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The main set piece of this film is an amazing feat of set design and choreography. But it can't mask what is at times an overly long and aimless script.
Here's a title you've probably never heard of, The Great Ziegfeld, an elaborately big yet slightly underwhelming take on the Ziegfeld Follies. Actually, it's about Florenz Ziegfeld's (William Powell) discovery of the beautiful show girls and his theatrical revue as well as his rise and fall from grace. During which he hires gorgeous talents like Anna Held (Luise Rainer), Fanny Brice, and Billie Burke (Myrna Loy). It's impressive to see actors play themselves such as Fanny Brice and Ray Bolger, two real vaudevillian personalities who worked with the Ziegfeld in real life, creating a metaphysical construct for the picture. As for the production value, it is lavishly epic, with over 250 tailors making the costumes, 16 reels of film, and gigantic set designs, complimenting the glamorous actresses in the early quarter of the 20th Century. However, as elaborate as the mise en scene and musical numbers were, it's also a problem, as they pad the film's runtime as well as override its plot. The story itself is about as simple and weak as anything, riddled with formulaic "rising star" cliches and a tired misunderstanding scene. I especially found it weird, considering his age, to have Ziegfeld standing up to himself at the barbershop to a bunch of old onlookers. I felt this scenario could be handled better during his childhood, not toward the edge of death. The Great Ziegfeld is a short stack with more toppings and little pancake: weak story + pretty visuals = pretty weak.
(2 ½ Bathtubs of Milk out of 5)
It wasn't the least bit interesting.
Long before Hollywood decided to reserve top critical honors for narratives that romanticized themselves, the depicition of Broadway was considered the easy means of securing a solid reception; look no further than the magnificently undeserved contemporary reception of The Broadway Melody for that. The Great Ziegfeld is in many ways the apotheosis of this phenomenon, featuring altogether too many ambitious stage production scenes (like too much sugar spoiling a cup of coffee) around a crowd-pleasing narrative masquerading as a serious piece of biography. Rainer's performance is laughably terrible, full of soap opera emotion topped with a terrible accent, though it doesn't help that her character is fundamentally poorly conceived as well, ludicrously indecisive and often simply dumb; the fact that she was awarded Best Actress for the role is a testament to the exceptional disconnect between modern and contemporary critics. Powell is often brilliant in short bursts, but is often constrained by the film itself. The entire film is simply too long, but the production value of the theatre sequnces is undeniably great; the first Folly (the 'Wedding Cake' scene) is perhaps the single greatest shot in musical cinema. It's ambitious and completely enthralling, but it just so happens to be drowned out by the rest of the film's mediocrity, like pasting an original Monet in the middle of the 'House Painting' section of the white pages.
Robert Z. Leonard's 1936 biopic The Great Ziegfeld is a fictionalised account of the life and career of Florenz Ziegfeld, a theatre impresario who was famous for his extravagant "Ziegfeld Follies", a series of spectacular musical shows performed on Broadway from 1907 to 1931. The resulting film is as lavish as the Follies themselves, but at nearly three hours in length and with a sprawling, uneven plot, at times it looks very much like the greatest folly of all.
The story follows Ziegfeld from small-time showman to Broadway producer and charts his ups and downs along the way, as he runs out of money and has to be bailed out (three times) by friend and sometime rival Billings, gets married twice and divorced once, and eventually meets financial ruin and a premature death. William Anthony McGuire's screenplay boasts impressive characterisation and a script that sparkles with wit, for example when Ziegfeld tricks a costume designer into leaving him a full set of costumes without pay. It juggles light-heartedness and tragedy remarkably adeptly, and often lets the latter speak for itself without belabouring the point, for example when Audrey Dane succumbs to career-ending alcoholism.
The cast is excellent. William Powell gives a superb, entirely believable performance as Ziegfeld, who is eminently likeable, full of ideas and enthusiasm and often misunderstood. Powell effortlessly conveys Ziegfeld's humour, charisma and quick-thinking, as he constantly finds solutions to his problems; one suspects that had he not died from his illness at the end of the film, he would have found a way to bounce back from the Wall Street crash. Powell's scenes with Frank Morgan's Billings are delightful, as Ziegfeld poaches his butler and then signs Anna Held from right under his nose. Anna is played by Luise Rainer and her performance rightly won her an Academy Award for Best Actress: she brings the winningly eccentric but emotional and highly-strung to vivid life, for example when she has a meltdown about rumours that she bathes in milk.
Indeed, Leonard has to be credited with assembling a superb cast, from real-life stage performer and Olympic wrestler Nat Pendleton as Sandow, to Myrna Loy as Billie Burke; she and Powell quickly develop on-screen chemistry, and one wonders how much the on-set presence of the real Burke helped with this (the film's very last scene is of Ziegfeld's death, and it was this – and the debt he left behind due to the crash – that forced his widow Burke to sell the rights to this very biopic). Joseph Cawthorn gives a brief but wonderful performance as Florenz' father Dr. Ziegfeld. Fannie Brice appears as herself and is one of four Ziegfeld Follies performers to do so; unsurprisingly given her later career, she displays perfect comic timing.
But for all of this, The Great Ziegfeld wants to be more than just a biography. The production aims for true Hollywood Golden Age spectacle and mostly achieves it, with costumes and sets that cost a fortune and look deeply impressive, especially the 100 tonne "Wedding Cake" set. The sheer extravagance of the sets built for the Ziegfeld Follies is shown off to its full effect by Oliver T. Marsh's cinematography. The film is often described as a musical, and although this is technically true, it isn't one of the in which characters burst spontaneously into song: the diagetic music is limited to the recreations of the Follies, and it is as splendidly recreated as the sets and costumes. The problem is, that Leonard – or perhaps the studio – wanted to have his cake and eat it and the second half of the film, after the intermission, features lengthy musical numbers that are visual, aurally and technically impressive but make the plot grind to a halt. By the time the film has limped to the end of its almost three-hour running time, even the most ardent enthusiast of musicals must surely be flagging.
The Great Ziegfeld is mostly a good film. It's got a great script, great acting, great characters and great direction. But it would have been so much better if it had stuck to being a character piece and trimmed a lot of the musical sequences, which simply make the film too long and ruin its pacing. In short, it suffers from the very extravagance it seeks to recreate and whilst it probably deserved to win its Academy Award for Best Picture for sheer effort, it would be so much better if it were leaner and less bloated.
Its a lavishly produced film about the lives of the great Ziegfeld. The film has many great musical numbers with a couple stretching over the top and far too long. Not sure we learn enough about the real Ziegfeld about ambition to put on the best show with the best girls. The film is far too long and elements of the film can easily be shorter without changing the film. Its a big spectacle with great camera and cinematography work. In the 1930s these types of films would have interested the audience as well as Oscar. Luise Rainer is fine in the movie but winning best actress seems a bit much considering that she is not in the movie that much. Supporting actress would make more sense. William Powell is very good at Ziegfeld and the end of the movie is well done as he understands his powers and ambition have come to an end. Frank Morgan who plays Mr Billings is a great character and his relationship with Ziegfeld is the highlight. They play off each other really well. Fanny Brice is underused as are so many other actors. It is a snapshot of Ziegfeld but ultimately not covering everything a cinema goer would want. For the musical numbers and the production the film has it all but its length and a lack of an emotional punch hinders,
The classic musical numbers have never been beaten. A spectacular presentation, despite the uneven editing. Acting by Powell, Loy, and Morgan is superb as always. This one is a treasure. Deservedly won the best picture of the year oscar.
The Great Ziegfeld, a.k.a. Fancy Dresses: The Movie, or Get Me Some More Girls, perfectly epitomises Hollywood's early Golden age, both its excesses, and its excessiveness. Painfully overextended at 3+ hours, it reaches this length by insisting that we sit through long scenes of largely inconsequential dialogue, and through the entirety of many of its musical numbers. The production values are the main reason to watch it, since it is incredible to see, for the time at least, so much money on the screen. Luise Rainer's performance, one of 2 reasons that people remember the film at all, swings between earnesty and histrionics, and she doesn't have much screen time for a person who won best leading actress. Supporting actress perhaps, but even then her acting style has dated as much the film around her. The giant step scene is one of the most remarkable one-take shots I may have ever seen, but that's only a small part of a film that, even without the lavish stage sequences, would still feel slow, bloated and unnecessarily grandiose.
I think it is a remarkably accurate film on the life Florence Ziegfeld. This film shows life back in the day of Vaudeville and great Broadway shows of that time period. People today expect films of The Golden Age of Hollywood to be completely accurate. But the films today aren't completely accurate. I give this film 6 stars because I think it deserves it!!
I enjoy William Powell as much as any actor but there is one reason to watch this and that is Luise Rainer. The joy and charm she brings to the role of Anna Held is captivating. The movie is long and it tries to be a biopic and a 30's era musical at the same time which I can understand as this is during the depression and it gives people a chance to see a Ziegfeld Follies production which most people could not do back then.