While it may appear at first glance to be a musical, The Great Ziegfeld is in fact an even more staid genre that the Academy loves: a biopic. Instead of the musical numbers it does have, the real focus is rather on Ziegfeld himself. It unfortunately falls into a Hayes-code sanitation and a Hollywood self-satisfied glorification of its hero that goes on for way too long, falling victim to the worst tendencies of the biopic genre.
Our story starts with Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. (William Powell) as a carnival barker promoting a strong man at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. His act pales in comparison to a belly dancer promoted by Ziegfeld’s rival, Billings (Frank Morgan). He then changes his marketing strategy and trades on sex appeal, just as Billings has been, only marketed towards women. This is a success for Ziegfeld, but a pattern is introduced here that will continue throughout the movie: Ziegfeld always spends more money than he makes. He then is travelling in London where he meets up with Billings again, and once again makes it a point to steal his act. He is trying to sign French actress and singer Anna Held (Luise Rainer), and Ziegfeld spends all his money to send her orchids and get her to sign with him. Despite his lack of money, Anna signs with him based on his honesty and charm. Ziegfeld proves himself once again a shrewd promoter, creating the illusion that Anna is so high class she takes milk bathes which has women flocking to her shows to see the results. Their show becomes a success and Ziegfeld and Anna get married.
Then, Ziegfeld puts his plans into motion for another show, the one for which he would be most remembered, the Follies. His vision is to have a show that doesn’t center around one personality, but rather, the chorus girls themselves. The attraction is to see beautiful girls dressed in stunning costumes put on pedestals, both literally and figuratively. The way he describes his vision (and in part executes it) removes almost any instance of talent or artistry from the women he claims to “glorify.” This can be seen through the treatment troubled and alcoholic Audrey (Virginia Bruce), who is characterized as a gold digger who wants the material benefits of being a star, but doesn’t really care about the talent required to get her there. Ziegfeld rewards this type of thinking by giving her what we can assume is supposed to be the starring part, in “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody.” This role merely consists of sitting on top of a huge rotating staircase smiling blandly while wearing a flowing skirt.
I won’t pretend to be too familiar with the Ziegfeld story, but you can clearly see the production code at work here and they don’t get around it in a particularly clever way (we’re not talking Hitchcock’s Notorious here). It sort of skates over what is in all likelihood a Ziegfeld and Audrey affair in the most awkward way ever. Looking at Wikipedia, I’d guess the real life figure that Audrey is based on is Lillian Lorraine, who Ziegfeld remained in love with for the rest of his life and did seriously try to promote. In the film, Ziegfeld sort of keeps Audrey at a distance because of her “drinking” and her constant embarrassments to the show. We then see Anna and Ziegfeld go through a divorce, and Ziegfeld marry another actress, Billie Burke (Myrna Loy). As opposed to the very flawed Audrey, Loy plays her characteristic role as the levelheaded supportive wife (though I remain confused as to why she was not present at Ziegfeld’s big death scene at the end). It just seemed all a little too neat for someone who is a self-professed lady’s man, and is commonly referred to that way by others in the film. This wouldn’t necessarily be an issue on a pure filmmaking level, but you can tell the story is altered to portray Ziegfeld in an acceptable light, even without looking up what the specific changes are.
What is ultimately Ziegfeld’s undoing is the stock market crash in 1929, as it was for many people. Prior to it, the film shows him as enjoying a comeback after discontinuing the Follies and doing shows with actual narratives, revolutionary at the time. We don’t really see any clips from these, presumably because it would be confusing to take them out of context, besides which the film is already at its two hour mark by now. As such, the film falls into the trap a lot of biopics do, and is a great reminder of the success of the more modern trend to tell a story about a specific moment in someone’s life rather than the whole darn thing. There’s not a lot of room for nuance when you have to cover everything that happened over the course of one man’s adult life, and there’s a tendency to try to get it to fit a narrative even if real life didn’t happen that way.
This isn’t just a biopic though, it is considered a musical biopic. I can only really think of two instances where the film earns that title, when the musical numbers that unfold in front of the characters actually have something to do with the story outside of being an example of what Ziegfeld did with his life. Towards the beginning of the film, we first learn that Ziegfeld and Anna are married by a musical number of Anna’s in Ziegfeld’s show: “It’s Delightful to Be Married.” This is later ironically and mournfully reprised by Ziegfeld on the piano when Anna is about to leave him. Towards the end of the movie, Burke’s and Ziegfeld’s daughter is crazy about the circus, so the next scene we see is a Ziegfeld version of the circus, which features girls jumping over dogs and other such nonsense. The musical numbers overall just show what a Ziegfeld show is like, and they are a bit hard to take from a modern perspective. Sure, they are big, but the emphasis is more on the sets (which are definitely the most impressive part, more often than not moving with the music while the performers are stationary), the costumes (totally ridiculous), and the girls, who are presented en masse, all identical personality-free models of what Ziegfeld himself thinks women are (occasionally dancing but mostly just standing there with, let it be said, men singing about their virtues).
The one exception to this is Ziegfeld’s discovery of Fanny Brice, who appeared as herself in the film. She is allowed to sing for herself during a rehearsal, onstage, with no one else to accompany her. Brice comes out of stage singing a song about a man who has left her, radiant and in a typical glamorous Ziegfeld gown. Ziegfeld stops her though, saying the Ziegfeld-ized image she created for herself is not why he hired her. Brice looks dismayed because she thought she was going to get to wear nice clothes and be “glorified” like all the other girls in the show, but Ziegfeld gives her a poor woman’s shawl and instructs her to cry her eyes out during the song. She does, and the tears are real. The section of the story with Brice is hands-down the most intriguing in the movie, as we see the collision of a talented woman up against the uniformity of Ziegfeld’s vision, but then the movie totally turns it on its head. There are no easy answers out of that scene, and it makes you want to have a movie about the two of them (clearly, I should see Funny Girl again).
To say The Great Ziegfeld was a disappointment would be an understatement. It’s even more disheartening when you consider the great chemistry Myrna Loy and William Powell have in The Thin Man movies that is not really present here in the small time they are on screen together. The limitations of the biopic are definitely showing here, and the musical numbers don’t do much to make up for it. Overall, this movie is just a slog.
The Oscars obviously disagreed, awarding The Great Ziegfeld with three out of seven Academy Awards for which it was nominated. It won best picture, best actress for Luise Rainer, and best dance direction for “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody” (which I honestly don’t understand, standing and walking up stairs can hardly be considered dancing, yes?). It lost out on statues for best director, original screenplay, art direction (which is strange because the sets are the film’s highlight), and editing. I haven’t seen the other films that were nominated that year, but I think it’s safe to say The Great Ziegfeld, by all accounts a huge and impressive spectacle in its day, hasn’t withstood the test of time at all.
Long story short: 2/4 stars
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