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The Great Ziegfeld (1936) movie poster The Great Ziegfeld

Theatrical Release: April 8, 1936 / Running Time: 186 Minutes / Rating: Not Rated

Director: Robert Z. Leonard / Writer: William Anthony McGuire

Cast: William Powell (Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.), Myrna Loy (Billie Burke), Luise Rainer (Anna Held), Frank Morgan (Jack Billings), Fannie Brice (Fannie Brice), Virginia Bruce (Audrey Dane), Reginald Owen (Sampston), Ray Bolger (Ray Bolger), Ernest Cossart (Sidney), Joseph Cawthorne (Dr. Ziegfeld), Nat Pendleton (Eugen Sandow), Harriet Hoctor (Harriet Hoctor), Jean Chatburn (Mary Lou), Paul Irving (Erlanger), Herman Bing (Costumer), Charles Judels (Pierre), Marcelle Corday (Marie), Raymond Walburn (Sage), A.A. Trimble (Will Rogers), Buddy Doyle (Eddie Cantor)

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- Viewed March 3, 2010

I've got to admit that I was dreading the thought of having to watch The Great Ziegfeld. A big reason for that was the 186-minute runtime. There was also the name in the title; I didn't know much about "Ziegfeld" except that the name was often followed by "Follies" to refer to a kind of stage spectacle I couldn't care less about.
The low expectations may have helped because I was quite pleasantly surprised by this engaging biopic.

This offers a somewhat fictionalized account of Florenz Ziegfeld, a producer who dreamed big and spent freely on his ambitious shows. The Thin Man's William Powell portrays the titular impresario, who at the film's start is struggling to draw crowds to a strongman act at the 1893 Chicago's World Fair. When Ziegfeld discovers the right marketing approach, the show becomes a hit and a launchpad to bigger things.

Ziegfeld next sets his sights on Anna Held (Luise Rainer, winning the first of back-to-back Oscars), a French singer his chief rival Jack Billings (Frank Morgan, The Wizard of Oz himself) is excitedly planning to sign. Held not only chooses the frank Ziegfeld as her producer but also her husband (in the movie's reality; in life, they were unwed partners). Ziegfeld is pressed to find a way to make Held's concerts profitable, a challenge he meets by concocting and publicizing his star/wife's secret (an outrageous volume of milk baths).

Florenz Ziegfeld (William Powell) and Jack Billings (Frank Morgan) are friendly rivals, whose friendship eclipses the rivalry over the years (with Billings shelling out much needed money). Anna Held (Luise Rainer) seems too easily swayed by Ziegfeld's gifts. At least here it's a fancy necklace and not just some flowers (her great weakness).

From here, Ziegfeld creates the form for which he remains best known: dazzlingly elaborate musical revues. We get a taste of some of them, with flourishes that include revolving stages, lavish costumes, and girls dancing on beds. All the while, the producer continues to be pressured by lenders, having to resort on many an occasion to asking Billings for money.

After his marriage to Held breaks up over a misunderstanding, Ziegfeld falls for another entertainer, Billie Burke, an actress now best known for portraying Glinda in The Wizard of Oz. Myrna Loy portrays Ziegfeld's wife/widow Burke and, despite modest screentime, she claims second billing, the result of playing Powell's wife in the popular Thin Man (and later, its five sequels).

Turning our attentions to Ziegfeld's domestic life, financial troubles, and backstage drama, the film perhaps achieves less than it should in 3 hours of film. But it's an involving character study, one that strays from the facts but nonetheless deepens our appreciation for the restless showman and his grand visions. I was quite relieved to find the stage sequences kept in moderation. If you feel the film overstays its welcome, you'll still deem the musical performances the most logical target for some trimming. However, one doesn't feel swamped by these acts but adequately shown what made Ziegfeld's shows so attractive.

Men in top hats, women in endless dresses, revolving stages, and no shortage of fanfare... it's the Ziegfeld Follies! Rocking a dickie and suspenders look, standout supporting character Eugen Sandow (Nat Pendleton) allows his biceps to be felt by a visibly impressed wife, to the puzzlement of her husband and to the advancement of Florenz Ziegfeld.

The film keeps its biography moving and even as Ziegfeld's life is marked by repetition, the sharp, well-paced production doesn't make the vicarious experience burdensome. There's something especially compelling about the unusual competitive relationship between Ziegfeld and Billings, which by picture's end has gradually been revealed as an enduring friendship built on empathy and respect.

The Great Ziegfeld did quite well with its first audiences, picking up seven Academy Award nominations and winning three, including the second of three Oscars in the short-lived Best Dance Direction category. It's pretty surprising that neither Powell nor Morgan had their performances recognized, but Rainer's victory seems deserved. While many films take their time to be recognized as classics, Great Ziegfeld has experienced the opposite, its initial acclaim now largely forgotten.
It's a complete no-show on the American Film Institute lists, not that it's been a great fit for any of them. Still, and this isn't just the low expectations talking, I found it to be among the better half of 1930s Best Picture winners, paling only in comparison to Gone With the Wind and Frank Capra's two comedies.

With over three hours of film, Great Ziegfeld presents a large number of viable candidates for my interesting supporting character designation. From a gap-toothed telegram boy to a quartet of barbershop loudmouths to the butler Ziegfeld lures away from Billings, there were many appealing options here. Heck, you even get Oz scarecrow Ray Bolger and Funny Girl subject Fanny Brice making appearances as themselves. None of these claims the spot, however, for it must go to Eugen Sandow, the bodybuilder who supplies Ziegfeld his big break by letting women touch his muscles. Played by Nat Pendelton, a silver medalist Olympic wrestler, Sandow sports curly hair and a mustache that would be all too right on a Will Ferrell character. I especially enjoyed the blink-and-miss glimpse we get of Sandow in the audience at one of Flo's later shows.

Comedienne and real Ziegfeld star Fanny Brice plays a younger version of herself. Playing Brice at greater length, Barbra Streisand would win an Oscar thirty-two years later in "Funny Girl." Even at the end of his career, Florenz Ziegfeld (William Powell) is driven by visions and the sight of his name in lights.

With over three hours of feature film (have I mentioned this already?), Warner didn't have much space for extras on this single-disc DVD. But it delivers a good retrospective featuring an interview with Rainer (who turned 100 years old in January) and Ziegfeld's now deceased daughter plus a short video of footage from the film's Broadway premiere.

The Great Ziegfeld rating: 7.75 out of 10 - Buy from

Previous: Mutiny on the Bounty / Next: The Life of Emile Zola

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Published April 18, 2010.

Text copyright 2010 Images copyright 1936 Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and 2004 Warner Home Video.