STUDIO – MGM
DIRECTOR – Robert Z. Leonard
(MPAA Equivalent: PG)
From the beginning of the 20th Century until the beginning of the Great Depression, the entertainment world was focused not just on New York City, but on one man who can arguably be attributed to giving Broadway its charm, luster, and appeal, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. He was a charming man, but at the same time he was very reckless. If he had two nickels to rub together, he’d spend it. His shows (most of them a series of “Ziegfeld Follies“) were renowned the world over, but Ziegfeld himself never kept any money. He spent it on lavish production pieces, the cast and crew, his women, and of course, the many wolves knocking at his door. He died a poor man in 1932, forcing his widow, Billie Burke, to work in motion pictures to pay off his debts. But his influence in show business has since reached out even today, both on Broadway and in Hollywood. Four years after his death, The Great Ziegfeld opened nationwide, and the next year, it became the first biographical motion picture to take home the Oscar for Best Picture.
The story opens during the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, where a young Ziegfeld (William Powell) and his friend and rival Jack Billings (Frank Morgan) hold court at their respective booths, barking for their shows. At first Billings, with his exotic dancer known as Little Egypt, is drawing the large crowds, while Ziegfeld’s show, featuring muscleman The Great Sandow, has been threatened with eviction from the midway. Then, as if by miracle, a female admirer approached Sandow and asked to feel his muscles; from that moment on, he became a sensation, and Ziegfeld was on his was way to bigger and better things. The movie then traces what would be the final 30 or so years of Ziegfeld’s life, including his relationship with Anna Held (Best Actress Luise Rainer), the creation of the Follies, his marriage to Billie Burke (Myrna Loy), and his fall after the Crash of 1929.
Let me get this out of the way now: Though full of musical numbers, The Great Ziegfeld is not a musical. It a dramatic motion picture of a man who gave the world groundbreaking entertainment on such a lavish scale, that some examples of his work (and a few tributes as well) were added to the story. For example, the centerpiece of this movie is Irving Berlin’s “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody”, an elaborate seven-minute long trek up a spinning spiral staircase featuring additional music by Strauss, Liszt, Dvorák, and Gershwin (among others). It plays out as a staged production, and is not a song Florenz Ziegfeld sings to upstart actress Audrey Dane (Virginia Bruce), who, by the way, was the titular “Pretty Girl” at the top of those stairs.
What I can tell you about this movie is that it’s a costume designer’s dream. Every Ziegfeld number is a veritable orgy of sequins, silk, and silver lamé, each one more extravagant than the last. And another of the musical numbers, entitled “You Never Looked So Beautiful”, features a parade of costumed beauties in the Ziegfeld style, with ornate trains and flamboyant headdresses (some weighing as much as 50 pounds!). Each of the sets for these numbers was equally elaborate, including one which redefined the term “thrust stage” by having five individual sections of the stage come out toward the audience, choreographed and on cue, even while dancers were performing on them. By far, this and the “Pretty Girl” number are among the most ambitious musical set pieces ever performed in motion picture history, and by themselves, just might be worth the price.
But the drawback to these set pieces is they sometime take away from the movie’s intent. William Powell’s performance of Flo Ziegfeld was nearly spot-on; he even bore a slight resemblance to the great showman. Billie Burke made sure that the screenplay didn’t tarnish her late husband’s image, but that didn’t stop Virginia Bruce from chewing the scenery (wine bottle in hand) as a composite of Ziegfeld’s mistresses. And though Ms. Burke did not appear in the movie, she was competently played by Powell’s favorite screen partner, Myrna Loy (They made 14 movies together). This leaves Luise Rainer’s performance of Anna Held. At the time, Ms. Rainer had never heard of the legendary French-Polish actress, so she drew her performance from the script, resulting in an overdramatic characterization that falls nothing short of potential diagnosis of histrionic personality disorder, including the prototypical and now-famous “good luck through the tears” phone call in her last scene.
The Great Ziegfeld also features scenes of famous performers of the early 20th Century. Aside from Eugen Sandow (for whom the Mr. Olympia trophy is named), Anna Held and Billie Burke, singer/dancer Eddie Cantor (Buddy Doyle) and legendary humorist Will Rogers (A.A. Trimble) are placed on exhibit in brief scenes. And, as an added treat, both Fanny Brice and Ray Bolger play themselves as a tribute to Ziegfeld, and both shine in their respective performances.
All in all, The Great Ziegfeld is a prime example of ROI (return on investment) in motion pictures. Opening to critical and popular acclaim, this movie, budgeted at $2 million, made about $40 million in its initial release. Can you think of a movie made by a major studio in the last 30 years that recouped 20 times its budget (or more) on just its first-run domestic theatrical release? With the exceptions of E.T.: The Extraterrestrial (1982), which grossed 33.2 times its $10.5 million dollar budget, and Airplane! (1980), which brought in 23.8 times its $3.5 million budget, you’d be hard pressed to find one.
The Great Ziegfeld is a spectacle which has some substance, though you may need to find it upon occasion. A bit on the long side (just over three hours, including the Overture and Exit Music), it is still a worthy member of the best that Oscar has to offer.
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