Monday, February 11, 2019

The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

Director: Robert Z. Leonard                           Writer: William Anthony McGuire
Film Score: Arthur Lange                               Cinematography: Oliver T. Marsh
Starring: William Powell, Luise Rainer, Frank Morgan and Myrna Loy

Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. had only been dead three years before MGM decided to film this celebration of his life. The Great Ziegfeld was not only a box office success, but went on to win the Academy Award for best picture of 1936. The film was nominated for seven Oscars winning three, not only for best picture but Luise Rainer for best actress and Semour Felix for best dance direction. Like a lot of Oscar winning films from the nineteen thirties, it hasn’t aged well over the years. At just over three hours long, much of what was seen as lavish during the middle of the Depression now seems a bit self indulgent and slow. The story primarily revolves around Ziegfeld’s difficulties with money. He was always behind, borrowing money in the present to pay for shows that had long since closed. In fact, the film actually began as a way for Billie Burke to pay off Ziegfeld’s debts after his death. She sold the rights to his story to Universal in 1933, and William McGuire’s screenplay went into production the following year with William Powell playing the great producer. But financial problems at Universal forced them to sell the property to MGM, including the sets that had been built for the production numbers. There was no attempt, however, to be accurate with Ziegfeld’s story, and McGuire’s screenplay was considered more of a fantasy version of his life.

The film begins with fireworks announcing the Chicago World’s Fair of 1893. William Powell as Florenz Ziegfeld and Frank Morgan are competing sideshow barkers, and Powell’s strong man is losing out badly to Morgan’s hoochie coochie girls. In desperation, Powell turns his strong man into a sex idol and brings in women in the same numbers as the men who came to see Morgan’s dancers. He also manages to attract Morgan’s girlfriend, Suzanne Kaaren, away from him. From the fair the scene then shifts to Ziegfeld’s father, Joseph Cawthorn, as a teacher at a music conservatory where Powell argues with him that he doesn’t want to go into music, but instead continue producing spectacles, after which he takes the strong man on the road. When that fizzles out, he follows Morgan to Europe looking for talent--actually, looking for Morgan’s talent: Luise Rainer as the French actress and singer Anna Held. Powell’s honesty wins her over and she decides to go with him to New York. Unfortunately, the public doesn’t like her. But he stays loyal to Rainer and makes her a star, while continuing to spend money he doesn’t have. His next big idea is the Ziegfeld Follies. It’s these review shows, full of beautiful girls beautifully dressed surrounded by elaborate settings, that made the producer a household name.

While the performances at the Follies are interesting enough, they suffer from the same defect that most showbiz biopics suffer from, lesser actors attempting to replicate stars. Buddy Doyle tries to play Eddie Cantor with disappointing results. A.A. Trimble does a passable Will Rogers, but little more. There are a few original actors that help, Ray Bolger and Fannie Brice, for instance, but it’s not enough to capture the genuine excitement of a show like Ziegfeld was famous for. What is impressive, however, is the giant movable sets on the stage--though one has the feeling that the lack of color also diminishes the effect. They are so huge and opulent, often times moving out beyond the proscenium or climbing to the sky in a way that Busby Berkeley never thought of using space. The music, too, is from a generation gone by and, while interesting, doesn’t have the same effect as it no doubt had in the day. And the same goes with much of the static posing onstage that seems more for effect that true entertainment. The supporting cast is solid, with Virginia Bruce playing one of Ziegfeld’s stars who has a drinking problem. Reginald Owen is his uptight accountant, William Demarest one of his writers, and Ernest Cossart as his valet. Finally, Myrna Loy, Powell’s screen partner in the Thin Man films, makes an appearance as Billie Burke who becomes the second Mrs. Ziegfeld.

William Powell considered this one of his best performances, and was pleased when he saw the final cut of the film. He is good, but he’s still just playing William Powell. What’s different really, is the part itself. In this fantasy version of Ziegfeld the producer is something of a saint, first devoted to Anna Held even though they were never officially married, and then after marrying Billie Burke becoming a loving husband and father to the end of his life. The film was also the first of two Oscar wins in a row for Luise Rainer, the first actor to accomplish that feat, going on the following year to win the Academy Award for her role in The Good Earth. Burke initially wanted to play herself in the film, even though she was much older by then, and wisely producer Hunt Stromberg said no. Frank Morgan does an adequate job as Powell’s competitor and friend, and the running gag throughout the film is that Powell winds up stealing away from Morgan every girl he tries to date. Myrna Loy, on the other hand, doesn’t really get enough screen time to do much with the part of Billie Burke. Of course, two years later Morgan, Bolger and the real Billie Burke would appear in The Wizard of Oz for MGM. The Great Ziegfeld probably won the Oscar because Academy members wanted to honor the memory of the producer. It’s not a great film by today’s standards, but certainly worth seeing at some point.

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