1936: The Great Ziegfeld

  • Production Company: MGM
  • Year Released: 1936
  • Directed by: Robert Z. Leonard
  • Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Luise Rainer
  • Expect to Pay: $6-17

MGM returned to the winners’ podium in 1936 with its second musical to win Best Picture. At the time of The Great Ziegfeld’s release, it was the longest talking film ever produced. Many critics complained about its length, but could not help but be blown away by its magnificent sets. MGM, having started the musical craze with The Broadway Melody, largely ignored the genre for several years, which allowed rivals such as RKO and Warner Bros. to make headway. In particular, Busby Berkeley’s films were attracting all kinds of positive reception, with 42nd Street now considered a classic by any standards. MGM saw money in this, and decided to get in on the action. To that end, The Great Ziegfeld copies wholesale a lot of the techniques and cinematography that Busby Berkeley made famous. So it’s not the most original film ever produced. But is it still entertaining? Very much so, at least half of it.

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Image Courtesy of flickeringmyth.com

The film loosely chronicles the rise and fall of Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. (William Powell), a stage producer responsible for Ziegfeld’s Follies, one of the most successful shows in the history of Broadway. He also produced Show Boat later in life, which would be made several times and is now considered a classic on both Broadway and Hollywood. Ziegfeld is constantly broke and falls in love with two women over the course of the film (played by Myrna Loy and Luise Rainer respectively). He earns the affection of everyone around him through lavish gifts, until the stock market crashes in 1929. This breaks something quite sacred inside of him, and he has a nervous breakdown. The film ends with him dying, saying he needs more stairs so he can get higher.

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“Goochey-goochey-goo!”

If it seems like I’m airbrushing the plot, it’s because for the three hours that encompasses film’s runtime, not a whole lot happens. In fact, I was very close to giving up on this movie. For a film that touts itself as a musical, the first 30 minutes of the runtime have virtually no singing at all. I would not have minded this so much if the first 30 minutes at least had something interesting happening. Instead, a solid 10 minutes (or at least it seems that way) is an argument about Ziegfeld delivering Lusie Rainer’s character Anne 20 gallons of milk. And yes, that’s about as interesting as it sounds. It doesn’t help that Luise Rainer’s acting is extremely hammy. She can’t speak with a French accent to save her life. Yet the Academy seemed that it was worthy of a Best Actress award. Why I can’t imagine. This is simply not a good performance, especially compared to her performance in 1937’s The Good Earth, which also netted her a Best Actress award. In addition, there’s also some cringey performances from some of the child actors in this film. I’m aware that it’s unfair to judge them the same as adults, but it’s still something that I couldn’t stand.

When the actual musical part of this film does happen though, it’s glorious. In fact, it’s beyond glorious. MGM threw money at this project and it shows. Elaborate rotating stages, stages that pull in and out, gorgeous art-deco style costumes that make me wish that this film was in color, a 70-foot tall spiral tower full of dancing and singing people, this film has it all. It’s as gaudy and extravagant display as anything that Hollywood has ever produced, and a testament to a bygone era of filmmaking where style was just as, if not more important, than substance. The musical numbers themselves are also pretty good, especially “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody,” which is sung by Allan Jones, but is lip-synced in the movie by Dennis Morgan, most famous nowadays for his role in Christmas in Connecticut. In fact, a lot of side characters provide excellent performances. Fans of the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz will love the fact that Frank Morgan, who plays the wizard, is also Ziegfeld’s business partner and friendly rival Billings.

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Ray Bolger plays himself. If only he had a brain.

Ray Bolger, known to most people now as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, happened to get his big break from the real life Ziegfeld. He’s in this film, and gives one of the best dance numbers in the entire picture. Nearly all of the chorus girls in this film were involved in a Ziegfeld show to some degree. However, the crown jewel of this ensemble package has to be Fannie Brice, a singer and a comedian who was the inspiration for the hit movie Funny Girl. She’s in the film for only a few minutes, yet somehow manages to steal the show from just about everyone.

However, not all is well in these musical numbers. For the second time since this project began, I have to bring up some antiquated ideas about race again. One of the numbers in the film is a minstrel show with blackface. I shouldn’t have to tell you why that would upset some people, and those that are sensitive to such things might want to avoid The Great Ziegfeld all-together. For what it’s worth though, it is only one scene, and it’s over pretty quick.

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The art-deco costumes are amazing.

Blackface aside, three hours is a long time for any movie to go on for. Before watching, you should ask yourself “Is it worth sitting through a little bit of boring stuff to get to some of the most excessively grand set pieces in musical history?” If you answered yes to that question, go for it. The extras in this film more than make up for the dearth of talent in the leads. As for myself, I would have cut about an hour’s worth of material from it to make it more palatable. If nothing else though, The Great Ziegfeld proved that audiences could handle long-form movies. If you like musicals or Broadway, this film is essential viewing. Everyone else should watch the musical numbers on Youtube and skip the actual movie.

Next time, we tackle The Life of Emile Zola. See you then.

Order The Great Ziegfeld here. 

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