THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (DIR: ROBERT Z LEONARD) (SCREENPLAY: WILLIAM ANTHONY MCGUIRE)
In 1936 the Academy gave the best picture award to a splashy, big budget musical, the second time it would do so in its nine years of award giving, (the first being 1929's THE BROADWAY MELODY)showing a fondness for that genre that continues to this day with films like CHICAGO and MOULIN ROUGE getting multiple nominations. Along with being a musical, THE GREAT ZEIGFELD is also a biography, the first film of that type to win best picture.
The film began production at Paramount, but when the studio realized that to do justice to the story would require a much larger budget, it was sold to Metro Goldwyn Mayer, who produced it with director Robert Z. Leonard for over two million dollars. (Perhaps it was appropriate that a film about a man who's grandiose vision and spendthrift ways often left him in debt would go over budget).
Florenz Ziegfeld (1867-1932) was a great Broadway impresario, who produced annual variety extravaganzas that were known as THE ZIEGFELD FOLLIES from 1907 to the 1920's; in them he claimed to "glorify the American girl", (which is really just a nice way to say he had a lot of pretty chorus girls in garish outfits)and to be a "Ziegfeld girl" was considered the dream of every aspiring female dancer of that time. He also produced successful shows like WHOOPEE, GIRL WITH THE GOLDEN VEST, and SHOW BOAT, and helped to popularize performers like Will Rogers, WC Fields, Ray Bolger and Fanny Brice (Bolger and Brice appear in the film as themselves). In 1936 (four years after his death) his name was still well known by the public, and studios assumed that recreating some of his follies shows for the big screen would prove irresistible to the movie going audience; they were correct as the film was a smash hit, grossing over forty million dollars at the box office.
The opening credits for THE GREAT ZIEGFELD are shown in big flashy lights like names on Broadway, already setting a larger than life tone for the film, a tone that continues as the film opens in 1893 at the Chicago World's fair, which is beautifully recreated with lavish sets. Here we first meet Ziegfeld, played by William Powell. Two years after breaking through to stardom in THE THIN MAN, Powell is well cast here as the charming, fast talking, womanizing Ziegfeld, and he breezes through the role winningly; he's always likable, even when bluffing a costume designer into letting him use the costumes he ordered for free. If Ziegfeld ever had a dark side, we certainly don't see it here! He's brash and assured of his success, even when he's broke, and his energy and confidence is infectious. I love the way he gets one prominent singer to sign a contract with him even though he has no money to offer her, just promises.
At the film's start, Ziegfeld is just a carnival barker at the fair, trying to drum up business for his strongman star Sandow (Nat Pendelton). On the verge of failure, Ziegfeld hits on the idea of turning his strongman into a sex symbol, and charging women to touch his huge muscles; he quickly becomes a sensation, and Ziegfeld learns the importance of selling sex appeal. Later, while promoting another star, French singer Anna Held(Luise Rainer), he spreads an untrue rumor that she bathes in milk every night to maintain her glowing complexion, and again he has enormous success.
Director Leonard uses a light comedic touch in these early scenes, and I feel this is the right choice; audiences went to a film like this to see big musical numbers and get a nice story with a little romance in between, and that's what they get. Indeed, this light tone is maintained throughout most of the movie, and even the serious moments, like when Ziegfeld's wife leaves him, are quickly glossed over; it's only towards the end, when Ziegfeld is sick and dying, that Leonard gives in to maudlin sentiment, but thankfully, this doesn't last for long.
Louis Rainer won as Oscar for best actress as the flighty, egotistical French singer Anna Held, but with her thick accent and flowery movements, I often find her annoying. It's a mostly comic performance, but she does have one big emotional moment (that almost certainly won her that Oscar) when she speaks to Ziegfeld on the phone and manages to congratulate him on his upcoming wedding to Billie Burke (Myrna Loy) even though she still loves him. It's a showy scene, but the audience is with her and it works, even if I think she overplays it.
The Famous Phone Scene
Considering that this is a film about a famous Broadway musical producer, it's a bit of a surprise that director Leonard holds off on the first musical number until around the half hour mark, but, this is a long movie(almost three hours, with an intermission at the halfway point), and the musical scenes show up soon enough. Among those scenes are what could be called three "spectacle" numbers: the first is "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody", in which the camera slowly pans over an enormous revolving multi layered set filled with exotically costumed performers who sing who or play instruments; filmed almost entirely in one shot, it just keeps building and building, with more performers and levels to the set (snatches of George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue are used to good effect here) being revealed, until the camera slowly pulls back to show the entire set in all its gigantic wonder. One hundred and eighty Performers in all were used here, and it certainly captures the huge vision that Ziegfeld brought to the stage. A second big number plays up his love of sexy chorus girls as we see a large number of them pretending to sleep in beds arranged on large, sliding stages; they "wake up" and dance on their beds as they floor under them moves the beds back and forth. This is an impressive illustration of just how acrobatic these dancers had to be, as they had to both maintain their balance and dance on the beds as they moved around. The scene quickly (if incongruously) moves to an array of women displaying spectacular, over the top gowns (designed by Adrian Adolph Greenburg, credited only as Adrian) that must be seen to be believed. Overall, this number is not as impressive as the "Pretty Girl" scene, but the crazy gowns are really something.
Amazingly, This is not the most garish outfit in the film!
The final big number is a silly Circus themed one, with the prerequisite chorus girls jumping around some bored looking dogs; it's the film's weakest musical moment, and, unfortunately, one of the last ones. Along with these spectacle scenes, there are some other remarkable musical moments to be seen here: I love Ray Bolger's terrific crazy comic tap dance number (he would go on to play the scarecrow in THE WIZARD OF OZ, three years later), and I also enjoy Fanny Brice singing two songs (one comic, one serious). She also gets to do a funny scene in which Ziegfeld comes to offer her a job in one of his shows, and she doesn't believe it's really him. With her nasal voice and broad expressions, Brice is not for everyone, but I find her likable and amusing, and I only wish she had more to do in the film.At almost three hours, THE GREAT ZIEGFELD is too long, with one subplot about a drunken chorus girl making a play for Ziegfeld feeling completely unnecessary; on the other hand, the ending feels rushed, with many of the man's greatest theatrical successes barely mentioned. Also, as with so many Hollywood biographies, reality is often glossed over, (for example, in the movie he marries Anna Held, even though in real life the two were romantically involved but never married)and our hero is often over glorified; at the end a faithful butler extols his greatness to him as he lays dying, ladling the emotional sap on very thick. Still, this is a fun, entertaining film with some fine musical numbers.
SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?
With its big budget and enormous box office, THE GREAT ZIEGFELD made quite a splash in 1936, but there were many better films made that year, the best being Charlie Chaplin's brilliant MODERN TIMES and Frank Capra's MR. DEEDS GOES TO TOWN, not to mention James Whale's classic THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN. I also prefer the Astaire Rogers film, SWING TIME and Jack Conway's excellent adaptation of Charles Dickens' novel A TALE OF TWO CITIES.