The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

"The Great Ziegfeld" featured image. Detail from original movie poster.

The Great Ziegfeld (1936). 185 minutes.  Directed by Robert Z. Leonard.  Starring William Powell (as Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.), Luise Rainer (as Anna Held), Myrna Loy (as Billie Burke), and Frank Morgan (as Billings).

If you enjoy the movies of the 1930s, it would be wrong for you not to see The Great Ziegfeld at some point.  It is bloated, to be sure, and many of its historical and biographical details are inaccurate, but it was financially one of the most successful films of its decade, and among its many honors, it was the first musical for which a performer won an Academy Award (Luise Rainer for Best Actress; the movie also won for Best Picture).  It features many phenomenal musical numbers, including the famous “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody,” in which performers dance and sing on a slowly turning wedding cake-like set.  The “Pretty Girl” sequence alone reportedly cost $220,000 to make at the time (close to $3.75 million in 2015 dollars) with 180 cast members participating in rehearsals and a shoot that lasted several weeks.

Those of you who have read my review of Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1935 will recall that that movie also contains musical numbers of the greatest extravagance.  But whereas many critics continue to spill ink over the rich significance of Berkeley’s ornate, intricate stagings, recent critical attention paid to the musical numbers of Ziegfeld tends to characterize them as somewhat vulgar and gratuitous.  It is not clear to me that this criticism is separate from a criticism of the real Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.’s shows, which were also known for their over-the-top productions.  I must admit that I always enjoy the film’s “Pretty Girl” number; it is hard to imagine it playing in a room and my not staring at it intensely from beginning to end, but it seems to be infected with the movie’s determination to outstrip other musicals, and this competitive aspect potentially diminishes its charm.

The film, which clocks in at just over three hours, strives to narrate the life history of Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., the famous vaudeville showman who began as a circus barker and made his way to Broadway in the formative days of the American musical revue.  A few of the original Ziegfeld stars actually appear as themselves in this film, including the wonderful Fanny Brice and nimble-toed Ray Bolger.  (Ray Bolger, who played the Tin Man in The Wizard of Oz some years later, is joined in this movie by another actor who would co-star with him in that famous film: Frank Morgan, who later played the Wizard.   Billie Burke, Ziegfeld’s wife in real life who served as a consultant on the film and is played by Myrna Loy, would go on to play Glinda, the Good Witch of the North.)  There are many Ziegfeldesque performance numbers with beautiful women wearing outrageous headdresses, with complex moving sets, and so on, and the film strives to reproduce with some authenticity the complexity of the original Ziegfeld costuming and staging.

What it does not intend to reproduce with so much authenticity are many of the details of Ziegfeld’s life.  The credits state that the events of the film were “suggested by romances and incidents in the life of America’s great showman…” Given the liberties the plot takes, I am surprised that the filmmakers did not opt for a fictional story about a great revue producer whose life bore many Ziegfeld-like qualities.  Instead they created an at times fictional story that nevertheless uses Ziegfeld’s name.  But Ziegfeld was a prolific producer up until his death in 1932, and presumably MGM, which made the film, could not resist cashing in on a still potent identity.  It is not clear to me to what extent we can consider the film as a biopic, given what the film says about itself and the extent to which even it admits to being impressionistic.  I would be reluctant to call it biography, but because the film is clearly attempting to tell a life story, it would be strange to call it something else.

In addressing the problem of where The Great Ziegfeld stands as biography in a cinematic world where, to be fair, truth and storytelling do not often intersect, I am reminded of a wonderful quotation from a much later film, Back to School (1986), starring comedian Rodney Dangerfield.  The middle-aged Dangerfield character in that film bluffs his way through his freshman year of college.  “How would you characterize The Great Gatsby?” he is asked.  Grasping at straws, he replies, “He was… uh… great!”  On the one hand, Dangerfield’s response is clearly deficient as far as the Fitzgerald novel is concerned.  That book calls into question the idea of greatness and great men, and thus Dangerfield’s use of the term is a giveaway that he is unaware of the novel’s basic plot.  Although his comment reveals him to be a buffoon, I think what Dangerfield says is something that the makers of The Great Ziegfeld would not mind us saying about their picture.  Unlike Gatsby, Ziegfeld straightforwardly praises its protagonist as a great man of the arts, but like Dangerfield, the movie does not scratch too deeply beneath the surface of that praise and instead focuses on showcasing the huge-in-every-way life of the producer, confusing the enormous with the momentous and size with profundity.

One of the reasons that the movie was so successful and so loved surely had to do with its charismatic star, William Powell, who was a major box office draw during his brief acting career.  Of the Ziegfeld role, Powell said, “Here was a character with flesh, blood and sinews. I felt for the first time in my acting career I had tried the full measure of a man, regardless of my shortcomings in playing him.” Powell saw a tremendous opportunity in the Ziegfeld character, and his interpretation was crucial to the film’s vision.  But Powell’s Ziegfeld is not merely titanic; he is also dapper, wise, and wry, akin to the other Powell characters of the 1930s.  Much as he is in those other movies, here he is paired with Myrna Loy, his frequent costar.  Somewhat controversially, Loy, as Billie Burke, does not appear until the end of the film yet received top billing.  The film was criticized for delaying her entrance, and she was criticized for her dispassionate portrayal of Burke, but I think she adds to the small-scale charm of the film: in her scenes she exhibits a playful restraint that so much of the rest of the film could use.  Perhaps today, The Great Ziegfeld is in many ways a testament to the power of these two actors and their ability to convey their usual style and poise amidst the glittering diamonds and dancing greyhounds of an extreme spectacle.