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At the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, sideshow barker Flo Ziegfeld turns the tables on his more successful neighbor Billings, and steals his girlfriend to boot. This pattern is repeated throughout their lives, as Ziegfeld makes and loses many fortunes putting on ever bigger, more spectacular shows (sections of which appear in the film). French revue star Anna Held becomes his first wife, but it's not easy being married to the man who "glorified the American girl." Late in life, now married to Billie Burke, he seems to be all washed up, but... Written by
Rod Crawford <email@example.com>
Universal Pictures bought the film rights to Ziefeld's life story from his widow Billie Burke in late 1933. William Powell was to play Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., Billie Burke was to play herself, and it would feature specialties by Fanny Brice, Judy Garland (and her sisters), Eddie Cantor and Ray Bolger. When Universal decided to make a faithful film version of the Kern-Hammerstein musical "Show Boat", which Ziegfeld himself had originally produced onstage, the studio heads sold "The Great Ziegfeld" to MGM in March 1935 while still in pre-production. Only Powell, Brice and Bolger survived to the final picture. Ironically, MGM would buy the rights to "Show Boat" from Universal in 1942, and remake the musical, in Technicolor, in 1951. See more »
The "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody" number incorporates snippets of Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue", which was premiered circa 1924, but after its performance Anna Held, who died in 1918, is still portrayed as alive and married to Ziegfeld. See more »
An actor portraying composer Jerome Kern is seen in an office playing "Look for the Silver Lining" on the piano, but he is not mentioned on any cast list for this film. He is simply called "Jerry" by the other characters in the scene. See more »
Ol' Man River
Music by Jerome Kern
Lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
Played during the opening credits
Sung by an uncredited male vocalist and played during the last two montages See more »
Before anybody goes on for one minute more about how brilliant Luise Rainer is as Anna Held, let's remember that she took the Oscar from Garbo's Camille. I mean, come on. Rainer is pretty and her instincts are right, and her famous "telephone scene" expertly employs the old smiling-through-tears device. But it's hardly as challenging a role as Marguerite, and Rainer's undeniable Continental charm can go only so far.
The movie itself is a corker. William Anthony McGuire's screenplay is far above average for this musical-biography genre; it's full of smart wisecracks, and while it heavily fictionalizes Ziegfeld's life and persona (it makes him much more suave and irresistible than he was), it gets the big things right: his invention of the big musical revue, his obsession with glorifying the American girl, his unparalleled showmanship and eye for talent.
Speaking of talent, you get a full, uninterrupted, great Ray Bolger number, several clever and lavish production numbers, and a snippet of Fanny Brice (but cutting away from her "My Man" is unforgivable). The actors playing Eddie Cantor and Will Rogers are amusingly terrible. And Virginia Bruce is memorably nasty as a temperamental showgirl.
The Academy named this Best Picture of 1936. And you know, it probably was.
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