9. The Great Ziegfeld (1937)

Title: The Great Ziegfeld

Release Date: 8 April, 1936

Oscar Ceremony: 4 March, 1937

Director: Robert Z. Leonard

Starring: William Powell, Luise Rainer & Myrna Loy

I’m in the midst of final projects for the end of the semester and yet I’m still here watching and writing about movies. This week, I forced myself to sit through the whole 3 hours of The Great Ziegfeld. Considering the fact that the story portrays approximately 40 years of a legendary Broadway producer’s life, 3 hours doesn’t seem too bad, but it still feels a little stretched out nonetheless.

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The great Ziegfeld, Florenz “Flo” Ziegfeld Jr. (1867-1932), actually existed in real life, which would make this film the first “biopic” to win Best Picture. The movie starts in 1893 at the Chicago World Fair, where “Flo” (portrayed by William Powell) tries to make a real name for himself in the world of show business by promoting an act featuring Eugen Sandow, the world’s strongest man. He struggles getting the fame and fortune he seeks, as he has to outdo his rival and nemesis, Jack Billings (played by Frank Morgan, the guy who played the wizard in The Wizard of Oz). Billings’ act is called “Little Egypt,” and features seductive belly dancers, which, let’s face it, is pretty hard to beat. Still, the great Ziegfeld doesn’t give up: he decides to employ similar tactics and ends up marketing his act by telling women that they will get the chance to touch the strongest man in the world’s flexing muscles if they pay for a ticket. It’s all about sex appeal, guys.

The first 30 minutes of the film pretty much revolve around this setting. I would say it’s quite unrelated to the rest of the story, but it does set the tone and introduce us to Ziegfeld’s ways. We also understand his background and his resilience; no matter how much he fails or how broke he is, he is always determined to find a way to get back on top. He eventually ends up in the wonderful world of Broadway and dedicates his time to producing shows and finding the freshest acts in town. One of the first women that he manages to lure is Anna Held (played by Luise Rainer), a beautiful French star. Funnily enough, it was Billings who initially went out looking for her, but Ziegfeld got to her first thanks to his sly little schemes. Aside from making profit off of this woman, he also ends up marrying her. If you ask me, he could have just stopped there and lived a happy life, but his addiction to fame and success prevented him from doing so. The rest of the movie is about his constant seeking of new acts and his womanizing ways, eventually leading to his divorce, his subsequent shows, his second marriage, and his death.

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When I went to go look for this movie at the library, it was classified under “musicals.” I’m not sure if that’s the most accurate label. You see, when I think musical, I think Les Miserables, Sweeney Todd, The Lion King… even High School Musical. In all of these movies, the musical numbers advance the story or at least contribute to it; they are an integral part of the plot. However, in The Great Ziegfeld, you could remove all of them and the movie would remain fairly unchanged. The musical numbers are simply examples of what Ziegfeld’s shows did and they are there as more of a tribute to the man, not an actual part of the narrative. Instead of calling it a musical, maybe I would call it a musical tribute, or something of the sort.

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Speaking of the musical numbers in this film, boy are they extravagant. They’re a huge step up from The Broadway Melody. I was honestly beyond impressed… just take a look at the picture above – that’s from a number in the Ziegfeld Follies called “A Pretty Girl is Like A Melody.” First of all, look at all the people involved (there were actually more than what you see in the picture). Second of all, the decor, oh the decor. Finally, the costumes. In every single musical number in this movie, the costumes are breathtaking and really expensive-looking. I looked up the film’s budget for my own curiosity and found out that it was about $2,000,000, which is roughly the equivalent of $26,000,000 today. According to IMDb, the number “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody” alone features 180 performers, a towering rotating volute of 70 ft (21 m) diameter with 175 spiral steps (weighing 100 tons), and cost $220,000 to make. These guys weren’t joking around.

Despite all this, I’m still not sure I really enjoyed the movie. The characters weren’t really likeable and the whole thing was just too long for my taste. The account of Ziegfeld’s life was pretty bland and repetitive. Apparently, his last wife had a say in the script and made sure to remove parts that did not portray him at his best. Maybe those parts could have spiced things up a bit, but now I guess we’ll never know. The next movie on my list, The Life of Emile Zola,  is also a biopic; it will be interesting to compare the two.

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