The Show Girl
The Show Girl is my greatest disappointment of 2021 thus far – well, in terms of reading anyway. Presenting us with a memorable heroine, it plunges her into the dullest, most predictable Ladies Home Journal plot I’ve ever read in my life, leading to obvious conclusions and dull let-downs all around.
Minnesota native Olive McCormick has arrived in New York City to audition for the 1927 production of the Ziegfeld Follies. She’s just one of hundreds of fresh faces going through the process, and indeed Mr. Ziegfeld gives her a “no”. But Olive has grit and determination –she’s going to make it in New York, come hell or high water.
Olive is also lucky enough to be mega-talented as a dancer and singer, and first attracted Ziegfeld’s attention when she was on tour with the Pollard Opera Company in California, which is what lands her the audition. Her physically, emotionally, and financially abusive old-world father, judgmental but loving mother, and resentful brothers do not approve of her stage ambitions, but Olive feels completely alive when she sings; it’s this or nothing for her.
When a one-night stand with a lying jerk who tells her he knows people in Hollywood, gets her drunk and takes advantage of her results in her pregnancy just as the family agrees to pull up stakes to move to New York, she’s forced to lie-in with family in Maryland, and then give up her daughter for adoption. A case of childbed fever ensures she’ll never have another biological child. All of this happens before the novel hits its fortieth page.
Olive bounces back, landing a part in a third-rate show. When Ziegfeld finds out she’s doing what he feels is slumming, he scoops her up and offers her a part. Olive soon leaves the show and starts climbing Ziegfeld’s corporate ladder, dodging creeps and groping hands left and right; living with her new best friend Ruth, she is redubbed by the maestro as “Olive Shine.”
Performing at Ziegfeld’s rooftop midnight review, Olive meets Archibald – Archie – Carmichael and they share a chemistry-filled dance. He turns out to be a prominent artist in his own right, an opera singer who has worked his way to the top of his profession. They fall in love, and for the first time Olive feels content. But as we all know, wine can sour easily. Will Olive ever be able to combine success and happiness with artistic freedom?
The Show Girl is held back by its pat, melodramatic plot choices. And that’s a shame, because Olive is one of the best and most irrepressible heroines I’ve had the pleasure to meet this year; she’s the reason the book is in the C-range and not a low-level D read. But good grief, there is not a single goofy plot device it avoids lying its hands on.
Of course, Olive regrets giving up her baby. Of course, she will find out the baby is conveniently nearby. Of course, within months of meeting the baby, she will adapt to motherhood and the kid will get over its panic attacks and be happy to go to Europe with her, even though she was calling Olive’s mother “mommy” a few months ago. Of course, her man will seem like a louse but is really not, and is actually supportive of her career, because they cannot talk out what he did in regard to a Mysterious Previous Engagement to Another Woman. Of course, she lets the Big Mis drag on and on because she cannot tell him the truth about her uterus or admit she doesn’t want to be a stay-at-home wife (this part is understandable, but since she eventually takes the leap anyway it comes off as padding). Of course, most every single other man is a lecherous groper.
All of this is accomplished at a breakneck speed. The beginning and ending in particular are severely rushed, to the point where you’re left blinking at the speed with which everyone agrees to and adjusts to what’s happened. As I said above, it takes Olive mere pages to achieve her lifelong dream, and deal with rape and childbirth. A lot happens, and it doesn’t really seem to sink in for her.
All of this is a disservice to spunky Olive, who deserved a more original plot for her story. It’s a pity, but The Show Girl is ultimately just another alright tale about a Ziegfeld Girl gone bland.