Director: Robert Z. Leonard
The Great Ziegfeld is a great movie. Produced just four years after the death of Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., the film is a cinematic spectacle that is a tribute to the life of one of the greatest Broadway producers in history. In fact, many of the original performers from the Ziegfeld Follies appear in the film including Ziegfeld star, Fanny Brice. The movie stages musical numbers that even by today’s standards are astounding in their extravagant costuming, dancing, and stage construction. In addition to winning Best Picture for 1936, the film also earned Seymour Felix the Best Dance Direction Oscar for “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody.” Ray Bolger (pre-Wizard of Oz scarecrow) performs an amazing tap dance and Harriet Hoctor dances a ballet that is jaw dropping. The movie at 183 minutes is long and in the style of Broadway shows of its era, begins with an overture, has an intermission and then concludes with exit music. Despite its running time, I certainly was not bored and found myself hoping for yet another over-the-top musical production.
Next, on to the acting. William Powell provides an excellent portrayal of Flo Ziegfeld and I was surprised that he did not receive an Oscar nomination for his role. I especially liked Frank Morgan’s role as Flo’s good friend, Jack Billings, although I could not stop thinking that Flo was speaking to the Wizard of Oz. Luise Rainer plays the role of Flo’s first wife, Anna Held, and presents a performance that earned her Best Actress Oscar. I did enjoy Ranier’s characterization of Anna but was surprised by the Oscar win. Myrna Loy plays Flo’s second wife, Billie Burke, and continues the strong acting displayed throughout the movie.
I was surprised how much I enjoyed this film. It was a visual feast for the eyes, had more familiar songs than I expected, and was an interesting biography of a man I only knew by name. Of the musicals we have viewed thus far, this one is my favorite as I am a sucker for big production numbers with that “wow” factor. The sound and film quality continue to improve and many of the scenes are beautifully filmed – not only the musicals but also the quiet apartment scenes. The closing scene of Flo’s last evening, seated in his chair, flower in his hand, is especially moving. If you haven’t seen this film and enjoy musicals from the 1930’s, this should be on your must see list.
Robert Z. Leonard’s The Great Ziegfeld was our longest film that we have seen at this point, but this biopic on the life of the eccentric Florenz Ziegfeld warrants nothing less than the 185 minutes I committed to viewing this film. A great improvement over the previous year’s Mutiny on the Bounty, The Great Ziegfeld mixes the whirlwind life of the musical theater pioneer with elaborate musical numbers that Ziegfeld would have been proud of. Made four years after his death, the film is as much about entertainment as it is about paying tribute to the legend that Ziegfeld personified. While there were some liberties taken in the depiction of his life for its translation into film, MGM created a sentimental homage to Ziegfeld’s professional and private life that spanned the 40 years from the 1893 Chicago World Fair to his death in the early 1930’s.
One of the most extraordinary aspects of this film is the set design and how it is used to augment the cinematography. The Great Ziegfeld uses elaborate sets for the musical numbers and long shots to make the film audience feel as though we are actually seeing clips of the Ziegfeld Follies as a theater audience. Complete with shots framed using the dimensions of the stage as reference points; the film shows the towering, elaborate staircases and moving set pieces that truly cemented Ziegfeld as a musical impresario. While I found some of the actual songs in the musical numbers a bit drab, center piece numbers like “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” still were very catchy. Also, the tap-dancing in this film is sensational. I’m a sucker for well-choreographed tap numbers and this film brings the art of tap to life in a way that only a 1930’s era musical can do. This movie had two elements that were spliced together to form this epic tale of Ziegfeld’s life: the biopic, and the musical. Neither segment could really stand on its own, because Ziegfeld’s life would have felt incomplete without showcasing his professional life.
The film was our first biopic of the winners that we have viewed thus far, and makes a decisive entry into the Academy’s history. The only reason I feel as though it is not as well known as other winners has to do with its length and the liberties it has taken in its deviance from reality. The movie does have some filmic aspects that translate to modern audiences as a bit cliché, but overly harsh criticism of the film would ignore the fact that this is still set in depression-era America. In this pre-WWII setting, escapist cinema was what the movie-going audiences thirsted for, and its tribute to the glitz and glamour of the early days of Broadway were exactly what the audience ordered. Rather than fixating on historical inaccuracies or slight melodramatic tendencies, the audience would have left the theater pleased with the caliber of entertainment they received for their ticket price. The choices the film made for entertainment purposes do not detract from the well-made movie with spectacular sets and interesting plot twists that comprise our 1936 winner. While you won’t see this film on many AFI top 100 lists, it is hard to ignore the charm of this joyful spectacle of a tribute to one of Broadway’s most ground-breaking producers.