Ad campaigns of its day prematurely proclaimed The Great Ziegfeld (1936) “the sensation of the century.” Perhaps not, but this mind-boggling pseudo-biographical epic is at once sumptuous and elephantine. By any barometer of Hollywood’s showmanship it quite easily puts most any other, even from its own vintage, to shame. Such was the supremacy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer then, presided over by Louis B. Mayer; a near mythological raja wielding absolute autonomy over his vast studio empire. There is an embarrassment of riches on display, put forth by a small army of contracted artisans – talent in front of and behind the camera, representative of the very best in the industry. In its prime, MGM was legally classified as a city, making 52 pictures a year, to say nothing of the myriad of cartoons, live shorts, promos and other goodwill projects being developed to promote the studio’s motto: ars gratia artis. Metro had its own labs, music publishing apparatuses, commissary, and, publicity departments. It possessed an enviable roster of top-tier talent. Of the ten box office draws in the world, six were under contract to Metro in 1936. Indeed, everything and anyone needed to make a great movie was under one dominion.
So, to say The Great Ziegfeld had the very best of all worlds is putting things mildly. Ziegfeld's widow, Billie Burke (recast in the picture as Myrna Loy) was a Metro contract player in 1936. Her diligence and formidable powers of persuasion helped to launch this project, very loosely based on her late husband’s legendary career. Although Mayer was enthusiastic about the prestige such a movie would bring, he was as excitable about the amount of money producer, Hunt Stromberg eventually ended up spending to make The Great Ziegfeld as fine and as lavish as anything yet seen. The hyperbole around the back lot then was that it had taken an oil well, a couple of Mayer’s prized racing ponies and a personal chit from Bank of America to finance the picture. And the project was not without its drawbacks, chiefly in a clause affording Burke final cut. William Anthony McGuire's screenplay played fast and loose with the specifics of their lives – both apart and together, most notably in the extramarital affairs the real Florenz Ziegfeld (impeccably played by William Powell) had had throughout his life. Indeed, Burke came to view the project as something of a defense and a vindication of her late husband’s reputation after the publication of a spiteful biography; the movie gradually reshaped into just the sort of fictionalized rags-to-riches slice of Americana Mayer thoroughly enjoyed.
By 1936, William Powell and Myrna Loy had appeared in several outstanding melodramas at MGM, including 1934’s The Thin Man. Oft cast as lovably obtuse marrieds or sporting singles fated to be mated, Powell and Loy are given the opportunity to do a little of each in the second and third acts of The Great Ziegfeld. The strength of the Powell/Loy on-screen alliance and their sublime chemistry as alter-egos Flo and Billie respectively, is eloquently cemented in a tender moment played against double entendre in rear-projection, as several ships quietly pass one another in the night. In her inimitable way, Loy coaxes the first line from her lips, referring to their courtship as ‘kindergarten’, the more worldly Ziegfeld’s reputation as an impresario, surrounded by hundreds of beautiful women (inferring he has taken advantage of more than his professional clauses in their options) resulting in the break-up of his first marriage to Anna Held. As per her inquiry about Anna ‘taking up’ several of Flo’s years, Powell’s model of forthrightness makes zero apology, adding “Yes, Billie, she did….and she was truly a wonderful woman” to which Loy gently mellows as she adds, “I love you for saying that.”
The mood turns palpably romantic, though never maudlin as Powell’s dapper suitor instructs Loy’s affecting grand lady to concentrate for just a moment on the ferries crossing to the Palisades, mustering up all inner resolve to confess, “I love you... I haven't anything to offer you, because there’s nothing you really seem to need. You've made the most of yourself unassisted, and that's grand…so there’s little I can offer you. Nothing I can give you... except my love.” This would already be a superb declaration, but now McGuire’s screenplay ups the ante ever so slightly, capping off the moment with an enveloping bit of unvarnished charm and matchless sincerity; Loy tenderly suggesting, “That isn't enough... I expect part of your ambition, half of your trouble, two-thirds of your worries... and all of your respect.”
The Great Ziegfeld is precisely the sort of glossy biopic and send-up Ziegfeld would have enjoyed immensely; a gargantuan pageant with a lot of class – and girls – touching upon just the right modicums of moral decency, gaudy excess and crazily inspired showmanship. Ziegfeld, who died in Hollywood – not New York, as depicted in the movie – on July 22, 1932, had enjoyed unprecedented success on Broadway and a reputation that only continued to ripen after his passing. By 1936, he was very much ‘a name’ the public knew, and so easy to forget that in his own time he had struggled to carve this indelible niche upon the Great White Way, enduring professional hardships and personal bankruptcies along the way. If not for Billie Burke, the legacy Flo had wrought might have quietly faded into the annals of that bygone Vaudevillian histoire; never entirely lost, though nevertheless left quietly to molder with the past. Yet, perhaps even without acknowledging as much, Hollywood had already paid Ziegfeld the greatest homage it could by pilfering his trademarked ‘glorification of the American girl’ readily exploited to even grander effect in their popularized musical entertainments; ever-expanding rosters of bedecked and bedazzled chorines showing off their leggy assets for the camera. The Great Ziegfeld is as much a tribute to Flo as his follies; that staggering display of rooftop magic and uber-European wit and sophistication clashing with the brashness of Tin Pan Alley. In his later years, Ziegfeld turned away from the follies to produce a never-again-to-be-equaled six hit shows in a single season; Show Boat, Sally, Rio Rita, Simple Simon, Show Girland Smiles: all debuting in 1927. Yet, it is for his twenty-two yearly installments of ‘the follies’ for which Ziegfeld’s reputation had endured and would be celebrated again and again on celluloid.
The Great Ziegfeld is a mammoth undertaking. It gets the main points of Flo’s life and career right while white-washing the finer details of his first and second marriages. Such was the norm in Hollywood then – particularly when the permission of the second Mrs. Ziegfeld was required. Scripted as a lush embellishment slanted toward the great man's benevolence to all, Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., the man who ‘glorified the American girl’ begins his illustrious career inauspiciously as a not terribly successful carnival barker at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893. His main attraction is Eugene Sandow (Nate Pendleton); an impressive physical specimen. Yet, audiences are not lining up, perhaps because Ziegfeld's rival, Jack Billings (Frank Morgan) and his 'Little Egypt' (Miss Morocco), a writhing belly dancer, are creating quite a stir amongst the male attendees on the midway. Flo gets an idea; to allow any female patron the opportunity to squeeze Sandow's flexing biceps, thereby generating equal-opportunity titillation. It is a shameless plug, but it works like a charm; that is, until Ziegfeld’s plans to engage Sandow in a wrestling match with an obviously drugged lion backfire. The lion will not fight, and, eventually topples in a sleepy heap at Sandow’s feet. Ziegfeld is branded a charlatan and run out of town, much to Billing’s amused delight. In reality, Sandow was a huge hit with audiences at the fair and would remain so even after it closed. Unable to pay Eugene the estimated thousand dollars a week for his services as promised, Ziegfeld instead offered the muscleman a percentage of the gross from generated ticket sales to their attraction. Unwittingly, Ziegfeld would wind up paying Sandow more than $3,600 per week for his services; a mind-blowing sum in 1893.
Returning to his father's (Joseph Cawthorne) music conservatory after the ‘lion debacle’, Flo confides, much to Dr. Ziegfeld’s dismay, that he has absolutely zero interest in teaching music for a living. Instead, he intends to travel to Europe to secure the rights to a new star; chanteuse, Anna Held (Luise Rainer), currently all the rage in Europe. Learning Billings has also crossed the Atlantic in the hopes to sign Anna to a long-term American contract, Flo intercedes with his inimitable charm and convinces Anna to ally with him instead, despite the fact he has, as yet, no money to produce even a modest show around her. Flo further exacerbates his arch rival’s patience when he convinces Billing’s valet, Sidney (Ernest Cossart) to quit his employer and become his personal man servant instead. The temperamental Anna initially finds Flo’ an utter nuisance. In one of the most comically satisfying bits of business, she repeatedly orders Flo from her dressing room with haughty dispatch before recalling him to her side simply because his bouquet of flowers is more to her liking than the one sent over by Billings. Now, Flo engages an English tutor and music instructor, Pierre (Charles Judels) to assist in the cause. Ultimately, Ziegfeld’s class and gentlemanly charm win Anna over. The public, however, remain unconvinced of her star-power, until Flo lets it be known in the newspapers that Anna’s alabaster skin is the result of taking daily ‘milk baths’. Anna is appalled to learn of Flo’s shameless promotion. In fact, there is no truth to it. Nevertheless, the crowds begin to flock to see what all the fuss is about, with no less an authority than Lillian Russell declaring Anna ‘simply charming’. Before long, Flo proposes to Anna and the two are married. True to his promise – Flo has made Anna his first great Americanized star. Regrettably, the newly ensconced king of Broadway is prone to dalliances with the bevy of beauties from his follies.
After several light indiscretions, Flo settles too long on Audrey Dane (a very feline Virginia Bruce); a social-climbing chorine. Like Anna, Audrey is given the star treatment and transformed into a headlining talent for Flo’s latest follies. Unlike Anna, Audrey is cruel. Never to be contented as just the toast of Broadway Audrey begins to make demands on Flo, steadily determined to wreck his marriage by exposing their affair in the public. After appearing to great success in Flo’s rooftop follies, a thoroughly drunken Audrey makes her veiled affections for Ziegfeld known to the packed house. Miraculously, only Anna reads more into Audrey’s insinuations. True to Audrey's prophecy, the realization of their affair causes the self-respecting Anna to ask for a temporary separation. And although a very tearful Anna fervently believes such absences can only make the heart grow fonder, her own is irrevocably broken when Flo’ files for divorce, then begins a new chapter in his personal life, pursuing the already established stage lovely, Billie Burke (Myrna Loy).
Actress, Luis Rainer would win the first of two back-to-back Oscars for her role as Anna Held; the award chiefly given for the poignant ‘telephone scene’ in which this Viennese beauty quietly resists breaking down, even feigning tender happiness, as she learns from her estranged husband he intends to marry Billie just as soon as their divorce is finalized. Initially misperceiving the phone call to be a reconciliation Rainer’s wounded lovely runs an impressive gamut of emotions from elation to very thinly veiled anguish, culminating with Anna hanging up the telephone before dissolving into tears. It is a superlative moment in the picture; one either oft revived, revered and/or criticized for its sentimentality. Yet, even from our present age of jadedness, Rainer’s emotional outpouring is unambiguously earnest.
Luise Rainer is one of Hollywood’s truly forgotten legends; a woman of substance, it seems, in an industry – then as now – prided on sexy and vacuous superficialities of varying shapes and sizes. Given the ‘big build-up’ by Mayer’s dream factory, Rainer’s ascendance as one of MGM’s premiere commodities, rumored then to have even rivaled Garbo’s box office clout, was all but confirmed when the Viennese star marched into L.B. Mayer’s private office to suggest that her source of inspiration had completely dried up, due to the fact she had no control over the parts she was being offered. Mayer, who could be caustic and unrelenting with any star disobeying his edicts, reportedly told Luise, “What do you need a source for? Don’t you have a director?!? Rainer…we made yah and we’re gonna kill yah” to which an unflinching Rainer replied, “Mr. Mayer, I’m in my twenties and you are in your fifties. When I am of the age most of your leading ladies are now, you’ll be dead and that is precisely when I will start to live.” As Rainer would later conclude, “And that was it. I walked out. That was the end between Mr. Mayer and me.”
In the movie as in life, Flo's second marriage to Billie Burke is a rousing success, threatened not by infidelity, but an insidious run of bad luck: 1929's stock market crash jeopardizing the now aged impresario’s ability to maintain their lavish lifestyle. Billie allows Flo to hock the jewels he had previously given her to keep them afloat. However, while at his local barber for a shave, Flo overhears several men boorishly predicting his imminent demise. Their casual blood sport incurs his ire, especially after one of the men suggests Flo’s days as an entrepreneur are numbered. Unwilling to accept defeat, Flo makes his presence known to these waggling tongues, and furthermore, rallies to produce four hit shows on Broadway simultaneously. The workload, however, wears him out and he eventually collapses from the strain. Recuperating under Sidney's watchful eye while Billie is at work on the stage, Flo imagines one last follies in his mind - his thoughts illuminated by an ever-rising set of stairs for which his shows have always been justly famous, now, populated by a parade of elegant ladies and courtiers. Sidney observes as the gentle rose in Ziegfeld’s hand loosely drops to the floor; a lyrical way to express Ziegfeld’s own gentle passing. In truth, the real Ziegfeld’s heart had been greatly weakened by a virulent bout of pneumonia from which he never entirely recovered. Although doctors remained optimistic about his prospects, Florenz Ziegfeld’s condition increasingly leaned towards chronic illness, eventually overtaking the master glorifier in the comfort of his California home on July 22, 1932. He was only 65 years old.
Viewed today, The Great Ziegfeld can be admired on many different levels; first, and foremost, for director, Robert Z. Leonard’s ability never to lose sight of the real ‘human interest’ story at its heart, though never behind the gaudy glamour readily on display. William Powell and Myrna Loy strike exactly the right tone to ensure the latter half of this mammoth biopic never wanes from telling a ‘life story’ with musical entertainment to boot. Powell, who had been personally approved to play the title role by the real Billie Burke, not so much for his physical likeness to her late husband, but for the content of his character and similarities in manner, deportment and temperament would later comment, “What I tried to do primarily was to get across the essential spirit of the man, his love for show business, his exquisite taste, and, his admiration for the beauty of women. He was financially impractical but aesthetically impeccable—a genius in his chosen field.” In more recent times, Luise Rainer’s performance has come under heavy criticism for its theatricality; a rather idiotic critique given the era in which the picture was made. Indeed, Rainer’s turn as Anna Held is in direct contrast to Powell and Loy’s more naturalistic approach. And yet, it too remains ideally heartfelt and genuine, boasting a European sentiment, exoticism and yes, ‘theatricality’ that is perfectly in keeping, not only with the popularized strain of movie acting in the 1930’s (in many ways, a holdover from the highly stylized ‘play acting’ of the silent era), but even more genuine to the period in which the picture is set; Ziegfeld’s marriage to Anna lasting from 1897 to 1913. Barely four years later, Anna Held died of multiple myeloma – cancer of the white blood cells. She was only 46 years old.
The lesser performances in the picture all serve their purposes; Frank Morgan’s rather befuddled charm is working overtime as Ziegfeld’s arch rival, Jack Billings, locked in healthy competition to snuff out big ticket talent to an ‘exclusive’ contract (but actually, one of Flo’s closest allies when the chips are down). Virginia Bruce’s vane and self-destructing Audrey Dane (a thinly disguised substitute for actress, Lillian Lorraine, whom the real Ziegfeld had had an affair with while still married to Anna), is appropriately venomous and jealous without succumbing to the usual clichés of being ‘a bad woman’. Interestingly, the real Billie Burke viewed The Great Ziegfeld as something of a chance to set the record straight about Flo’s extramarital affairs after his reputation had been besmirched by a rather scathing biography written by Held’s own daughter, Lianne, who despised her stepfather and was actually responsible for writing Anna’s memoirs (the authorship, for some time attributed to the late star herself). The great comedienne, Fanny Brice (whom the real Ziegfeld ‘discovered’ and made famous in his follies) is cast as herself in the movie, and delivers a subtly nuanced performance that adds uncharacteristic verisimilitude to these proceedings. Dancer, Ray Bolger is at his rubber-legged best as a stage janitor given his plum debut by Ziegfeld, warbling and dancing to Walter Donaldson/Harold Adamson’s bouncy, ‘She’s A Follies Girl’. The Great Ziegfeld is also noteworthy for several outstanding comedic cameos; Reginald Owen, as Flo’s constantly harried stage manager, Sampston; Ernest Cossart, as Flo’s ever-devoted valet, Sidney, and Herman Bing, as a thoroughly irascible costumer who Flo hornswoggles into allowing the rental of his outfits for free.
What sets The Great Ziegfeld apart from other soppy melodramas of its vintage are the performances given by William Powell and Myrna Loy. Even if the biographical material in William Anthony McGuire's script is occasionally less than sincere (or truthful), neither performer is ever anything less than. And Powell and Loy have the great good fortune of clicking on screen with a sort of perennial familiarity that effortlessly translates into a kind of warmth, as well as strength of character. We love Flo and Billie because we thoroughly adore Powell and Loy. If never married, or even mutually attracted to one another in real life, on screen they epitomized the loving, good-natured and elegant couple, destined for the altar before the final fade out. In any of their many films together, this on-screen chemistry remains steadfast and unflappable - though perhaps never more so than in this movie. When the fictionalized Billie tells Flo she expects half his hardship and all of his respect, we believe Loy implicitly. When Powell as Ziegfeld suggests there is nothing he can offer Billie but himself, his words throb with a sad passion that undercuts the artifice of play acting to suggest real love without reprisals. In real life, Powell and Loy were otherwise happily married but, like the teaming of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, their fans always suspected there was a mutual love that ran much deeper between them - even if it remained platonic – and compliment their professional relationship.
The undeniably impressive aspect of The Great Ziegfeld is its enormous production design: Cedric Gibbons’ art direction (with an uncredited assist from Eddie Imazu) and costume designer, Adrian’s bewildering assortment of thoroughly luscious and occasionally trend-setting attire for the female form divine (it was rumored, under Adrian’s tutelage, Metro’s small army of seamstresses could design up to 5,000 costumes for a single picture) are exquisite contributions that add unprecedented scope and finesse to this production. The most lavish of the numbers, ‘A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody’was built on a gargantuan revolving art deco platform, rotated beneath the stage by four tractors, with its sashaying cat girls and tuxedoed/top-hatted men scaling the immaculate and gleaming white edifice (often referred to as a ‘wedding cake’) to the iconic strains of not only Irving Berlin’s song, but also outtakes from famous operettas and even George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue.
Rather transparently created to rival the genius of Busby Berkeley's tenure at Warner Brothers, the kaleidoscopic dance routine staged by Karl Freund, Ray June and George Folsey may not be as geometrically inventive as Berkeley’s best work, but it continues to sparkle with all of the vintage kitsch a master showman like Florenz Ziegfeld could have – and would have - appreciated. The other truly inventive number in this show is ‘You’ – begun with six pairs of ‘couples’ emerging from various art deco vignettes depicting marital domesticity, stepping out of their prosceniums before a gauzy curtain is drawn to conceal the set change, effortlessly revealed moments later as a scintillating – and rather Freudian – display of fifty beds, each containing a gorgeous – and presumably, unmarried – chorine, scantily clad in identical and frilly negligees. Each indulges in a champagne cocktail before performing a spirited dance atop their respect mattresses; the rows moved in an out, either towards or away from the camera by a tractor pulley. It is precisely this sort of resourcefulness for which MGM’s best musical moments are duly noted and herein, manage to exceed even our wildest expectations for a rousingly good time that truly lives up to the studio’s motto, ‘ars gratia artis’ or ‘art for art’s sake’.
Director Robert Z. Leonard’s approach to this material is rather pedestrian, the studio’s overcompensation on an ultra-plush visual style, perhaps designed to camouflage Leonard’s workman-like lack of camera fluidity and visual finesse. Even one-take Woody S. Van Dyke has more flair than this. Mercifully, the musical numbers escape Leonard’s embalmed waxworks. Regrettably, some of the dramatic scenes occasionally suffer from his methodical – even lethargic pacing right up to the intermission. Again, the acting is so good and the mise en scène so artificially perfect and glittery, as only MGM in its heyday could provide, it is enough to say Leonard’s lack of flair never brings the picture to a halt. Produced with every last cent abundantly on display in every moment up there on the screen, The Great Ziegfeld remains an ambitiously star-studded and very classy classic. It is more of an experience than a movie, but nevertheless great good fun to watch and admire as a textbook example of the studio system at its zenith – all pistons firing in unison.
Warner Home Video’s DVD is a mixed blessing. Please note: despite repackaged cover art, this is the identical transfer as the DVD first released in 1999. The movie’s lengthy run time – 185 min. including overture, intermission, entr’acte and exit music, is compressed onto a single-sided disc. While compression artifacts are very well concealed, the overall image struggles to distinguish itself. Tonality is weaker than anticipated, the gray scale lacking any true blacks. Age-related artifacts are present and infrequently distract. Fine detail looks very solid in close-ups and medium shots. But master shots are plagued by a residual softness with a modicum of film grain that only sometimes looks indigenous to its source. There's also some hideous edge effects during the 'You' production number that really ought to have been addressed before slapping this to disc. The audio is mono and presented at an adequate listening level. Hiss and pop is intermittently noticeably during quiescent moments. For the second time since its Broadway debut, the original overture, intermission and exit music have been included (the first was on the retired MGM/UA LaserDisc from 1994). We get a very brief featurette: Ziegfeld on Film. Back in the day, while other studios were putting together comprehensive ‘making of’, I sincerely chastised Warner Home Video for these forgettable junkets. They have invested in hiring historians and other noteworthy commentators, but give them short shrift. What is the point?
We also get the original theatrical trailer. I will sincerely recommend the Warner Archive (WAC) take hold of this deep catalog title for a Blu-ray release. A few years ago when Warner Home Video gave us Blu-rays of Grand Hotel (1932) and Mrs. Miniver (1942) I had hoped this meant the start of a trend for the long overdue release all of the Best Picture Oscar winners under the Warner Bros. banner. By now, The Great Ziegfeld ought to have been given a deluxe box set treatment; a sort of ‘Ziegfeld on Film’ anthology, also to have included restored editions of Ziegfeld Girl (1941) and Ziegfeld Follies (1946). Alas, we have not seen that sort of commitment from Warner as yet. Will The Great Ziegfeld make its way to Blu-ray in 2017? Debatable to highly unlikely. Should it be on WAC’s list of movies to get to in a hurry, while still taking their time to perform the usual bang-up job in remastering? Absolutely! Here’s to hoping, anyway. Bottom line: recommended – for now.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)