Monday, June 25, 2012

Great Ziegfeld, The (1936)

Director: Robert Z. Leonard
Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Luise Rainer, Frank Morgan

Academy Award for Best Picture
Academy Award for Best Actress
Academy Award for Best Dance Direction

You know you are in for a treat when a motion picture opens with not visuals, but an overture to let audiences know to come in and take their seats. Complete with an intermission and exit music to cap off the over three hour epic biographical picture of perhaps the greatest show businessman of the early twentieth century, The Great Ziegfeld was meant to be more of an experience than just your regular trip to the movie house. Originally opened as a road show motion picture The Great Ziegfeld would be one of the industry’s largest productions and 1936’s most highly praised film. Released by MGM, directed by Robert Z. Leonard, and starring William Powell, Myrna Loy, and the lesser known Luise Rainer, the picture that depicts the life of a man that brought to audiences many of the previous decades best spectacles, At the same time this film would be the greatest spectacle for 1936 movie audiences.

The Great Ziegfeld is a biography picture/ musical sharing the story of Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., producer to some of the most popular stage shows of the early 20th century, his rise, his women, and his legacy. “Flo” Ziegfeld (William Powell) was the son of a respected music teacher, but chooses to go into stage producing at the behest of his father, starting humbly at the 1893 Chicago’s World’s Fair, promoting a sideshow strongman, Eugen Sandow,  ”the strongest man in the world.” This is just the beginning for the overly confident, rarely ever financed man as he goes on to make a star out of a French performer, Anna Held (Luise Rainer), in the face of poor reviews at first. His affair with his beautiful star turns to a marriage with Anna that would not last as Flo congers up the idea of an even greater production glorifying the beauty of women in what would be famously known as “The Ziegfeld Follies.” Ziegfeld’s name becomes synonymous to show business and Broadway, producing the most lavish shows the audiences had ever seen. Throughout the feature, intertwined into the story of Ziegfeld, is a fellow producer Jack Billings (Frank Morgan), whose rivalry and equaled mutual respect, and at times allows aid for Ziegfeld to become the great showman that he was.

Through his success he meets, falls in love with, and marries Broadway star Billie Burke (Myrna Loy), which emotionally wrecks his past lover Anna Held. As time goes on and tastes change Ziegfeld seems to be on the downhill slide of his career when he wills into being four of Broadway’s top shows all running at the same time. With success comes tragedy as the stock market crash of 1929 destroys his shows and finances. Depressed from failure and the rise of movies Ziegfeld falls ill and eventually passes dreaming up even bigger productions in his mind.

Originally opened as a road show film, first in Los Angeles’s Carthay Circle Theater before hitting the other big cities across the country, it was intended that The Great Ziegfeld was a motion picture experience for its audience members, even including playbills at many performances. Almost as if seeing the great plays of Broadway, complete with great (recorded) orchestration, entrance and exit music, as well as an intermission, which people would need while watching three hour feature, this film was meant to be more than just your normal movie. It is perhaps the help from this extravagance that surround the presentation of the film that helped to turn the picture into one of the highest praised films of its time, littering the Academy Award nomination lists, and even walking away with the statue for best picture that year.

All included The Great Ziegfeld was nominated for seven Oscars for the year 1936 including: Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actress, Best Dance Direction, Best Original Story, Best Editing, and Best Art Direction. Of those categories the film took home three awards, those being Best Dance Direction, Best Actress, and Best Picture. This marks the first time a musical would win the award for best feature film.

Mixed within the bio pic story is the extravagance of the musical numbers that depicts the Ziegfeld Follies themselves. Using many original musical pieces from the Follies, including the work of Irving Berlin, the film brings to life the feeling of what it must have been like to see his shows, back when no one had seen such productions before. Of course what we see in the film could in no way have been encompasses on a Broadway stage, but the picture does use the inspirations from his lavish costumes, many beautiful woman, dramatic music, and large sets to create the sense of awe as Ziegfeld brought unparalleled entertainment to the stage.

The $200,000 shot.
One production in the film that closes out the first half of the feature includes one of the most elaborate musical numbers ever for a feature. In the number “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody” we are shown in one massively long take (actually two, but with one clever cut in the middle) several minutes long, an extravagant curtain that spirals the set, slowly revealing a massive spiral staircase that seems to keep going and going as the camera follows the staged action on this turning structure watching as each of its dozens of performers are all exposed, singing, dancing, performing, all in full costume with magnificence. In the end the camera, which has this whole time moved up to stay with the revealing staircase, pulls away to manifest just how extravagant this number was, leaving you in awe just before fading into intermission. What a way to make an impression. This continuous scene cost over $200,000 to produce, a massive amount for 1936, which was almost 1/10 of the entire film’s budget, and cost more than the original show produced by Ziegfeld himself.

This massive undertaking of a film was accomplished by Robert Z. Leonard an admirable MGM director that had never done a production of this size. When you think of it the picture is mostly a straight forward film, with drama, romance, and heartbreak, which Leonard was able to get for his actors. The real extravagance comes for the magical musical numbers which would have been handled by other directors, in this case a little known man named Seymour Felix. That is not to take away from the work of Leonard, who was well deserving of his Academy Award nomination for best director, but it was Felix that took home the statue for the short-lived category of Best Dance Direction.

William Powell performs splendidly, bringing to the screen the life and hardships of Flo Ziegfeld. Not necessarily one to look like the real man, Powell does recreate the sense of the individual that was still a fresh name in the minds of Broadway connoisseurs, Ziegfeld having passed away only in 1935. Powell’s dignity as a well known actor brought with him the proper stature to the man that seemed to will himself into creative greatness. He, of course, carries the picture, making you believe that this person could make these great shows happen despite not a cent to his name at times.

Powell and Rainer
Myrna Loy, who played Billie Burke, would be given second billing to Powell perhaps because of her better name being so closely associated to Powell in such popular features as The Thin Man, but she does not come on screen until two hours and fifteen minutes into the feature. It is the performance of Luise Rainer that takes center stage in this picture. Playing emotional insecure lover of Ziegfeld, Anna Held, Rainer provides the emotional rollercoaster and the ying to Ziegfeld’s yang. He being the ever confident and rock through hard times, while she is ever depressed of the possible failures, even when times are great for both of them. Her character can be a bit bothersome, even comical,  with her swings in emotions, but it is her touching reaction to losing Ziegfeld as her lover that creates the highest point of emotion in the film. This heartbreaking reaction she gives as she reacts to Ziegfeld finding a new wife, and soul mate, would help Rainer win the Academy Award for best actress, an award this little known German-born actress knew very little about. Ironically she would win the award again the next year, becoming the first two time winner at the awards and the first to win it consecutively.

The vast supporting cast that filled the many characters that surrounded Ziegfeld’s legacy is impressive. In many cases we see impressionists fill in for the many still living stars, like Ed Cantor, or even sometimes recently passed on stars, such as the much loved Will Rogers. There are however a handful of performers representing themselves, including Fanny Brice, Harriet Hector, and Ray Bolger.

The road show aspect made the film grand.
In time The Great Ziegfeld still delivers an entertaining film to audiences, providing a fictional piece of history about one of show business’ greatest producers, in the time just before motion picture really took over as the primary draw. No doubt the majesty of the road show presentation, where limited audiences would be able to view the highly hyped feature, played its part into creating a mystique to the film when it originally was released. This helped it become an instant classic of its day, but time has revealed it to be just a really well done biography picture. This manifest how time, place, and presentation play a role in the legend of how well a film plays throughout history.

This idea of timing would be very important to many motion pictures down the line in the many decades to follow, even to this day. In perspective The Great Ziegfeld was a monster hit of its time, and still a good picture years afterwards, but it is not the greatest film while watching outside of its original context, in a massively lavish movie palace with audiences in their finest gowns and tuxedoes. Years later it is an entertaining time capsule that provides audiences a look into the past of one the industry’s best as he ruled the Broadway stage.

1 comment:

  1. Very informative and interesting to read. I will definitely return to this blog.


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