1930s, 2/4, Best Picture Winner, Drama, Musical, Review, Robert Z. Leonard

The Great Ziegfeld

An ode to producers in general and the famed Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld specifically, it’s little wonder that this extravagant spectacle captured the imagination of Hollywood and won its producer, Hunt Stromberg, an Irving Thalberg protégé, the Best Picture Oscar. The sort of movie that MGM had perfected over the first few years of the sound era, which is a small irony since MGM bought the project from Universal that Carl Laemmle Jr. was in the middle of trying to make into a major studio (their production of Show Boat, a film based on a Ziegfeld show, led to Universal’s creditors taking ownership of the studio from the Laemmle family the same year), director Robert Z. Leonard excelled at the spectacle while falling into every problem with how biopics take on too much of a life to fit into three hours.

Ziegfeld (William Powell) is a carnival barker with a light, professional rivalry with Jack Billings (Frank Morgan) at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. Representing the strongman Sandow (Nat Pendleton), he demonstrates a preternatural ability at promotion when he uses Sandow’s physicality to attract women. He leaves Chicago despite his father’s insistence that the conservatory is a better place for Ziegfeld’s talents, but he’s off to crisscross the country with Sandow and his show until a mishandled promotion of Sandow fighting a lion goes wrong and he has to flee to Europe, coincidentally on the same boat as Billings.

Now, on one level, I get why the writer, William Anthony McGuire (probably at the behest of Stromberg), started so early in Ziegfeld’s life, and the relationship with Billings is the key to that. In a film where Ziegfeld has relationships with four women, it’s the relationship with Billings that is the most consistent, and I wish it had been the focus. That is the only thing that could have really justified the amount of time covered in the film, but Billings disappears for long stretches of time, focusing on the women. There are four women (the first is a small one during the World’s Fair), but the first major one is Anna Held (Luise Rainer), a French singer, that Ziegfeld steals from Billings in London by offering her no money but grand promises about getting her to fame in New York, which he attains for her after an early set of troubles, offset by news that she bathes in milk (a false story he created), and their marriage.

The success of Held’s revue leads Ziegfeld to have enough success to get Billings to help him secure funding for the Ziegfeld Follies, and this is where the film is at its most spectacular best. It’s a solid 40 minutes of runtime, and it starts with the famously expensive set piece of a single shot running up a spiral set of stairs, tracking dancers, singers, and general glitz and glamor, but the spectacle doesn’t end there as the film shows several numbers in a row, completely uninterrupted, and it’s just grand entertainment. I was convinced that this was going to be a hidden gem of a film at this point, but then the Follies end and…the movie no longer has any real narrative drive. It seemed to have been building up to Ziegfeld’s signature production, and it was, but then it simply just kept going, and going, and going.

Because of the new Hays Code strictures as well as the presence of Billie Burke (Ziegfeld’s last wife) on the production as a supervisor, there’s a real limit on how much the film could show of Ziegfeld’s infidelities to his wives, and that begins with the first female star of his Follies, Audrey Dane (Virginia Bruce). She doesn’t have a whole lot to do other than occasionally show up and make a small scene of herself. The break with Held happens when Audrey ends up in Ziegfeld’s arms and Held shows up. It’s the final break for her since she feels like he’s leaving her behind. I think. It’s kind of thin, and it’s because the film can’t get into any real details. The relationship with Audrey also ends quickly when Ziegfeld opens a new show and doesn’t offer her the starring role, leading to Ziegfeld meeting Burke (Myrna Loy), Billings’ date at a party, and falling in love.

There really is no drive at this point in the film. It kind of feels like it starts all over with the introduction of Billie, and professionally it moves in fits and starts. The late introduction of the idea that Ziegfeld needs a comeback is where I would have liked to see a more condensed story. He’s down on his luck professionally, but he’s happy in terms of his family. He gets a challenge to put on another hit on Broadway, and he declares that he’s going to have four at the same time. All of this is taken care of over the course of a few minutes of screentime, and it’s some of the most potentially interesting stuff in the whole story. However, the film just glancing over it near the end of the story is really frustrating…and then there’s more! There’s the stock market crash and Ziegfeld’s final days in relative poverty (he still has a butler, though, and a penthouse).

There are two major problems with this story. The first is that Ziegfeld, as presented at least, is simply not that interesting of a person, especially to sustain a three hour film. His efforts to build productions are never taken in great detail, probably in no small part since Ziegfeld seemed to have been a big idea guy. He hired people to actually put on his shows (like most producers would), but he didn’t actually create much. He didn’t write the songs, choreograph the dancing, or build the sets. He had an idea, found the money, and then got people to work. On top of that, his relationships with women aren’t told in any great detail or made all that interesting, probably the most interesting is his effort to convince Held to talk up the milk bath idea which is more about his role as producer than it is as husband.

Where this film shines is in its spectacle of the Follies in particular. At least fifty minutes of this nearly three-hour film is dance numbers, and they do their best to carry the whole film alone. They are simply fun to watch and infectiously amusing, giving us a sanitized taste of what the Follies were and why they were so successful. I think a better celebration of Ziegfeld might have just been a straight-up recreation instead of an attempt to squeeze his entire professional life into a couple of hours.

As a celebration of the producer in general, I can see why Hollywood would fall for it. As a spectacle, I can see why contemporary audiences would eat it up. As an unfocused, lethargic biopic of a largely uninteresting central character, I can see how the opinion of the film has plummeted over the decades. It’s a film that really does have its moments, but it simply cannot sustain the interest over three hours.

Rating: 2/4


2 thoughts on “The Great Ziegfeld”

  1. I’m going to defend this movie, as a movie, not so much as a story. This absolutely deserves the ‘Best Picture’ award for 1936. And it deserves it because it gave something to the audience that 99% couldn’t get: spectacle. Just like Avatar is a huge technical achievement, so is The Great Ziegfeld. My God, the money that is poured onto this screen. It must have been impossible for anyone else to hire hot, talented dancing girls for the whole length of this production. Movies like The Great Ziegfeld show you sights that, unless you were in the NYC area, you simply couldn’t see. The ‘A Pretty Girl’ sequence alone makes this worth the price of admission. This is movie magic, with all the sweat and effort hidden, at its best.

    Also there are dogs later on with even more dancing girls. Dogs are great.

    But we don’t just get spectacle, we also get Ray Bolger, dancing like Woody from Toy Story come to life in a display of physical exertion and precision that you can miss because of how loosey goosey it all looks. You get Fannie Brice (Barbara Streisand owes Fannie Brice her career), who is hilarious and charming and charismatic AF, you get Harriet Hector, performing feats of ballet that, like with Ray Bolger, are so difficult the only sign of how hard it is, is the way the muscles in her bare legs ripple. We also would have gotten Roy Rogers, but he got himself killed in a plane crash in Alaska. Which sucks.

    In addition, we have that embarrassment of riches of Classic Hollywood actors. You have William Powell, who is ALMOST charming enough to make us forget what an asshole and how irresponsible Ziegfeld is. Frank Morgan’s comedic timing is amazing. He knows just how long to hold a phrase, sad that he’s probably more known for the Wizard of Oz that this performance or hsi wrok in ‘The Shop Around the Corner’. I could go on, there’s a lot of pretty girls to praise too, but I’ll stop.

    But…man, it’s really hard to tell a story about a life. Honestly, I think The Great Ziegfeld does ok. It shows the rise and fall and almost all the fall is due not so much to economic forces as it Ziegfeld’s inability to keep it in his pants and to not spend money he doesn’t have. The problem is very much that Jack Billings keeps empowering Fiegfeld. Which means money is being thrown away. Oh well, it’s Jack’s money and he seems happy with it. I agree, I think the Jack Billings friendship/rivalry is the real heart of the movie and I appreciate that Jack gets to see ‘Flo’ just before his death. It’s a good moment.

    The movie, like Ziegfeld himself, is just spectacle. Is it empty? No..not…quite. There are images and amusement that will linger in the memory. And that’s not nothing. The Great Ziegfeld manages to capture moments just before the death of Vaudville means they are lost forever. In the end, I kind wished that the three hour movie could have been just a little longer, just one more dance, one more laugh, one more pretty girl. Just like Ziegfeld’s life.


    1. I think I would have preferred a pure revue type film over a biopic, and the movie really does embrace that for long stretches. Those stretches are where I like the film best.

      But I just don’t want to see his early years as a carnival barker. I don’t want to see his infidelities completely shorn of any drama and detail because the Hays Office would disapprove. And I don’t want to see a great setup for a great story of his comeback just for it to happen in a montage of signage.

      I’d recommend sequences of this film, but not the whole thing.

      If a biopic had to be made, then concentrate it on one event. Hell, give us an opening of the Follies to show him at his height…skip ahead a few years and he’s at his low point and he wants to get that back.


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