unlikely as it seems when you read about Goldwyn's behavior, she appears genuinely not to have perceived his feelings for her. Zorina had fallen in love with Balanchine, and was consumed with him both personally and professionally.
Goldwyn, meanwhile, threw everything he had into making her debut as memorable as possible, including hiring Vernon Duke to write the music for the Waternymph ballet. He watched Zorina's screen tests over and over, lavished advice and favors on her, snuck over to Balanchine's closed studio to glimpse her rehearsing. Lillian Hellman, on the lot to try and shake some sense into the Follies script, observed one day that Goldwyn always departed the studio minutes after Zorina did. She alerted colleagues and word spread. With malicious enjoyment, the others in the building started a betting pool based on how many minutes would pass between Zorina's exit and Goldwyn's. After a few weeks of this an enterprising writer followed Goldwyn and discovered that the producer's cab was tailing Zorina all the way to her house. Goldwyn would watch Zorina disappear inside, then order the taxi back to his office.
Like everyone else in Hollywood apart from Zorina, Goldwyn's wife Frances had got wind of her husband's behavior, but she became convinced it was an actual affair. One night she telephoned George Cukor, and her old friend arrived to find Frances descending the stairs, every item she owned packed and ready to go. Cukor ordered her back in the house and that, apparently, was that. After the Follies Zorina never made another movie for Goldwyn, although he loaned her to other studios and allowed her to work in theater. For decades Zorina took this as a comment on her talent; Berg writes that "something so far removed from her dancing as the preservation of a marriage had never even occurred to her."
But it wasn't just Goldwyn's withdrawal that doomed Zorina's career. What finished her chances for real stardom was being sacked from For Whom the Bell Tolls in 1943. Zorina actually spent three weeks on set with Gary Cooper, only to have Paramount abruptly change its mind and replace her with Ingrid Bergman. Bergman had lobbied frantically for the part and was Hemingway's choice as well. The co-author of Bergman's autobiography, Alan Burgess, says Paramount hired Zorina in the first place largely to save money, on the theory that once upon a time nobody had heard of Vivien Leigh, either. TCM's notes also cite an old rumor that Zorina, whose marriage to Balanchine turned out to be unhappy, was having an affair with somebody important.
Burgess says that when the first rushes came back, the studio told the press that "light was apparently draining off Vera's face when she was photographed from above." The Siren has no idea what that means and poor Zorina didn't, either. Ingrid Bergman had her own theory:
The real trouble was that Vera was a ballerina. Yet she had to run around those mountains like a little wild animal. And Vera was afraid of damaging her legs.
They were to her why my face was to me. If an onrushing train came against me, I would protect my face. Vera would protect her legs. So when they saw the first rushes of the film taken in the mountains this came through quite clearly; and they decided that Vera was unsuitable. They took her off For Whom the Bell Tolls, and gave her another picture.
This is an interesting and rather charming explanation on Bergman's part, but the Siren doesn't buy it and never has. For one thing, what was this other picture? Zorina's next, Follow the Boys, came an entire year later and was made for Universal. This article by Robert Osborne seems far more plausible. Zorina wrote in her memoirs that Paramount couldn't have hated her rushes, since all she ever filmed was one short scene where she carried a loaf of bread. The ballerina believed that filming was deliberately stalled while director Sam Wood and Cooper waited for the actress they really wanted, Bergman, to be finished with Casablanca. Zorina said David O. Selznick, who had Bergman under contract, told her many years later that he had engineered her firing.
So many machinations and bitter feelings over a film whose charm has always eluded the Siren. If any of her readers want to praise For Whom the Bell Tolls the Siren would love to hear it, but she always found it dull at best and risible at worst, with all the politics carefully siphoned off and most of the cast sporting every accent conceivable except Spanish. The Siren wishes Zorina were still around. She'd tell the dancer that, in all honesty, she prefers I Was an Adventuress.