I have always believed that it is my goal while writing this blog is to help put movies in their respective historical places. Movies, after all, are stylized pop culture reflections of our times, no matter which decade they tend to represent. The films I’ve written about are perceived to be the best representations of our fears, political environments, and societal changes over time. I find that this is the most fascinating part of what I write about. I’ve always been a history nerd and seeing history actually come to life, particularly in very old movies, a very rewarding part of doing this blog.
Often times, the films help to point my compass as to where I should direct my historical attentions through other films or books. One of those decades which I’m very fascinated with, but need to read up on more is the 1930s. A decade full of complicated political and social upheaval coincides with what many folks around movies call “The Golden Age of Hollywood.” This is when the allure, excess, and mystique of the movie business was at its peak. The Golden Age is responsible for a few movies on our list such as Casablanca and Gone with the Wind, but also this week’s film, Robert Z. Leonard’s The Great Ziegfeld.
The 1936 winner of the Best Picture Oscar follows the life of the real-life theatre producer Florenz “Flo” Ziegfeld. The film, which won three Academy Awards, stars William Powell as Ziegfeld and co-stars Luise Rainer as Anna Held, his first wife, and Myrna Loy as Billie Burke, his second wife. The ninth Best Picture winner was, at the time, the longest “talkie” ever made, checking in at more than three hours.
While I was watching this film, I couldn’t help but think back to 1953’s The Greatest Show on Earth. It’s certainly true that I feel very differently about both of these films, but they are very similar. First of all, both films intentionally lead the audience away from the greater picture in the respective years during which they were made. In 1936, for example, Hitler marched troops into the Rhineland, a clear violation of the Treaty of Versailles. The Great Depression seemed to be nearing an end in 1936 but the economy dipped back into depression the following year. The Great Ziegfeld is Hollywood escapism in one of its truest forms. Filled with showmanship, gaudy costumes, and catchy numbers, the film not only blows the audience away but also helps them to escape from daily life.
Now, for the rest of the movie.
The Great Ziegfeld starts us off in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair where we see a young Flo Ziegfeld (Powell) barking to attract the audience to his show featuring Sandow the strongman (Nat Pendleton). He loses business to his long-time rival Billings (Frank Morgan) who is showcasing the dancer Little Egypt. When Ziegfeld brings Sandow out into the street to let the women salivate over his muscles, attendance picks up. This inspires him to try to make his mark in show business.
After traveling to France, Ziegfeld ends up stealing Anna Held (Luise Rainer) out from under the hat of Billings and uses her to headline his shows. The two eventually marry. Over time, Ziegfeld’s shows become more and more extravagant, costing more and more money. Ziegfeld goes from boom to bust in the ensuing decades, rescuing his reputation from the claws of ignominy.
After Held becomes jealous of Ziegfeld taking an interest in other women, she divorces him. Shortly thereafter, Ziegfeld marries Billie Burke (Myrna Loy) and makes her the star in one of his shows instead. During a particular season, Ziegfeld vows to produce four Broadway hits at one time and accomplishes this goal. Just when things are looking up for him, his $1 million worth of stock market investments come back to bite him in the crash of 1929. An old man with piles of debt, Ziegfeld dies alone at home working on his next show.
The most notable fact about the film is its length at 185 minutes. This film could have benefitted from an editor, to be sure. Like The Greatest Show on Earth, much of the film was filler, using Ziegfeld productions to fill time. These did nothing for the story and stretched out the movie considerably. The intention was to “wow” the audience. I had a college professor once that called these kinds of productions “flash and trash,” meaning that the production values and the special effects of the piece are far better than the actual story. And it’s true in this case, to be sure. While the film is full of style, The Great Ziegfeld is shallow on actual content and it must be penalized for this. The story drags on and on and on while I was busy checking how much time was left on my DVD player. I felt no emotions when it was over. 0.
Earning a nomination for Best Original Screenplay, William Anthony McGuire wrote the script for The Great Ziegfeld. Ziegfeld’s real-life widow, Billie Burke, wanted to pay off Ziegfeld’s debts and sold the rights to his life story to Universal in 1933. The project bounced around from studio to studio, eventually landing with McGuire and MGM.
From the start, The Great Ziegfeld gives us the kind of script and dialogue that we expect from a typical film in the 1930s: fast-talking, smooth lines full of zingers and one-liners. Everyone in it speaks with a mid-Atlantic accent. But the script is also flat. It contains none of the prophecy and little of the character as more recent additions to this blog, specifically The Bridge on the River Kwai and Lawrence of Arabia.
What the script is, though, is mostly melodramatic and overacted (I’ll get to that soon). The dialogue, too, tries very hard to be flashy like the picture’s aesthetics. But it fails in this regard, too. 0.
Arthur Lange’s score is where this film turns it around in my mind. Like other films, the score is not used often, but it is effective when it is used. The score sounds like any other 1930s score, big and bold full of brass and strings.
On the other hand, the film is a musical at times, taking advantage of wide-array of earworms to underline its Broadway roots. Using everything from Irving Berlin to George Gershwin, the sound of The Great Ziegfeld helps to sell its flashy nature with a breadth of musical numbers across all genres. 1.
Here is where this movie shines. Earning an Oscar nomination for Best Art Direction and a win for Best Dance Direction, The Great Ziegfeld is a masterclass in going “all-out” on the look of a film’s world.
I’ll start with the costumes. The men during the performances mostly wear black tuxedos. However, it’s the women’s costumes that really draw you in and attract your attention. According to Wikipedia, The Great Ziegfeld required 250 tailor and seamstresses to toil for six months on the film’s costumes, even using 50 pounds worth of sequins and a dozen yards of ostrich plumes. The costumes are a flamboyant testament to the power of a fashion designer’s imagination when given a blank check to make such lavish costumes.
For the scenes, everything off the stage is marvelous and obsessively detailed. But perhaps the most amazing set piece is the “Wedding Cake,” a massive rotating cake-like structure that featured 175 spiral steps to the top and is 70 feet across. It weighed 100 tons and cost the equivalent to about $4 million today. One hundred eighty performers lined the cake as it spiraled in a Hollywood sound stage. I’ll talk more about this scene below. 1.
It’s easy to believe that a film about the stage can feel like one while you’re watching it. And it certainly does, at least during the very long scenes featuring the actual shows themselves. The camera generally looks straight on to the stage and only the actors move, not the camera. This is not true, however, for the shots off the stage. The Great Ziegfeld feels much more like a modern movie when the scenes are off the stage: camera movements that are generally motivated by the actors themselves moving. But the cinematography was in and of itself not really that interesting.
All of my qualms with the cinematography in this film were reversed with the “wedding cake” scene about halfway through the movie. As I mentioned above, the scene involves the slow spinning of the giant set piece that resembled a wedding cake. The scene begins as the piece slowly turns. As it revolves, the camera slowly, yet perfectly, rises with the stairs, revealing a set full of steadily gaudy and beautiful costumes until, at its peak, Audrey Dane (Virginia Bruce) appears on top and slowly walks back down the piece. A brilliant scene, considering it took weeks to shoot and it was presented in one long shot. 1
For the part of Florenz Ziegfeld, Leonard went with Hollywood veteran William Powell. While he is joined by Myrna Loy as Billie Burke, I’m going to talk about Powell’s performance with the woman charged to play Anna Held, Luise Rainer.
Flo Ziegfeld begins the film as an ambitious man determined to make his mark on the entertainment industry. This is seen in his promotion of a carnival show and his dedication to making sure he sells out every single show.
From there, Ziegfeld evolves into a shrewd and savvy businessman, stealing Held from under the nose of his rival. One taste of the spotlight and Ziegfeld is hooked. But he doesn’t turn into an egomaniacal dirtbag. Rather, Ziegfeld enjoys his success with a particular brand of stoicism, always confident in his abilities. He effortlessly juggles show after show the same way that he spends extravagantly on each production. This puts him in a vicious cycle of feast or famine when it comes to finances.
For all his promise, though, Ziegfeld isn’t perfect. Powell portrays him as a workaholic, never resting and sometimes becoming obsessed with his profession at the expense of those in his life that are important to him. He neglects Anna at times, helping her to drive a wedge of jealousy between them. Powell brings with him a charisma that is unmatched in the film. My eyes were glued to him throughout the movie.
Luise Rainer, a German-born actress, won the first of her two straight Best Actress awards for her portrayal of Anna Held, Ziegfeld’s first wife. Held was a talented and popular French singer who was visited personally by Ziegfeld in Paris. He pulls out all the stops to get her to headline his show, even though he is flat broke. She agrees and makes the trip to America.
Held is not initially a big success, but, thanks to aggressive marketing, soon bankrolls Ziegfeld’s other show ideas. But Held doesn’t like to share the spotlight, even after repeating soothing from Ziegfeld. After their marriage, she’s still a big draw but slowly descends into a spiral of jealousy, which breaks up the marriage.
Rainer brings a melodramatic flair to this role and, frankly, she’s too dramatic for my tastes. There is no subtlety in her acting, it’s either 0 or it’s 100 miles per hour. This made her particularly unlikable in my eyes. However, the William Powell performance steals the show. 1.
On the good side, this film was clearly a massive undertaking. Millions of dollars, many reels of film (the final cut was 16 reels) and a multitude of extras made his job unbelievably difficult. For many film historians, The Great Ziegfeld is the gold standard in how to produce an over-the-top musical. This movie was, for the most part, a pleasure to watch.
But interestingly, I didn’t find his theme until well into the second hour. The thing about The Great Ziegfeld is that it’s full of literally every single cliche of movies, Broadway, and broader pop culture in the first two decades of the 20th century. The movie doesn’t age well because of this.
Moreover, the movie spoke to me as being just one giant ode to the “good old days.” I’ve thought a lot about nostalgia when considering this film. It plays on what I assumed would be the audience’s nostalgia at the time. The film seems to show off a collective American love for, and fascination with, Broadway, particularly during the “Golden Age” of Broadway. This is not the only movie on this list that features this age of Broadway: The Broadway Melody from eight years earlier.
At the end of the day, though, movies aren’t defined only be their themes and intent, but also how good of a movie the darn thing is. Commercially successful in its time, The Great Ziegfeld appealed to a wide-range of movie-goers across the county. It has remained a beacon of flashy and showy musicals more than 80 years later. However, the film hasn’t aged well. It’s so full of cliches and has little actual meat that I can feast upon. The movie wasn’t bad, but nor was it good. I wouldn’t see it again, but I’m glad that I did. 1.
Final Score: 5/10
The Great Ziegfeld won the 9th Academy Award for Best Picture on March 4, 1937, at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles. It beat out 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, and Three Smart Girls for Best Picture. In total, The Great Ziegfeld was nominated for seven awards and won three.
Other notable winners were Frank Capra winning Best Director for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Paul Mini won Best Actor for The Story of Louis Pasteur, Walter Brennan won Best Supporting Actor for Come and Get It, and Gale Sondergaard won Best Supporting Actress for Anthony Adverse. My Man Godfrey became the first of four films to receive four acting nominations without a Best Picture nomination and one of two films to lose all the nominations. The ceremony was hosted by George Jessel.
Well, it’s Oscar season yet again! The nominations for the 91st Academy Awards were announced earlier this week. The Best Picture nominees are Black Panther, BlacKkKlansman, Bohemian Rhapsody, The Favourite, Green Book, Roma, A Star Is Born, and Vice. An entire list of the nominees is here. The ceremony will be held a week earlier than normal on February 24, 2019 at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles. There is no host for the event.
Next week, we keep on moving with 1988’s Rain Man. After that is Cavalcade, Mutiny on the Bounty, Shakespeare in Love, All About Eve, and Marty.