One of my older sister’s favorite movies growing up was “Funny Girl,” a musical biography about Fanny Brice for which Barbara Streisand won an Oscar for Best Actress. Fanny Brice was an old vaudeville comedienne who acquired fame through her work for producer Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. in his celebrated female ensemble known as the Ziegfeld Follies. At one point in “Funny Girl” when Fanny first signs on to work with Ziegfeld, her mother exclaims, “What kind of a mother would name her son Florenzzzz?!”
As it turns out, most people referred to him simply as Flo, but it’s still a good question. Unfortunately, “The Great Ziegfeld” doesn’t get around to answering it, nor does the film take time to explore much else about Ziegfeld the man, for that matter. This is perhaps the only thing “great” accomplishment the film can lay claim to, considering its three hour plus running time.
Winning the Oscar for Best Picture in 1936, “The Great Ziegfeld” was helmed by Robert Z. Leonard and stars William Powell, Myrna Loy and Luise Rainer. The story traces roughly 40 years of Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.’s life from his early days as a struggling showman at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair to his later days as a successful Broadway producer and ultimately to his death in 1932. Unfortunately, it follows the same example as “The Broadway Melody” and “Grand Hotel” as being films celebrated in their time, but which have since withered on the cinematic vine.
|William Powell as Florenz Ziegfeld, with Myrna Loy as his second wife Billie Burke.|
One of the problems with “The Great Ziegfeld” is the script. In fact it may be the main problem. In the film’s sparkly opening titles, William Anthony McGuire is credited for writing the screenplay, which says is “Suggested by Romances and Incidents in the Life of America’s Greatest Showman, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.” In hindsight, the fact that the screenplay was based only on suggested parts of his life should have sent up a red flag that this film was going to be a bland depiction of Ziegfeld’s life, which is exactly what it is. Apparently, Ziegfeld’s second wife, actress Billie Burke, who played Glinda the good witch in “The Wizard of Oz,” oversaw the script and caged any unflattering incidents about her husband’s life from being let out and put up on screen. The result is a clean, sterile film that presents a tediously flawless individual, which is extremely puzzling given that he is billed as being “America’s Greatest Showman.”
Apart from whitewashing away Ziegfeld’s warts and all, the screenplay suffers from the fact that it takes multiple detours away from the actual story to showcase Ziegfeld’s stage productions during his days managing the Ziegfeld Follies. Naturally one would expect a biographical film about a producer to highlight their work. But “The Great Ziegfeld” goes way beyond what is necessary, at one point devoting approximately thirty minutes of the film’s running time to show an elaborate musical number called “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody.” These long intermissions from the dramatic narrative prevent the story from being able to gather any real momentum, which in the end frankly caused me to check my watch more than care about the action on screen.
However, that isn’t to say there weren’t some enjoyable moments or performances in “The Great Ziegfeld.” Ironically, the previously referenced, half-hour long musical number is perhaps the most memorable and entertaining slice of the entire movie. It’s a shimmering showcase orchestrated with exotic and complicated costumes and stage sets that combine to evoke an elegance and glamour on the scale that rivals one’s idealized notions of ancient Egypt or Rome. All of the film’s sartorial elements were overseen once again by Adrian Greenburg, who this time around was given the screen credit “Gowns and Parades by Adrian.” Curiously, he did not receive even an Oscar nomination for this film. The only possible explanation I can come up with is that perhaps several of the film’s costumes were recreations instead of original designs. Whatever the reason, some of the get ups in this film make Lady Gaga look tame, which I think in and of itself deserves some Oscar attention.
|An example of the many opulent costumes in "The Great Ziegfeld."|
For me, the real highlight of the film is Luise Rainer’s performance as Anna Held, a vivacious stage performer who would became Ziegfeld’s first wife, helping inspire his creation of the Ziegfeld Follies. As Held, Rainer, with slender features and Betty Boop sized eyes, is slightly bratty and overly indecisive. But paradoxically, it’s those negative traits that make Anna so charmingly irresistible. It’s to the film’s detriment that Ziegfeld didn’t stay married to Anna in real life because Rainer’s presence was the high tide that elevated all else.
|Luise Rainer as Anna Held in "The Great Ziegfeld."|
Before this, I had never seen a film with Rainer in it. But I couldn’t shake the notion that she bore a striking resemblance to a young Meryl Streep, circa “Sophie’s Choice.” It’s too bad some producer didn’t make a film about Luis Rainer when Streep was younger because she would have played the part perfectly. Apart from their looks, both Streep and Rainer share Oscar victories, with Rainer deservedly taking home the prize for “The Great Ziegfeld.” Incidentally, she would also carry off the same award the following year for her portrayal as a Chinese peasant for 1937’s “The Good Earth.” With an Oscar in her right and left hand, Rainer made history by becoming the first individual to win consecutive Academy Awards.
|Meryl Streep in "Sophie's Choice."|
Interestingly, Rainer’s career quickly lost steam after “The Good Earth,” and she departed Hollywood a mere three years later. Her life seemingly splintered in several directions, leading her at one point to even begin studying medicine. However, she eventually returned to acting, mainly on the stage, but never replicated her early success generated by “The Great Ziegfeld” and “The Good Earth.” Her career has been cited as a prime example of the so-called “Oscar curse,” wherein an actor’s career flounders after winning an Academy Award. Amazingly, at the time this post was written, Luis Rainer is still alive at the ripe old age of 103 and currently resides in London.
In the end, “The Great Ziegfeld” feels too distant. It’s ironic that the film turned out to be such a disappointment, particularly given Billie Burke’s efforts to shield her husband’s flaws from being included in the story. To know a character’s flaws and shortcomings, while witnessing their triumphs over their trials is what makes them intriguing. It’s what makes the audience care. But blanch away the blemishes and you’re left with very little. It’s impossible to appreciate the light without the dark or the sweet without the sour. Better to be remembered as a sculpture, than forgotten as a sketch. But because “The Great Ziegfeld” took the approach of only demarcating one side, we’re left to wonder what really was so great about Florenz Ziegfeld?
Favorite Line: At one point in the film, Luis Rainer’s Anna Held is rehearsing a number that has a catchy, recurring line. She sings, “It is better to be jolly. To be be be be be be be be be be jolly.” It’s obviously more memorable in its musical form, but nonetheless, it was my favorite line from the film.