The Great Ziegfeld


Warner Archive;
$24.95 Blu-ray; 
Not rated.
Stars William Powell, Luise Rainer, Frank Morgan, Myrna Loy, Reginald Owen, Fanny Brice, Virginia Bruce, Ray Bolger, Mickey Daniels.

It was one of my first histories of cinema, an amorphously named hardback (the title and author of which escape me) detailing what the writer reckoned “The 50 Greatest Films of All Time.” I was 9 and determined to see them all, none more than 1936’s The Great Ziegfeld, a three-hour MGM biopic of the legendary Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. Fresh off a pan-and-scan airing of Mister Roberts on “Monday Night at the Movies” and a local presentation of The Thin Man on WGN-TV’s Sunday night staple, “When Movies Were Movies,” I was equally determined to log every title in William Powell’s filmography. With 90% of Powell’s talkies under my belt, the unavailability of many of his silent pictures makes my quest for completism an impossibility.

Not only did the film take home a Best Picture Oscar — this was long before the worthlessness of art competing became blindingly obvious — it would mark my introduction to such vaunted showbiz nobility as Luise Rainer, Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor and Will Rogers. Or so I thought. A plane crash had claimed Rogers’ life eight months prior to the film’s release. His cameo was fulfilled by celebrity impersonator A.A. Trimble. And underneath the burnt cork was Cantor stand-in Buddy Doyle. Of the four, only Ms. Rainer would play a significant role. As the first Mrs. Ziegfeld, Anna Held, Rainer mounted the first of two back-to-back Oscar-winning performances. The Good Earth followed and Rainer looked to be well on the road to the second coming of Garbo. Found on IMDb, Rainer remembered, “When I got two Oscars, they thought ‘Oh, they can throw me into anything’. I was a machine, practically a tool in a big, big factory, and I could not do anything. And so I left. I just went away. I fled. Yes, I fled.” Legend has it she used one of her acting trophies as a doorstop. After a handful of performances, Rainer bid Hollywood an acrimonious farewell. To her credit, one of her few return performances was on the boarding list of “The Love Boat.”

The history book made much ado about Rainer’s teary-eyed, stiff upper lip phone call congratulating Flo on his second marriage to Billie Burke (Myrna Loy), claiming that scene alone earned her the Oscar. WGN’s fuzzy 16mm print combined with a rabbit ears presentation helped to cloud Rainer’s glycerine tears made obvious a few years later during a 35mm theatrical revival. Rather than scaling things down for the closeup lens, Rainer pitched her performance for the back row of a cavernous playhouse. The result was stilted, to say the least.

Ziegfeld’s name was synonymous with quality, opulence and extravagance. It’s only fitting that Hollywood’s maximum dream factory brings his life story, or a reasonable facsimile thereof, to the screen in what looks to be the studio’s great endeavor to outstrip the mighty showman. The major difference between Broadway Flo and the House that Leo Built was the latter’s high-minded talent for peddling pith. Wasn’t it MGM, under the guidance of Boy Wonder Irving Thalberg, who pitched The Marx Bros. A Night at the Opera as, “The most important comedy ever made!” I must have been too busy laughing to notice the tenor.

Trusty Metro contract director Robert Z (-z-z-z-). Leonard earned his reputation for bringing ’em in on time, under budget, and wrapt in efficient impersonality. To Powell, the role was a career-changer. According to biographer Roger Bryant, the actor said, “After seeing this film I can see that most of the characters I have played before were contrived.” A cutaway of Powell’s open-mouthed, eye-rolling reaction to Sandow the strongman (Nat Pendleton) being showered by an elephant is worthy of Spanky McFarland. He handles the dramatics well, but even he can’t carry the weight of the three-hour running time. His Thin Man co-star Myrna Loy received second billing even though she doesn’t appear until 135 minutes into the proceedings. One wonders how Loy’s performance might have changed had the film been released after The Wizard of Oz gave Burke her signature role (and instant recognizability) as Glinda the Good Witch. Perhaps it was wise of Loy not to attempt to mimic Burke’s singularly recognizable tickled tonality.

The film’s most acclaimed sequence, the “Wedding Cake” number, begins with Dennis Morgan standing before a curtain and mouthing Alan Jones’ rendition of “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody.” On the payroll, Jones had already laid down the vocal track and for whatever reason, the studio went with it. The camera assumes the role of spectator with 10th row center seats. The curtain lifts, the stage rotates, and the camera begins its vertical ascension of the 100-ton set on an eight-minute, two-take step-by-step history of romance as it traverses from the 18th century, through Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue,” and all points in between. Where it’s impossible to conceive a Busby Berkeley showstopper actualized within the confines of a proscenium wall, with a tall enough ceiling, this lane cake would feel right at home on a theatre platform. The sets bleed glitzy prestige and the execution is akin to watching a bolt of silk unravel. Berkeley’s kaleidoscopic amazement told a story; Leonard’s rendering was a technical exercise. 

Viewers interested in a superficial history of the fabled Follies won’t leave hungry. That’s more than can be said for those in search of new special features. They’re the same documentary, newsreel, cartoon and trailer found on the film’s old DVD.

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