Directed by Robert Z. Leonard
Written by William Anthony McGuire
The Great Ziegfeld is known today for pretty much just two things. The first is that it's one of those Best Picture winners that history has deemed undeserving, a megaproduction so freighted with self-importance, and with MGM's money, and with the prestige of selling a whole lot of tickets even though its tickets cost more, that it just bowled the Academy right over, as much an industrial phenomenon as a piece of cinema. Thus they rewarded it with a statue while other, more worthwhile films went home empty-handed. And that's not entirely fair: Ziegfeld is very comfortably in the top half of 1936's Best Picture nominees (and while I haven't seen them all, I somehow suspect the Romeo and Juliet with the 43 year old Romeo isn't revelatory).
It's absolutely better, for example, than MGM's disaster movie, San Francisco, which is the kind of genre prototype where the pieces are all mostly there but they haven't yet been tooled to fit together yet, so you get a frustrating and psychologically incoherent romantic melodrama that can't hang together as a story for more than the space of a scene, and which ends with an earthquake that appears to have been summoned mostly just to prove to Clark Gable that God exists. (Presumably the rest of the cast had it proved to them God didn't.) It sucks. The Story of Louis Pasteur is a PSA about germ theory. Its blunt edutaintment is at least unintentionally funny (it's the kind of movie that, to get your attention, opens things up with a widower shooting a doctor, because the doctor killed his wife by failing to wash his hands); admittedly, there's something disquieting about a movie from 1936 that mocks vaccine skeptics as relics of a stupid past. Ziegfeld beats the other musical in its category, Three Smart Girls, pretty much by default, for Ziegfeld is neither a drippy mistaken identity farce so dumb it thinks "count" is a rank in English nobility, nor a shrill wish-fulfillment fantasy about Deanna Durbin getting her divorced parents back together. Ziegfeld's even better than the other Best Picture nominee starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, too, the oddly-muted screwball newspaper comedy Libeled Lady. (Meanwhile, the best movie, period, that starred William Powell or Myrna Loy in 1936, After the Thin Man—plausibly the actual best (American) picture of that year—only got nominated for its screenplay.)
Of course, what people mean when they say the right one didn't win is, usually, Mr. Deeds Goes To Town and... they're right. I feel like my Wyler partisanship and deep ambivalence over Capra corn should compel me to elevate Dodsworth, but Mr. Deeds is aces, Capra corn-wise. The point, anyway, is that the injustice could've been much more severe. I mean, they gave Paul Muni a Best Actor award for Pasteur.
Right alongside him, Ziegfeld's Best Picture victory confirmed some of the Academy's least-likeable predilections: it is, indeed, Oscar's first biopic, and the Academy has scarcely passed upon an opportunity to hand gold to one since—good, bad, ugly. This development was probably inevitable: "sweep of history" films recommend themselves to the Academy as Meaningful Art in ways little else does, and such movies had already won twice with Cimarron and Cavalcade. Ziegfeld's got that covered too, plainly trying to grasp ahold of the same basic idea that can be described, roughly, "check out this 20th century." As Fred Astaire would later put it in 1946's Ziegfeld Follies, The Great Ziegfeld's sort-of spiritual sequel, the story of Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. was "the story of an era... and that's how Ziggy wanted it."
And, yeah, "the story of an era" can sure be what his biopic feels like, because the second thing it's known for is being just shockingly, absurdly long, the longest talkie ever made up till that point and possibly holding that title until Gone With the Wind, well, won Best Picture for being a really long movie about the sweep of history. The prodigious length was the excuse given for its more expensive tickets in its first run, though it was also advertised as the most expensive film that MGM had made since 1925's Ben-Hur, and perhaps this also had something to do with that. Ziegfeld, anyway, is a whisker shy of three hours, and despite all that Oscar talk that I evidently find more interesting when it's nearly a century old, and all that unnecessarily-detailed comparison to its fellow 1936 Best Picture nominees (that you'd not be wrong to assume only got wrote because I went on a spree for this one and wanted something to show for it), and, hell, even with my penchant for writing really long reviews of musicals less than half of Ziegfield's length—I'm not unaware of it, I realize it's unattractive, but films that live and die on their individual scenes are difficult to write about with brevity—I think I might pull this one in under 2000 words. Because it's not the length of Ziegfeld that's shocking and absurd: it's the way a movie that exists to celebrate the face-melting awesomeness of a Ziegfeld show (to the extent that its central setpiece—and never has the term "setpiece" been more appropriate!—cost more all by itself than any Ziegfeld show), somehow takes an hour to get to its grander material, does the grandest first, then stuffs the next-grandest and the grandest after that all into a single half hour, but with roughly 90 minutes left to go. And while there's a brief, unsatisfactory gesture at such a thing in a dissolve shot at the end, there is no finale.
It's one of the most incompetently structured movies you'll ever see, then. The plot is a heavily-whitewashed summary of Flo Ziegfeld (that's Powell), who rose from running unpopular sideshows at the World's Fair to become a great Broadway impresario, lost all his money and had to ask his rival Billings (Frank Morgan) for a loan, got married to one of his stars, Anna Held (Luise Rainer), created his Follies in homage to the Folies Bergére, put on a bunch of shows in that vein, never fucked any of his showgirls and definitely didn't fuck either the litigious Marilyn Miller or her thinly-veiled movie counterpart Audrey Dane (Virginia Bruce), but for some reason found himself divorced by Anna Held anyway, whereupon he put on a bunch of shows, lost all his money and had to ask his rival Billings for a loan, whereupon he put on a bunch of shows, married actress Billie Burke (Loy), and, finally, lost all his money and had to ask his rival Billings for a loan, but it was too late because the Great Depression. Then he died in 1932, though it feels like maybe two weeks have passed since Black Friday, and the movie ends without going into how Billie sold the rights to his life story to Universal who sold it to MGM, or how she served as a technical consultant and/or censor on his filmed biography, or why a working actress isn't playing herself. (Though it would've been ghoulish, honestly, if she had.)
Most of that is one sentence because, Jesus, it's not like Ziegfeld gives you much of a choice, and most of that one sentence repeats itself over and over because that's exactly what happens in Ziegfeld's movie. There is never the slightest sense of cutting Flo's life story down to its essential elements, or focusing on a representative segment; you barely get a solid impression of how a Follies gets made. So much of the movie just does not matter except that, presumably, something like it happened. It winds up a string of anecdotes, with almost as many loose ends. Just for the most frustrating example, Flo's strongman attraction, Sandow (Nat Pendelton), he of the dancing biceps and whose borderline-pimping by Flo served as the foundation for Flo's later success, is presented to us as more-or-less the film's second-most important character, not to mention one of Powell's most enjoyable scene partners. He vanishes like aliens snatched him out of the movie, almost never to even be mentioned again, except in passing. (And even that's almost two hours afterward!) As for pure chaff, there's the visit to Flo's straitlaced dad (Joseph Cawthorn), which involves a widdle girl who's training in music with Ziegfeld Sr., and she claims with the certitude of a young child that she's gonna marry old Flo when she grows up. Now, whatever your objections might be to that, if you aren't familiar with the Ziegfeld biography, you would assume this is setting something up. And it is! Ten years later he gives her a job as one of his glorified girls. That's it. So much of Ziegfeld falls under the heading "so what?"
Some of that "so what" is reasonable: they were able to snag Fannie Brice and Ray Bolger (and almost snagged Will Rogers, but he died) to do their Follies acts or facsimiles thereof, and that's, I suppose, fine; the movie gets the blackface warning, and Eddie Cantor (played by Buddy Doyle) shows up so briefly and at such a distance that, remarkably, this 1936 film almost seems embarrassed of him. The biggest and most obvious offender, of course, is Anna, who was plainly a big part of Flo's life and therefore must be a big part of his movie despite her character alternating between dull and irritating and despite Rainer who, insanely, won Best Actress for further derailing a figure who was already three-quarters anti-French cartoon on the page. There is really only one scene where Anna does anything besides delay the good stuff—for all that MGM apparently thought they had a star in Rainer, Anna's act isn't even close to what you'd call Ziegfeld's "good stuff"—and it's when she accepts that her marriage with Flo is over. It's a good and tender scene, but it's easy to just be relieved that she'll be gone, and we're that much closer to getting to Loy. Loy, who's top-billed, and doesn't appear till the third hour of the film, also doesn't try to be anyone besides herself, let alone Billie Burke. You can lodge a similar charge against Powell, frankly, but in terms of "a Powell & Loy romance," it's hard to call that a complaint, and the picture finally develops some emotional resonance nearly the second Loy enters it.
Otherwise, to the extent it has anything tying it together, maybe it's in the very repetition, the cycle of Flo rising, falling, rising again, each time more ambitious than before, with an ever-more obsessive pursuit of beauty and opulence that can never be satisfied and can be quenched only in death; the problem is that it only even starts to chart this cycle, and perhaps even recognizes that this might be an interesting theme, roughly twenty minutes before the film ends. It's barely been a whisper otherwise, except some fleeting shadows in Morgan's performance, and possibly only because his makeup grows gray alongside Powell's. Either way, Morgan's trying to wrap the film up into some kind of bow: Billings loves to hate Flo so much that he can't figure out why he keeps giving him money—though by the end even Billings's disdain has matured into admiration. It's a thin reed. But even if I have ample reason to bitch about this story, in the very last possible moment Ziegfeld winds up an affecting experience anyway.
The film, after all, has its compensations, and one's Powell. Not because, as he claimed himself, he's giving the performance of his career, and in fact he's not doing one single thing he wasn't doing with his basically-identical character already in half the time in Fashions of 1934. But if Powell liked Flo better than his actually-Oscar-nominated performance for the same year's My Man Godfrey, I don't begrudge him it; if he could later say Flo was "a character with flesh, blood, and sinews," and for the first time he'd "tried the full measure of a man," you can at least squint and see where he's coming from. Flo is essentially another funny confidence man with a heart of gold (that's Powell in Fashions; that's more-or-less Nick Charles even if he works for the law; leaving aside the prickly layers, that's Godfrey), but Powell never lets you get bored with Flo, and the three hours you spend with him, not to mention all the fucking stuff he does, finally adds up to at least the illusion of a real, breathing human, even when the performance is almost entirely one-dimensional. Maybe that's even the point, since this hagiography of Florenz Ziegfeld is designed to be one-dimensional, because that's how you get to be a larger-than-life legend in your own time.
The other compensation is that, however badly parceled-out its spectacle is, it offers spectacle such as no other MGM musical of the 1930s does, and, when you put it that way, perhaps like no other musical ever has.* Ziegfeld's enormity is incipient already in the very first seconds of the film, with its huge credits tableau of names in bright Broadway lights. Ziegfeld's promise is, as noted, not kept during its first hour. Irritatingly, it's not kept during the film's last hour either, which bears only one big number, a circus ballet that is focused on the curious idea of some odd-looking Russian hounds, who theoretically surprise you by doing virtually nothing while ladies dance all around them. Unfortunately, you know what else does nothing? Blank screen. It has some finer points, but it's a real drag.
That middle hour, though, provides thrills of a much more robust sort. Of the lesser-but-still great numbers, "You Gotta Pull Strings" has some great moveable sets and involves some energetic chorines. "She's a Follies Girl," a comic number led by Bolger, is not just fun to look at, but actually humorous, in that it says explicitly that you'll never get a chick as hot as a Ziegfeld chick, which is funny because it's true. Then there's the one people remember because you sure as hell couldn't forget it, which we'll call "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody" even though the sung part is only, like, one fifth of it. All of these numbers, naturally, have a heavy Berkeley influence—naturally, because despite never being mentioned here, Berkeley choreographed for Ziegfeld, but, equally naturally, because Berkeley musicals were the thing in mid-1930s cinema. MGM spent the whole latter half of the 1930s chasing Berkeley's dance-and-architecture ambitions before finding their own way in the 1940s, and their process seemed to be to simply throw way more money into their productions and build even bigger sets, which their choreographers, who were usually not Berkeley, frequently had no idea what to do with.
Choreographers Seymour Felix and Harold Adamson, however, figured out what MGM could do that Berkeley couldn't, so while Berkely took his camera and editing team through the architecture and through the girls, Felix and Adamson just brought the architecture and the girls to the camera and said, "editing? that's for poors at loser studios like Warners, who don't have huge rehearsal budgets or giant electrical motors, and need to set up mirrors between takes to make their puny sets look bigger." Thus was built "Pretty Girl's" borderline-mythical "wedding cake," which is offered to us, with very, very limited cutting, in a very big-ass long take (not quite static, not quite one take, but it hones in on points of interest), a world-beatingly big-ass set built atop a turntable, which is spun slowly but inexorably toward us, unfolding a bizarre and surreal tale of glamor, elegance, art, and romance as we orbit up to a top occupied by angelic women in galactic space. It's just so big: the curtain concealing the cake cost more than your house. Its bigness is its signal quality, its only quality—maybe ten percent of it is what you'd rightfully call "dancing," though it won Ziegfeld its Best Dance Direction Oscar**—but at a cost of what would today be millions, and in the thronging, undeniable presence of its hundreds of poseable humans in their outlandish costumes atop the kind of structure that evokes an almost religious awe and seemingly has its own gravitational pull, it captures like nothing else ever did Ziegfeld's ideal of "beautiful women, walking down steps forever," as if you were seeing every one of Ziegfeld's innumerable follies all at once, condensed into some godlike Art Deco singularity. (And then, after that, and honestly almost as good, there's the film's most faithful allusion to the Follies, which were also about beautiful women standing around in costumes that were practically sets in their own right—and nearly as structural—and here we're confronted with a collection of Adrian Greenburg insanity that is virtually impossible to even describe. Like, see if this makes sense: several women are dressed as a crucifix that is, also, a cloud.)
The Great Ziegfeld is a consciously-created monument. Like a monarch's tomb, it's a wonder. For everything that is demonstrably wrong with it—it's long, it's repetitive, it's fake, it's cloying, it's annoying—there's still something about it, maybe just the size of it all, that compels me to love it, at least a little. And yes, I badly exceeded 2000 words.
*Then again, they somehow mounted Born to Dance this very same year.
**An award that existed for just three years, which makes me sad.