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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My Man Godfrey


Street Date 9/18/18;
$29.95 DVD, $39.95 Blu-ray;
Not rated.
Stars William Powell, Carole Lombard, Gail Patrick, Alice Brady, Eugene Pallette.

Of the three great ’30s screwball comedies that Criterion has released in bang-up Blu-ray fashion, It Happened One Night is at least partly grounded in the Depression, The Awful Truth not much at all and My Man Godfrey most of all, which is one reason why Godfrey’s 1957 remake never had a chance. It takes a certain kind of time and place (to say nothing of a mind) to come up with the hook that launches the Godfrey original: Rival socialite sisters who begin their days with breakfast in bed comb a New York dump to find a “Forgotten Man” (see also Joan Blondell in Gold Diggers of 1933 for an even more famous screen reference). This way, they accrue enough points to win a scavenger hunt that’s centerpiece of a mucky-mucky society bash packed with tuxes and pearls.

The certain kind of mind we’re talking about belonged to director Gregory La Cava, who apparently also dominated a script credited to Eric Hatch (who wrote the source story) and A Night at the Opera’s Morrie Riskind. Profusely admired by both W.C. Fields and (after Godfrey gave her the best role offer career) co-lead Carole Lombard, La Cava had severe problems with the sauce that truncated and then ended his career not long after World War II. But at his best (as here and in the following year’s also superb Stage Door), he could somehow fashion a movie that seemed both structured and the product of a “let’s just wing it” sensibility. With Godfrey’s light-touch treatment of a serious underlying subject and a cast of characters that “loopy” doesn’t even begin to describe, there are about a dozen ways this history-book classic could have gone of the rails, and yet it doesn’t.

I’m not as up on La Cava as much as I should be because there are titles even from his relatively limited outfit that I haven’t seen (though I’m fond of 1940’s Primrose Path and enjoyed my fairly rare copy of the 1935 drama Private Worlds). Fortunately, La Cava was the kind of filmmaker who’s directly on the wavelength wheelhouse of Criterion-interviewed Gary Giddins; other bonuses (and they are) include Farran Smith Nehme liner notes, and film critic Nick Pinkerton apparently just ignoring a camera that blatantly says, “enthrall me” planted on his face; he delivers what looks like an effortlessly off-the-cuff analysis of La Cava’s career history that can’t be.

As Giddins points out, most of the cast members do what they had done or would do in other movies — only better. William Powell (in the title role and despite of his literal dump of a domicile) is urbane; Lombard sister Gail Patrick is catty and presumably irredeemable; mother Alice Brady is dizzy enough to make some of Billie Burke’s screen characters look like Madame Curie; and exhausted father Eugene Pallette barks in that unmistaken voice-of-gravel that he always had. Of course, there’s also Mischa Auer, who got one of the movie’s four Oscar nominations for acting.

Though Auer was later in Frank Capra’s You Can’t Take It With You, which is somewhat in the same family tree of movies, his is the one character here without many antecedents, even if he does serve the same not-quite-a-gigolo-but-close contribution Alexander D’Arcy makes to The Awful Truth. This is in large part due to the scene where Auer delivers what Nehme (a film historian with whom you can go to the bank — and also one whose writing is so much fun that you might also want to go with her to the Dairy Queen) calls “the single best gorilla impression in the history of American film.” This seems a safe bet, and I would be surprised if David Warner didn’t give Auer’s big scene some serious study before embarking upon, access the shores, 1966’s Morgan!

Powell pulls kind of a Jack Benny here (a germane reference to Lombard’s final co-star from To Be or Not To Be) by letting everyone else in the movie get the laughs, which only improves his standing in the picture. Hired on by Lombard as the family butler — none of his predecessors have lasted too long — Powell/Godfrey treats his tenure as a learning experience for himself while quietly dispensing wisdom that might just remind his employers that there’s another whole world out there, especially in the rubble. Lombard is as oblivious as anyone (with nuts-and-bolts Pallette the expected exception), but at least she’s sweet about it. She’s also as dizzy as her mother when the line between dizzy and batty can be a thin one, but Lombard finds a way to make the character appealing. A lot of people forget that Lombard was Powell’s pre-Gable (and friendly) ex-wife, and Powell lobbied La Cava to get her the role.

Speaking of Powell, Universal somehow got MGM to loan out the “Thin Man” of all franchises for this one-shot, contributing to a Universal project that has never to me felt like one (the unforgettably art deco-ish opening credits seem more as if they’re setting us up for 93 minutes from an RKO universe). Regardless, you can bet that the studio was happy to claim My Man Godfrey. In an achievement that stills impresses while simultaneously making you ask, “What the hell?” about a dozen times, it got Oscar nominations for direction, screenplay, Powell, Lombard, Brady (in support) and Auer (in support) —but not for best picture in one of those years when there were 10 available nominations to play with in the top category. Then again, Modern Times didn’t get nominated for best picture in 1936, either.

Thus, if your opinion of the Oscars (then, now or both) can be reduced to simple invective, included on this release is a smattering of something close (well, cursing) in a dupey-looking bonus extra that runs a minute and some change. It’s a series of blown takes, which is a rarity for Criterion, that confirms Lombard’s beguiling flair for foul-mouth. This is old news, but it’s a special treat to see Powell in standard debonair mode also coming forth with some goodies, one of which really cracks up featured player Alan Mowbray.

Mike’s Picks: ‘My Man Godfrey’ and ‘The Last Hunt’