Monday, February 15, 2010

The Great Ziegfeld (1936): A Review (Review #50)


Ziggy Star Maker...

The Great Ziegfeld is a most curious case in my reviews. I opted to watch it twice and reversed my view slightly on it. The first time I hated it, the second time I warmed up to it though still found major flaws. Perhaps I enjoyed it more this time was because I knew what to expect, but I see that I might have been too harsh the first time. Or perhaps I've just mellowed over time and warmed up to its own grandiose aspirations..rather like the aspirations Ziegfeld himself had. Or maybe, just maybe, it helped I didn't watch all three hours of it in one sitting. I have a weakness for lavish musicals and near-forgotten films. After watching The Great Ziegfeld, I think it would be a great film...if it were a half-hour to full hour shorter.

Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. (William Powell) is above all else a showman of the first order. We get this right away when we see him at the Chicago World's Fair as he manages Sandow the Strongman, which is unsuccessful until he adds an element of SEX to it. He has a lifelong rivalry with fellow impresario Jack Billings (Frank Morgan), but it's a friendly rivalry since every time Ziegfeld has money problems (and he has them often) Billings always gets him out of them...almost always reluctantly, as if he knows he shouldn't but can't help himself. We go through Ziegfeld's lavish life and career: his wooing and winning of French star Anna Held (Luise Rainer) his lavish productions of the Ziegfeld Follies, his discovering of Ray Bolger and Fanny Brice (playing themselves) as well as Eddie Cantor and Will Rogers (interpreted by Buddy Doyle and A.A. Trimble respectively), his flirtations with women, his divorce from Held and marriage to Billie Burke (Myrna Loy), and up to his death.

Perhaps the popularity of The Great Ziegfeld at its release had to do with the fact that Ziegfeld died in 1932, so his name was still very fresh in the minds of the American public in 1936. He represented the Ultimate in Theatrical Production, A Lavish Spectacle, and the film certainly does his memory honor by staging grand musical numbers, culminating with A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody that ends the first part of the film.

Even today, it's still a wildly extravagant number and hard not to be impressed by it: in one take, we get a touch of opera, some Gershwin, and girls--beautiful girls, endless visions of girls, all going around a set that keeps going up and up and up. Lavish, frankly, is too small a word for the number, and it rightly won the Oscar for the now-defunct Best Dance Direction category. We also have to remember that the stars that appear (either as themselves or performed by others) we big, big stars in 1936: Cantor, Rogers, Brice and Bolger were names the public knew, though tragically they aren't as well-known today.*

The Great Ziegfeld offers up a grand vision of what many audiences could only hope to see: an actual Ziegfeld Follies show. Therefore, a paying public would certainly get its money's worth.  If nothing else, The Great Ziegfeld doesn't skimp on the opulence and lavish nature of a Ziegfeld production.

I also have to acknowledge the great performances in the film. William Powell is perfect in the title role. He has a marvelous charm to his Flo, a man who is the living embodiment of someone who could charm the birds from the trees and sell ice to the Eskimos (or Inuit to use the correct terminology). We see this in the first few minutes, when after failing to attract audiences from Billings' dancer, "Little Egypt", he takes Sandow to dinner. Though he's on the verge of getting thrown off the fair's midway, Ziegfeld still insists on spending what little money he has to put up appearances...and charm Billings' companion away from him.

We should dislike Ziegfeld for being so irresponsible with money and cooking up all sorts of outrageous publicity to attract audiences, but we end up loving him for those qualities. Powell's Ziegfeld may be a bit of a confidence man, but one full of confidence in himself and unwilling to let details such as paying his costumers prevent him from creating more elaborate shows. Again and again, he is beset by financial problems, but again and again, he goes ahead with his plans, knowing full well that everything will turn out his way. Ziegfeld is a True Optimist and perhaps the reason we like him (apart from Powell's first-rate characterization) is that we like Ziegfeld's unfailing confidence and joy--an American original.

There is also in William Powell's performance a sweetness and vulnerability to his Ziegfeld. The scene when he is proposing to Billie Burke is very gentle and touching. He and Myrna Loy are beautiful together. Pity they didn't make any other films together...just kidding. They made a beautiful couple, and Loy was wise not to try to capture the real Burke's unique voice style (if you've seen The Wizard of Oz, you will instantly recognize the real Billie Burke as Glinda the Good Witch). She is Powell's equal, making her Burke an intelligent woman who is also supportive of her man.

Now, as for Luise Rainer...well, perhaps I don't have a good handle on her interpretation of Anna Held, but I still think her performance was very fluttery and mannered, full of hand-wringing and exaggerated posing. Her temperamental outbursts: one minute demanding Ziegfeld leave, then demanding he stay within the same minute in her French accent, was getting a bit difficult to endure at times.

Rainer was very pretty but her Anna came of as slightly dumb. When told Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. wants to see her in her dressing room, she asks her maid, "Why is he Junior? Is he a little boy?" Frankly, I don't know what to make of that line: was it meant to be witty or was it meant to show how dumb Anna Held was suppose to be? Her delivery makes it sound like the latter.

There are also unexpected surprises, delights, and a few shockers. A.A. Trimble did such a spot-on impression of Will Rogers that the first time I saw the film, I thought it was the Will Rogers in a cameo (which on reflection would have been impossible given that Rogers had died in an airplane accident a year before The Great Ziegfeld was released). It's hard to make the same claim for Doyle's Cantor, since "Eddie Cantor" was performing in blackface (it should be remembered that this was part of Cantor's act and acceptable at the time). Ray Bolger shows what a marvelous dancer he was, and Brice's appearance was delightful, bringing her Yiddish humor to her brief role as herself. Her scene where she doesn't realize that THE Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. is inviting her to join his Follies is very funny, showing off the real "Funny Girl" as a talented comedienne.

Unfortunately, her signature song, My Man, was abbreviated in the film, which is tragic considering its three-hour length. My personal thinking is that in 1936 the majority of the audience would have known the song so there was no thought of including the entire number in the film when the audience could have just heard it on radio or records. On a personal note, this might be my imagination, but I always got the sense that Brice and Bolger were glad to appear as themselves in The Great Ziegfeld and that they had a great fondness, affection and appreciation for the man who gave them their big break.  The Great Ziegfeld was their way of paying tribute to him, and their appearances in it certainly enhanced the film as a whole.

When it comes down to it The Great Ziegfeld has two strikes against it: at three hours it's still too long to watch without a break (there is an intermission in the film), and Rainer's performance (while being a Best Actress Oscar-winning one for that year) is by today's standards the most unrealistic and exaggerated of the top three billed actors. Still, it has great musical numbers, great performances by Powell & Loy, and that makes it perhaps not The Great Ziegfeld but the Very Good Ziegfeld.


I also have personal reflections on Luise Rainer's centenary as well as more views on other Best Picture winners.

* Ray Bolger is probably best remembered as The Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz (coincidently costarring Ziegfeld's widow Billie Burke), while Fanny Brice won't be forgotten due to Barbra Streisand playing Brice in Funny Girl. Will Rogers may strike a note due to the Will Rogers Institute, and it's doubtful modern audiences would know who Eddie Cantor was. Amazing how big names are now barely remembered. Tragic.

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