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Great Ziegfeld, The

Warner Bros. // Unrated // February 3, 2004
List Price: $19.98 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by DVD Savant | posted January 23, 2004 | E-mail the Author

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

The Great Ziegfeld certainly explains a lot about Louis B. Mayer's MGM. This bloated musical biography garnered Oscars aplenty, attesting to the strength of Leo's publicity machine in their depression-era heyday. MGM spent a big chunk of the 1940s trying to recapture the appeal of this one, with phony life stories about famous songwriters and lyricists. The stars and lively story of this original effort have undeniable appeal, but it belongs in the stratum of high kitsch. Only political arm-bending can account for its Oscar win for 'best dance direction' - the gaudy mechanized representations of Ziegfeld's Follies here are great examples of the MGM style at its worst.


Lovable gambler-entrepreneur Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. (William Powell) goes from carnival barker to Broadway impresario, competing with (and stealing talent from) his competitor Jack Billings (Frank Morgan). He eventually finds fame with glamorous dame-filled revues and marries European star Anna Held (Luise Rainer), but loses her in a backstage mixup with spoiled showgirl Audrey Dane (Virginia Bruce). But true love hits the second time around in the person of Billie Burke (Myrna Loy), as Flo consolidates his success with acts like Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor, and Fanny Brice (playing herself).

By 1936 MGM was so successful that Louis B. Mayer must have thought the magic would go on forever. This massive project migrated from another studio and must have been a real chore to bring to the screen, setting new records for whitewashing a famous personage. Among other key contributors, the writer William Anthony McGuire had worked for Ziegfeld, and according to the short documentary on the disc, Ziegfeld's widow Billie Burke was also a heavy influence on the production. With the events pictured scarcely a decade old, the only reason to make such a show would be to glorify or condemn the subject celebrity, as seen in the movie PT 109 and the recent telefilm about Ronald Reagan.

I'm assuming what we see here is almost a total fantasy. MGM's Ziegfeld had no faults, only the impish need to upstage his pompous pal played by Frank Morgan. He loved all women but had no affairs, and was essentially faithful to his first wife (doubtful) and devoted to his second (entirely possible). He's that kind of rogue who's forever broke but somehow living a permanent life of luxury, skating on his personality and promotional talent.

The earliest part of the show is the most fun as the kind of ballyhoo shown has a carny credibility. In place of a character, the writer hangs several traits on Ziegfeld (incessant telegrams, extravagance, a superstition about elephants) and establishes his rapport with women through a 7 year-old girl (!) and his annoying habit of criticizing their clothing. He charms singer Anna Held into signing with him on faith, and we're asked to believe that he kept his revues and plays going while perpetually at the edge of bankruptcy.

Here's a perfect Louis B. Mayer subject - the Big Boss as the hero. If Mayer wanted his 'genius' to be better appreciated, what better way to express it than deifying his predecessor on Broadway. Ziegfeld specialized in glamour, and his forte were giant tableau-vivant pageants. In pop culture at least, he invented the oversized staircase covered with outrageously-costumed showgirls that prance and posed instead of dance. In Nicholas Ray's Party Girl they were referred to as a 'meat parade.' It's interesting that Ziegfeld's earliest pictured success was in flaunting the semi-obscene muscles of a strongman for prudish pre-1900 audiences.

Aesthetically speaking, most of the big numbers here are ugly in the extreme. Filming them straight-on from the audience might be excusable to recreate the 'original Ziegfeld experience' instead of Warners' Busby Berkeley style, but they're incredibly stiff. We're meant to go ga-ga over the giant mechanized stage pieces as if God had given MGM the power to do miracles. The showgirls are buried in shimmering spangles, and the most impressive thing are the acres of curtains that rise and lower in neat patterns. Grandiosity has never seemed so hollow, and the power of MGM to sell this as art attests to their cultural clout in this period.

The biggest number (and the only one frequently quoted in clip shows) is a crane shot around a corkscrew tower of stairs, where nothing much happens beyond good clockwork timing. Singers appear on cue at the right moment, thanks to the crack MGM engineering staff. Despite what the docu says, there is a big cut right in the middle, but it's still fascinating in a 'the things we'll accept ' as achievement' sort of way. It makes me think that only Vicente Minnelli could top it all with his Technicolor kitsch-factory ballets a decade later.

William Powell is a charming host throughout this charade, but neither Myrna Loy and Luise Rainer are given much to work with. Rainer really has only two extended scenes that earned her the Oscar, fretting when romanced by killer diller Flo, and then crying through her tears in approved MGM weepy fashion. It's very good work, but an Oscar?

The rest of the billing is just plain weird. We have stand-ins for Will Rogers and Eddie Cantor. It's hard not to perceive a snub at Cantor for not participating when the Cantor character doesn't respond to Ziegfeld's deathbed phone calls). Virgina Bruce (The Invisible Woman) plays a drunk who looks too interesting to be top kick in the Ziegfeld chorus line. Lynn Bari and Virginia Grey are said to be among the other showhorses. William Demarest and several other later Preston Sturges regulars have small parts. Under a different name, singer and later Warners heartthrob Dennis Morgan sings the song on the staircase - overdubbed with someone else's voice. Ray Bolger enlivens one number with a great dance. The weirdest touch (pointed out by Pauline Kael) is Fanny Brice singing the intro to My Man - but not the song itself!

It all goes on for over three hours, now that Turner/Warner have reinstated Overture, Entr'acte and Exit music, a classy touch. The ending invents a major cliché, the much-imitated death fantasy for a talented 'legend': As Ziegfeld expires penniless in his Manhattan apartment, endless chorines descend endless stairs, superimposed over Powell's beatific face chanting 'More stairs! There must be more stairs!' It must have been a wild day in Mayer's office when he acted out this scene, insisting that his staff work up tears over it.

As grotesque as it is, The Great Ziegfeld is no more banal than any modern Best Picture Oscar winner, and is certainly a key film to understand MGM's colossal ego trip in the midst of the depression. It certainly explains the origin of Ziegfeld Follies 9 years later. It's a plotless revue of acts mostly unrelated to the showman, and introduced by William Powell as the great entertainer - from his permanent home in heaven! Sheesh.

Warners' DVD of The Great Ziegfeld is a fine presentation, with the show in near perfect shape and in most scenes showing less grain than Mutiny on the Bounty. The disc comes with an interesting unedited newsreel of the New York premiere with some amusing celebrity appearances, especially Jack Oakie and Harpo Marx: "Honk Honk!"

Peter Fitzgerald's short docu features a TCM interview with an effusive Luise Rainer, still spry and kicking after all these years, and testimony from a couple of Ziegfeld relations. It understandably doesn't attempt a full reality check on the accuracy of the biography, but does let us know how different Flo's final days were from how they were pictured in the film.

On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Great Ziegfeld rates:
Movie: Good -
Video: Very Good
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Docu Ziegfeld on Film, premiere newsreel footage
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: January 22, 2003

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