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THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (1936)

In Best Picture Winners, Biography, Classic, Drama, Epic, G, Motion Pictures on June 29, 2010 at 6:28 pm

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STUDIO – MGM

CAST – William Powell, Myrna Loy, Luise Rainer, Frank Morgan, Virginia Bruce, Ernest Cossart, Fanny Brice, Ray Bolger, Nat Pendleton, Buddy Doyle, A.A. Trimble

DIRECTOR – Robert Z. Leonard

NOT RATED
(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.

Florenz Ziegfeld (William Powell) recruits Anna Held (Luise Rainer) to perform on Broadway

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.

4 (out of 5)

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THE STING (1973)

In Action, Best Picture Winners, Classic, Comedy, Crime, Drama, Motion Pictures, S on April 27, 2010 at 11:16 am

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STUDIO — Universal

CAST — Robert Redford, Paul Newman, Robert Shaw, Charles Durning, Ray Walston, Eileen Brennan, Harold Gould, Robert Earl Jones, Dana Elcar, Dimitra Arliss

DIRECTOR — George Roy Hill

MPAA Rating: PG

Back in 1974, I went to the Universal Studios Tour (now known as Universal Studios Hollywood), and I took from that experience a few memories that have stuck with me ever since: lifting a van like the Six Million Dollar Man (Hey, I was 9!), the street scene backlot dressed up for shooting Earthquake (which really was the most powerful memory I have of that visit), and watching audience members reenact a chase scene from The Sting. At least, I think it was The Sting. Ah, memories…

Anyway, this 1973 Best Picture Winner marked the second and final collaboration of Robert Redford, Paul Newman, and director George Roy Hill (1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid was the first). It is a movie with crime, gambling, corruption, murder, revenge, the Great Depression… and it delivers plenty of laughs in the process. When a pair of Chicago grifters, Johnny Hooker (Redford) and Luther Coleman (Robert Earl Jones, father of James Earl Jones) pull a fast one on a money runner for a gambling operation, they discover they have stolen about $11,000 in cash. That night, Coleman tells Hooker he’s hanging it up, moving to Kansas City, and going legit. He instructs Hooker to look up a legendary con artist named Henry Gondorff (Newman). Later, when Hooker gets roughed up by a cop named Snyder (Charles Durning), he realizes his friend is in danger. He races back to Luther’s place, only to find his dead body on the street below. The next day, he meets up with Gondorff at a local merry-go-round/brothel, and they hatch a plan to pull a con on the man who had Luther killed, Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw).

Henry Gondorff and Johnny Hooker (Paul Newman, Robert Redford) observe their "mark", Doyle Lonnegan (Robert Shaw, background)

Now, this is a movie in which the bad guys are really good guys, the cops are very corrupt, and the “mark” is a tough brute of a man whose look could kill if it wanted to. The con is on, and it’s performed admirably in what is probably the best caper film ever made. The plot moves forward with very few bumps along the way. There are even a couple of twists which, while I won’t reveal them, will surprise those who haven’t seen this movie yet. George Roy Hill seemed to demonstrate a certain efficient energy that sustains throughout. Newman and Redford are great (It’s a shame they made only two movies together), and the entire supporting cast, from Harold Gould as the dapper Kid Twist, to Dana Elcar as FBI Special Agent Polk, are all an excellent fit. This is arguably one of the best-cast movies in motion picture history. But the coup de grâce is casting Robert Shaw as Doyle Lonnegan.

I can remember Shaw in only two movies, Jaws (1975) and this one. I know, he did a lot more, and I am sure I will find him in future films I see. In Jaws, he was, of course, the crusty shark hunter who had met his demise by becoming his prey’s lunch. I had a hard time watching him in that movie, simply because he seemed to drone almost unintelligibly. It was nonetheless a good performance, but not nearly as good as the steely-eyed Lonnegan in The Sting. Here, he was a man of few words, but when he did speak, it meant something. He was tough-as-nails, with the resolve of an attack dog just waiting for the command to kill. By the way, you may notice that Lonnegan walks with a limp in this movie; that is because Robert Shaw had sprained his ankle playing handball right around the time shooting started!

Now, a word about the the now-iconic music of this movie. Composer Marvin Hamlisch decided to  incorporate several Scott Joplin rags into the musical score. While it is admittedly anachronistic with the period of the movie (by about 30 years), it turns out to be one of the few examples of musical genius in motion picture history. Joplin’s music sets the rhythm and tone of the plot so well, that “The Entertainer” is now forever engrained into the motion picture lexicon as the theme song to The Sting. Even as I write this article, I have that song playing in the background, and it just… feels right.

Thoroughly entertaining from start to finish, I could even go so far as to say that The Sting makes for a good family film, if the kids are over 10 years old. Yes, there are hookers, gambling, guns, and a couple of dead bodies, but they are balanced with (mostly) clean language, marvelous attention to detail, and a great sense of comedy. This is a solid movie from start to finish, and it will not disappoint.

4 out of 5