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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 <firstname.lastname@example.org>
THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1936), directed by Robert Z. Leonard, and choreography by Seymour Felix, stars William Powell as the legendary Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. (1869-1932), in a fact-and-fiction musical biography that can be summed up from its opening credits, "suggested by romances and events." From the very start, with its very impressive theatrical lighted title credits lasting over two minutes, one would expect this to be a lavish scale production, and it is. So lavish that it leaves the impression the initials of MGM actually stands for Mighty Grand Musical, considering its great length of three solid hours (180 minutes), or two movies for the price of one. What an impression THE GREAT ZIEGFELD must have made in 1936, becoming an Academy Award as Best Picture for that year. Since the Ziegfeld name was still in recent memory, it assured box office appeal. The name of Anna Held (1873-1918) might be one for the history books. Because of Luise Rainer's carnation of this popular actress whose fame was the early part of the twentieth century, the Held name is most associated with Rainer than as the first Mrs. Ziegfeld.
The plot traces the career of Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. (William Powell), starting as a carnival barker at the 1893 Chicago Fair, his discovery and exploitation of Sandow, the Strong Man (Nat Pendleton); his departing for Europe where he competes with his best friend and rival, Jack Billings (Frank Morgan), for not only obtaining the services of his servant, Sidney (Ernest Cossart), but beating him to the punch by signing a popular French actress named Anna Held (Luise Rainer), to a performing contract with him back in America. To be sure he wouldn't lose his prize star, Ziegfeld marries her. During their somewhat stormy marriage, Florenz Ziegfeld stages extravagant shows that makes him world famous. Constantly surrounded by gorgeous show girls, Ziegfeld has his share of problems, especially with Audrey Dane (Virginia Bruce), a temperamental showgirl responsible for his divorce from Anna. Ziegfeld later meets and later marries Billie Burke (Myrna Loy), an accomplished actress in her own right, who not only bears his a daughter, Patricia (Jean Holland), but stands by him during his theatrical downfall and setback after the 1929 Stock Market Crash.
On the musical program combining old and (new songs by Walter Donaldson and Harold Adamson), features: "I Wish You'd Come and Play With Me," and "It's Delightful to Be Married" (both sung by Luise Rainer); "If You Knew Susie" (sung by Buddy Doyle imitating Eddie Cantor in black-face); "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody" by Irving Berlin (sung by Dennis Morgan/voice dubbed by Allan Jones); "You Gotta Pull Strings" (sung by chorus girls); "She's a Follies Girl" (sung and danced by Ray Bolger); "You" (sung by chorus); "You Never Looked So Beautiful Before" (sung by Virginia Bruce/chorus); "Yiddle in the Fiddle" by Irving Berlin; "Queen of the Jungle" and "My Man" by Channing Pollack and Maurice Yvaine (all sung by Fannie Brice); "Look For the Silver Lining" by Jerome Kern; and "A Circus Must Be Different in a Ziegfeld Show" (sung by chorus, performed by Harriet Hoctor), Montage score to Broadway shows: RIO RITA, WHOOPEE, THE THREE MUSKETEERS and SHOW BOAT (briefly playing "Ol Man River" on the soundtrack). "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody," an authentically reproduced eight minute musical segment is certainly the film's true highpoint.
The "granddaddy of all Hollywood's musical biographies, THE GREAT ZIEGFELD is a very impressive film with an impressive cast. While consisting of Ziegfeld headliners as Fannie Brice, Ray Bolger and Harriet Hoctor appearing as themselves, it also features A.A. Trimble and Buddy Doyle authentically duplicating Will Rogers and Eddie Cantor at best. This doesn't go without some regrets by not having the likes of W.C. Fields or Marilyn Miller recreating what they did best under Ziegfeld. Another letdown is having Fanny Brice singing her signature torch song, "My Man," in incomplete form while the story moves to another scene. Rainer's role of Anna Held did win her an Academy Award as Best Actress for her performance based of her famous "telephone scene" congratulating ex-husband on his marriage to Billie Burke as she holds in her true emotions. While Billie Burke (1885-1970), then currently a well known film actress, could very well have portrayed herself Myrna Loy steps in for box office appeal. Frank Morgan, the fictional Billings, gives a performance worthy for Best Supporting Actor category while William Powell, the main focus from start to finish, was strangely overlooked by the academy.
In 1978, there was another tribute to Florenz Ziegfeld, a TV movie titled ZIEGFELD: THE MAN AND HIS WOMEN, starring Paul Shenar as Ziggy, but it failed to live up to the expectations to the 1936 original. At 156 minutes, it seemed longer than the original. Unlike the Powell version, the 1978 bio-pic remains forgotten.
Unlike similar musical biographies of this nature made popular in the 1940s, THE GREAT ZIEGFELD captures the spirit of its time frame, with costumes and women's hairstyles being historically accurate. A movie at this extreme length tends to have its slow spots, which it does, but overall, a large scale production that only MGM can recreate.
Distributed to home video by MGM/UA in the late 1980s, the roadshow version consisting of entrée and closing music, deleted scenes and intermission title has been inserted into the 2005 DVD release. THE GREAT ZIEGFELD can also be found on Turner Classic Movies, especially during its annual "Thirty Days of Oscar." (****)
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