Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Great Ziegfeld

"Do you realize you gave me five pounds?"
"Yes, I'm trying to lose weight."
--Hotel Doorman to Florenz Ziegfeld Jr, The Great Ziegfeld

Better than I expected, but considering my expectations were somewhat low, I don't necessarily know if that's a good thing.  This film is a biopic about famed Broadway producer, Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.  While it is entertaining, and Luise Rainer manages to completely steal the show, this film is way too long with its slavish devotion to replicating Ziegfeld's famed "Follies" sets.  From a historic perspective, it is great to see people like Fanny Brice and Ray Bolger, and to get a chance to see what going to "Ziegfeld's Follies" in the 1920s would have been like.  From a cinematic perspective, eh, not so much.

The Plot
Ziegfeld with Sandow, the strong-man
Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., played by William Powell, is the son of a respected music professor in Chicago.  While he is charming and intelligent, his strong-man show at the World's Fair struggles with its competition, Jack Billings's (played by Frank Morgan) "Little Egypt" show until he realizes that allowing women to feel the strong man's muscles will increase his attendance.  Suddenly the strong-man, Sandow, is famous and Ziegfeld is rich.  Ziegfeld, however, has a tendency to spend more than he has, and after he gambles away all his money, he follows Billings to London to book a new star, Anna Held, played by Luise Rainer.  Though Billings has almost signed her, Ziegfeld charms Anna into accompanying him to America though he hasn't a cent.  Anna is a highly strung, emotional French actress, but she soon begins to adore "Flo."

Luise Rainer as Anna Held
Anna's entrance onto the American stage is rocky, but with Ziegfeld's savy PR skills, he makes her into a star, as well as his wife.  Anna is passionately devoted to him, but while he showers her with diamonds, his attention begins to move elsewhere.  He decides to throw all of his money into a new show, one replete with beautiful girls, elaborate costumes, and complicated dance numbers.  He calls it "Ziegfeld's Follies," and while at first he is broke, he later makes his "Follies" the most popular show on Broadway.  This trend continues, but his passion for beautiful things makes his life difficult.  His beautiful mistress upsets his beautiful wife, while his taste for beautiful objects continually causes him to be broke.  Anna finally divorces him in an attempt to get his attention and reel him back while his mistress, who has devolved into a drunk, leaves him and his shows.  It is then that he meets Billie Burke, played by Myrna Loy.

Anna and her new jewelry while Zeigfeld's mistress Audrey looks on 
Billie Burke, a famous new starlet, arrives at a party on the arm of Billings, but Ziegfeld snatches her away.  She refuses to fall for his consider charm, and this makes him fall even harder for her.  He confesses his love, and they marry.  Anna's plan has backfired spectacularly, but even though her heart is broken, she graciously calls and congratulates him on his marriage in a scene that would later win her an Oscar.

Billie Burke and Ziegfeld have a daughter, Patricia, but Ziegfeld's shows are having trouble competing with the emerging popularity of motion pictures and a shift in entertainment tastes.  He is broke again, but while he is in a barber shop, he overhears strangers discussing how he has lost his edge.  In a rage he leaves and swears he will have four hits on Broadway--all at once.  His wife volunteers all her jewelry and money and professes her faith in him.  Ziegfeld ends up having four hits at once, and invites these men to see them all.  In his moment of triumph, Ziegfeld calls to check on the stocks he has bought with all his profits.  But the stock market has crashed and Ziegfeld is again broke.  The shows close and Ziegfeld falls deathly ill.

Ziegfeld and Billie Burke
Billie must go back to work as an actress, but she calls to check in with her beloved husband.  Billings goes to visit Ziegfeld and inspires him to rise up, and make his next show.  Ziegfeld is seized with enthusiastic vigor, and pushes open his curtains to see his theater.  Back in his chair he visualizes his elaborate sets and wants stairs that are higher, grander, better...until he slumps, his eyes go glassy, and he dies all alone.

Elaborate set of "Ziegfeld's Follies"
The History
This film was made a mere three years after Florenz Ziegfeld's death in 1932.  Universal originally bought the rights to the film from Ziegfeld's widow, who had returned to acting to pay off her husband's substantial debts.  William Powell was engaged to play Ziegfeld, and Burke would play herself.  Fanny Brice, Judy Garland, Eddie Cantor and Ray Bolger were all hired to play themselves, as all had previously been in a Ziegfeld show.  But the picture was proving expensive, so Universal sold it to MGM and decided to make Show Boat instead.  Only Powell, Brice, and Bolger made it to the final film.  The longest musical sequence, "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody," pictured above, took $220,000, 180 performers, 4,300 yards of rayon silk, and several weeks to reach its final cut.  The film would eventually cost MGM $2 million dollars, but would make over $40 million.

Burke in real life (left), Myrna Loy as Burke (right)
Though Burke was instrumental in writing the script and preserving her husband's good name (note the noticeable pairing down of his infidelities), she was not a huge fan of the final film.  While the film is considered to give a good, overall view of his life, there are many inaccuracies.  It did, however, win Academy Awards for "Best Picture," "Best Actress," and "Best Dance Direction."  It was nominated for awards in directing, art direction, film editing, and original screenplay.  On Rotten Tomatoes, the film has received only a 60% fresh rating, and it is considered today to be largely dated and forgotten.  But even in 1936, the picture's win raised eyebrows and a Hollywood Citizen-News journalist wrote"an atrocious production...a picture false in biography, a glittering avalanche of legs and tinsel...a truer demonstration of the stupidity and rank barbarism of these times had never been more ably given."  Louis B. Mayer's response? He threw a party for the film weeks later, where women came out of a cake dressed as "Follies" girls, Billie Burke got a new brooch, and everyone got miniature Oscar replicas.  Florenz Ziegfeld would have been proud.
Irving G. Thalberg Award
The animosity towards the Academy was dying down, and Frank Capra decided to keep the ball rolling.  As Academy President that year, he revamped the voting procedures and added new categories, including "Best Supporting Actor" and "Best Supporting Actress."  He also upped the ticket prices to augment the Academy's dwindling funds: tickets were $5 for members, $10 for guests, and $25 for everyone else.  People complained, but all 1,150 seats for dinner sold out.  Most importantly, however, that year marked the sudden and unexpected death of "Boy Wonder" producer, Irving Thalberg, from pneumonia at age 37.  Responsible for nearly all of MGM's hit films to date, many Award winning, his death was a major blow to both Hollywood and his young wife, Norma Shearer.  In his honor, Capra created the Irving G. Thalberg Award, given to the producer with the most distinguished body of work in that year.  "It is to encourage," Capra claimed, "the pride, the fortitude, the good taste and tolerance that Thalberg put into pictures."

The Verdict?
I've decided that overall, I liked this movie, although I think I'd place my emotions at lukewarm.  This movie is most interesting for its ability to show historical evidence of what "Ziegfeld's Follies" would have been like.  The film was made just a few years after his death, and the height of popularity for "Ziegfeld's Follies" would have been only a decade previous.  That means that while not completely accurate, this film manages to portray just what it would have been like to attend a show in that era.  In addition, the film also includes several leading performers who actually were once in  "Ziegfeld's Follies."  Fannie Brice, better known as the person the movie Funny Girl is based on, is actually in the film as herself.  This film is a fascinating historical look into 1920s American theater.  If that is where your interest lies, I highly suggest this film.

Ziegfeld gives Fanny Brice a mink coat
Otherwise, my advise would be to skip it.  An important point to make before reaching An American in Paris:  most musicals made between 1930-1970 have at least one gratuitous musical sequence.  Singing in the Rain, Oklahoma, Anchors Away, and White Christmas are only a few of 100s of musicals that have at least one of these scenes.  Usually they begin as a dream sequence, a rehearsal, or even a show within a show, as in The Great Ziegfeld.  They have no real reference to the plot and sometimes go on for as long as eighteen minutes, as is the case with An American in Paris.  Usually theses scenes are to showcase the singing and dancing abilities of a certain star (Gene Kelly) but are only interesting as artistic pieces.  For The Great Ziegfeld, these scenes were interspersed between the plot, the longest and most lavish being the "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody" sequence.  It's an incredible scene, but also ever so slightly boring.  The film is three hours long.  The whole plot is probably a little less than two hours of the film.  Next time, a little less show = a lot more entertaining. The best part of the movie?  Luise Rainer's performance as Anna Held.  Watch the video, you can't take your eyes away from her.

Ziegfeld removes Anna's stocking
On a completely unrelated note, I'd like to briefly point out the strange connections this film has to The Wizard of Oz.  Frank Morgan would go on to play the Wizard; Ray Bolger would be later cast as the Scarecrow.  Ray Bolger's dance scene looked familiar in The Great Ziegfeld, I later realized it was almost identical to the Scarecrow's opening number.  Billie Burke and Judy Garland, both original cast members for the movie, would later go on to play Glinda and Dorothy, respectively.  No idea why...weird coincidence?
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1 comment:

  1. Agreed so hard about it being excessively long and could easily be trimmed an hour. For some reason, everybody but Rainer gives me headaches, and I tell people that it's much better to just look at the cover art and some various pics of the near-iconic "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody" and just...imagine a lavish production that doesn't bore.

    If you haven't seen The Life of Emile Zola yet, be sure and hype up on coffee before attempting it. Allegedly it's only two hours, but it certainly feels like 28 years.