Ask most people who Billie Burke was and they won’t be able to tell you. Yet we all know her. In fact, most people would probably get the sex wrong unless they saw the spelling first. And this is a great shame – because all women in film, and the billions of us who love to watch them – owe Billie Burke a debt of enormous gratitude.
Who was Billie Burke?
Well the reason we all know her is because she played ‘Glinda’, the good Witch of the North in the Wizard of Oz – the 1939 classic. But the actress had already had a glittering career by the time she starred in her most iconic role by far. In fact, she had starred in more than 30 Hollywood films during the Depression Era of the 1930s.
She was born Mary William Ethelbert Appleton Burke in Washington, D.C. in 1884. Her father was the English clown, Billy Burke; a big name in the legendary Barnum & Bailey Circus. So performing was very much ‘in the blood’ as she spent so much time on the road in her formative years.
As her father’s career ended, the family settled in London where Billie saw numerous plays in London’s West End. She also went to the cinema in London during these years and the combination of all these factors inspired her to become one of the first true female greats of Hollywood – though she receives insufficient recognition, today, for her pioneering role. It seems the few people that do know who she was can’t quite get away from her seminal role (great though that was).
Billie Burke’s Acting Career
Billie first began acting on stage seriously in 1903, making her London debut in London in ‘The School Girl’. But she was to return to the USA where she quickly became the toast of Broadway as a musical and comedy star – before becoming one of the most famous faces in cinema.
She moved into movies in 1916, making this her full-time occupation from 1929 onwards. Her first movie was ‘Peggy’ in which she played the title role of a woman travelling to her ancestral home in Scotland.
The career that followed included over 80 films – most of these before the second world war. By the time she played the role that she will forever be associated with as ‘Glinda’ she was 53 and her greatest acting years were already behind her.
The year she played this role, she was also nominated for ‘Best Supporting Actress’ for her part in ‘Merrily We Live’. Billie truly was a progenitor for women in Hollywood during its glory years and an inspiration for all those who followed her.
What is your favorite Billie Burke movie?
This is a Guest Post by Emma Carey: Emma is an avid film watcher and particularly loves the glamor and the romance of classic films. She enjoys rediscovering forgotten movies and writing about them to inspire others!