The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
Dir. Robert Z. Leonard
Oscars: Best Picture, Best Actress (Luise Rainer), Best Dance Direction (Seymour Felix)
Other Nominees: Anthony Adverse, Dodsworth, Libeled Lady, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Romeo and Juliet, San Francisco, The Story of Louis Pasteur, A Tale of Two Cities, Three Smart Girls
I decided to give The Great Ziegfeld a shot when I heard of the death of Luise Rainer a few days ago, who, at 104, was the oldest living Oscar-winner. She was also the first person to win back-to-back acting Oscars, a feat later repeated by Spencer Tracy, Katherine Hepburn, and Tom Hanks, and her first was for Ziegfeld. Ziegfeld also holds the honor of being the first musical (sort of, but more on that later) to win the big prize as well as the first biographical film – not that there had been much competition, as this is one of Oscar’s early films.
The film is a very loose biography of the vaudeville / theatrical producer, Florenz Ziegfeld, whose work not only defined much of the way that the performing arts operate today but also the way that women are seen onstage (where is our study of Ziegfeld and the male gaze???). Though he produced hundreds of shows during his life, he is most famous for his New York revues known as the Ziegfled follies, which featured legions of chorus girls in elaborate costumes on gargantuan sets. Think Follies or Funny Girl.
The Great Ziegfeld is fairly basic biographical stock, telling the story of Ziegfeld (William Powell, thoroughly swoon-worthy in top leading man post-Nick Charles form), through his relationships with the great stage actress Anna Held (Rainer) and starlet Billie Burke, with cameos from Fanny Brice and Ray Bolger as themselves, both of whom are utterly splendid in their limited capacities. It’s difficult to adhere modern standards of what is appropriate movie-making to a film like The Great Ziegfeld because it is such a product of its time. It’s popular entertainment, post-melodrama, and lush and indulgent, in both story and execution. It critiques Ziegfeld’s shows as being somewhat frivolous, then indulges itself in long segues in extreme production numberland, as if taking this opportunity to showcase these elite spectacles to a common movie-going audience. In 1936, films had only just begun to explore extravaganza territory, but soon this would be seen as entirely over the top (by the early 40s, I’d say, or at least by the onset of film noir), so in this film we’re seeing the pinnacle of this elaborate style.
The somewhat squalid details of Ziegfeld’s personal life are painted in broad strokes, with Rainer’s role receiving the most sympathetic treatment. Held is portrayed as selfish yet insecure, charming yet shrewish, and as clearly bipolar. Her swings from light to dark and manic to subdued are sudden and numerous, and makes one wonder how much the film’s creators really understood the disorder. Regardless, Rainer is great in the role, specifically excelling in her famous telephone scene – the film’s best-known sequence. When she moves out of Ziegfeld’s life, the film suffers from her absence.
Powell is a solid anchor for the film, but the writing of his character does not allow for much detailed work, and as a plot piece he functions too much to move the story from A – B rather than to grow or develop as a character. Frank Morgan amuses as Jack Billings, a rival producer who turns friend in Z’s twilight years. Loy is fine, but has oft been better elsewhere.
The most common modern complaint about The Great Ziegfeld is its exorbitant length: well over three hours. It does not earn such a length (it doesn’t really go into detail about… well, anything), and it only touches upon major events in Z’s life. The reason for the length is the same as the films central structural issue: it is two films in one. It is first a story of Z’s life, and second a recreation of his most famous productions. The film tells a bit of story, shows a ten minute production number, tells some more, cuts to another song, more story, etc., until the end. None of the film’s numbers have anything to do with story, and while they are very impressive (they make your Luhrmann / Marshall quick-cut dance numbers look like child’s play) they halt forward action every twenty minutes for a ten minute interlude. It’s highly impressive / maddening. However, we’re not going to gain an understanding of this man’s place in show business history unless we can see samples of what he did, are we?
The Great Ziegfeld is far from the worst film on this list, but also far from the best. It is bloated, celebratory, dated, exciting, and excruciatingly boring all at once. It’s a whole lot of trash, but sort of fun trash. There’s a whole lot of pizazz but painfully little substance, which is just like the Ziegfeld Follies, right?
Another lavish production number, set atop a titanic wedding cake, natch.