Sunday, February 28, 2010

The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

The Great Ziegfeld, starring William Powell as Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., is a magnificent biopic detailing the life and loves of the innovative showman. The lush tale opens at the 1893 World's Fair in Chicago, where Ziegfeld shows off his latest attraction, Sandow the Strongman. Ziegfeld and his lifelong competitor, Jack Billings (Frank Morgan), vie for audience attention with the wily Ziegfeld finally winning out and setting a precedent for all their future competitions. Ziegfeld's story is one of overcoming obstacles to create some of the most spectacular, over-the-top stage shows ever. No matter whether the hitch was attracting an enthusiastic audience, scrounging up financial backers when he was completely broke, or discovering the right stars for his shows, the determined and charming Ziegfeld always seemed to be successful in the end.

Ziegfeld leaves the sideshow of Chicago for the Great White Way. He starts to make a name for himself among the vaudeville and burlesque shows of New York City through his work with some of the most popular acts of the day, including Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers, and Fanny Brice (who appeared in the movie). And, of course, a neverending bevy of showgirls. Ziegfeld establishes his signature spectacular stage shows with the introduction of French singer Anna Held (Luise Rainer), whom he steals right out from under Jack Billings' nose. Soon he has the pretty French coquette under contract and under his spell. They marry, and he begins a string of Broadway hits with his new bride in a starring role. Ziegfeld's popularity peaks with the Ziegfeld Follies, featuring song and dance numbers that glorify beautiful women. Many of his spectacular song and dance revues are recreated for the movie, and they are truly a feast for the senses. The sets shimmer and spin like runway models. The costumes sparkle in a fantastic sea of gossamer skirts, sequins, glitter, and feathers. The symphonic pitter-patter of (seemingly) hundreds of tap dancing girls is absolutely spine-tingling. Each number is more extravagant than the last. It seems as if everything he touches turns to gold.

While his Broadway hits keep his name in lights for many years, Ziegfeld always seems to have financial issues. The more lavish his stage shows become, the more money he has to borrow from his lenders. His old competitor, Jack Billings, often ends up finding him backers and money. Ziegfeld also experiences some unexpected flops as Hollywood's influence begins to eclipse that of Broadway. In his personal life, his appreciation of pretty girls eventually dooms his marriage, but Ziegfeld's divorce from Anna Held facilitates his next marriage to Billie Burke (Myrna Loy). Perhaps it's my excitement at seeing one of my favorite cinematic duos together again, but Billie Burke seems like the love of Ziegfeld's life. Personally, I found the dramatic aspects of the movie really picked up once Loy entered the scene and Rainer wasn't on the screen so much. Ziegfeld's story has a relatively happy ending, as he is happily married with a child and has some late-career success back on Broadway, including a show about the circus that is reminiscent of his sideshow beginnings in Chicago.

Although I generally enjoyed the movie, I was surprised to discover that it won the Academy Award for Best Picture, and Luise Rainer won best Best Actress for her portrayal of Anna Held. I suppose I thought the overlong movie was good but not quite that good! The film was directed by Robert Z. Leonard and produced by Hunt Stromberg for M-G-M. The scriptwriter (William Anthony McGuire), the set designer (John Harkrider), and the choreographer (Seymour Felix) for the movie had all worked previously for Ziegfeld. There's a lot more information on the movie at Wikipedia.

Unfortunately, there aren't a lot of clips from the film online. My two favorite numbers from the movie were 'You've Never Looked So Beautiful Before,' which is like a fashion magazine come to life and the Ziegfeld Follies showstopper, 'A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody,' which I managed to find on the website, Dailymotion. It's like a gigantic rotating wedding cake! That's Entertainment shows about half of the number, but you have to watch the movie (or head over to Dailymotion) for the full clip.

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