Movie of the Day: The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

12 Feb


A few years ago I made it my business to see every film that ever won the Oscar for Best Picture for no other reason than to disagree with their choices out of experience, not general principle. I believe in being fair. I also believe that time is valuable, and spending three hours with an irritation like The Great Ziegfeld is asking too much. I’m not kidding, I’ve had dry heaves that gave me more pleasure.

The Great Ziegfeld is one part biography and one part musical spectacle that attempts to cover the entire career of showman Florenz Zeigfeld, Jr.’s career from sideshow barker up through the formation of The Ziegfeld Follies and his eventual death in 1932 at the age of 65. In between there are crumbs of biographical information about his two marriages, and the formation of the Follies which, for all their success, had to be infinitely more entertaining then they appear in this movie.

As a biography, The Great Ziegfeld is mostly sponge-cleaned. Any negative references to the famed showman are neither inferred nor admitted, chiefly at the hand of Zeigfeld’s widow Billie Burke who watched over this production like hawk to see that her husband’s name would remain in the annals of sainthood. Ziegfeld is seen in this movie as a man who was a genius at marketing, showmanship and in his relationships. Nevermind that he was married twice and left his first wife to be with his second.

The movie starts off okay with Zeigfeld (William Powell) working as a carnival barker at the 1893 World’s Exposition in Chicago selling tickets to Eugen Sandow the Strongman (played by former Olympic Wrestler Nat Pendleton). His main competition is Jack Billings (Frank Morgan), the barker across the way who is selling a belly dancer named “Little Egypt.” Zeigfeld has a brainstorm. He uses his marketing know-how and allows the young lady patrons to actually come up and feel Sandow’s muscles, which I suppose gives us the first interactive experience. This bit of business acumen turns the crowds away from Little Egypt and right over the Sandow.

Year later, Ziegfeld goofs Billings again. They are in Europe trying to get the famed singer Anna Held (Oscar winner Luise Rainer) to sign a contract with them. Zeigfeld earns her trust and not only gets her to sign, but also marries her. Time goes on and Zeigfeld becomes a success, forming his own show The Ziegfeld Follies. Anna sees Flo through the salad days but as time goes on she resents his infidelity and divorces him. He marries Billie Burke but Held still holds love in her heart for her former husband. That leads to the most talked about and acclaimed scene in the film as Anna gets a phone call from Flo and congratulates him on his new marriage while she goes to pieces. It has been argued that this was the scene that got Rainer her first Oscar.

If any of this sounds the last bit interesting then you probably don’t ask for much. The uneven narrative is broken up by recreations of many of the musical numbers that Flo created for his follies. The dance numbers are interminable, not to mention monotonous and boring. Many numbers feature performers moving about the stage in large, garish costumes. There is no geometry to these numbers, no orientation as they would be later under the direction of Busby Berkley. We see performers head on as we would on the stage, not in three-dimensions as we should in a movie. The most famous number is a large lumbering dinosaur of a production that features a giant staircase that looks like a wedding cake. Surrounding the axis are men in tuxes while women in large fluffy gowns sit on the stairs as the camera moves past them. Yes, it is dreamlike, but it is endless, pointless, meaningless and finally frustrating. If that weren’t bad enough, right in the middle of the movie is a performance of “If You Know Suzy” by a singer in blackface, YUCK!

Some moments of brightness appear, such as an appearance by the unforgettable Fanny Brice with that wide mouth and that over-extended New York accent lined with a heavy dose of Judaica, she had a marvelous screen presence. She livens, for a moment, what is essentially dead material. Then she’s gone as quickly as show came. Too bad. To my mind, this is the single worst film ever to win the Oscar for Best Picture. It’s big, it’s garish, but is is struggle to sit through.


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