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Robert Z. Leonard
William Powell, Myrna Loy, Luise Rainer, Frank Morgan, Fanny Brice, Virginia Bruce
Writing Credits:
William Anthony McGuire

The Last Word In Entertainment!

Flo Ziegfeld's midway attraction isn't drawing flies. "How's business, Ziggy?" a rival taunts. This winner of 3 Academy Awards, including Best Picture, provides the career-chronicling answer. Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.'s busness was good (with Broadway's legendary "Follies" and more), bad (including times the showman could scarcely rub two nickels together) and rarely lacking optimistic excess.

Rated NR

Fullscreen 1.33:1
English Monaural

Runtime: 185 min.
Price: $19.98
Release Date: 2/3/2004

• “Ziegfeld On Film” Documentary
• Vintage Movie Premiere Newsreel

Search Titles:

Sony 36" WEGA KV-36FS12 Monitor; Sony DA333ES Processor/Receiver; Panasonic CV-50 DVD Player using component outputs; Michael Green Revolution Cinema 6i Speakers (all five); Sony SA-WM40 Subwoofer.


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The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (January 28, 2004)

Through the end of 2003, only four of the Oscar Best Picture winners from the Thirties appeared on DVD. The folks at Warner Bros. put a big dent in the absentees on February 3, 2004, when they put out three of those missing titles.

For the newest of that trio, we turn to 1936’s The Great Ziegfeld. The flick opens in Chicago at the 1893 World’s Fair. We meet Flo Ziegfeld (William Powell) as he touts a show that features the strongman Sandow (Nat Pendleton). They don’t do well, as Ziegfeld’s rival Jack Billings (Frank Morgan) rakes in the bucks with his belly dancer Little Egypt.

With only five days to go before their eviction, Flo comes up with a way to save their skin. He charges women to feel Sandow’s muscles. Not only does this steal customers from Billings, but also Ziegfeld wrestles away Jack’s mercenary girlfriend Ruth Blair (Suzanne Kaaren), much to his rival’s consternation.

Flo then returns to the music conservatory run by his father, Dr. Ziegfeld (Joseph Cawthorne). His dad angrily denounces Flo’s desire to leave the conservatory and take Sandow to New York, but when he hears his son tell little Mary Lou (Ann Gillis) his goal to make movies with lots of beautiful women, he sees Flo’s passion and wishes him the best.

We head to New York and elsewhere as we watch the success of Sandow’s act. They do well until they bomb with a weird contest between Sandow and a lion. This splits the act, so Flo heads to Europe for a vacation, and he re-encounters his old rival Billings, who goes that way to recruit new talent. With his typical flair, Flo steals Jack’s assistant Sidney (Ernest Cossart).

Unfortunately for him, the grandstanding Flo loses all his money in Monte Carlo, so he hits up Jack for money. He fails, so he then sets his sights on stealing a prized singer named Anna Held (Luise Rainer). Inevitably, the smooth-talking Flo steals Anna from Billings and he brings her to New York. Her show initially flops, but Ziegfeld plants some silly stories about milk baths in the press to attract attention, and it works.

They also grow romantically and marry. Anna seems giddy, but on their first anniversary, she finds out that Flo plans to launch a second show in addition to hers. This upsets her, but he pursues his plans for “The Ziegfeld Follies” anyway. His extravaganza will lack one big star but it’ll feature scads of beautiful women and attempt to appeal to the ladies in the audience with its elaborate sets and costumes.

This scores a big hit and makes a rising star out of a former chorus girl named Audrey Dane (Virginia Bruce). Unsurprisingly, she attracts the romantic attention of Flo, which he attempts to deflect when Anna grows suspicious. The rest of the movie follows the disintegration of the relationship with Anna, Flo’s career ups and downs, and his eventually romance with Billie Burke (Myrna Loy).

An inconsistent film, Ziegfeld nonetheless seems pretty entertaining. I must admit I think its first half works substantially better than the second part. This happens for a few reasons. For one, the first half enjoys a much broader and livelier comedic tone. These parts come across almost as farce and parody. The movie doesn’t take itself serious and feels like it just wants to have fun. It succeeds, as it presents much amusing and creative material in that portion.

Unfortunately, the second half of the movie turns more serious and becomes less satisfying. Actually, the light tone of the first half undercuts the subsequent attempts at drama. Since the similar Yankee Doodle Dandy interspersed pathos with humor from start to finish, its emotional moments work fine; we’ve been set up for sentiment, so it doesn’t come out of the blue. In Ziegfeld, these bits seem forced, as though the movie doesn’t want to go down those paths but thinks it must.

In addition, the first half of Ziegfeld includes very few musical production numbers. The second portion pours on these elements, which makes sense. That part of the flick sees Flo enjoy success as the producer of stage extravaganzas, so it seems appropriate that we check out some of these. Indeed, the movie depicts them quite well; they come across as extremely elaborate and lavish.

Nonetheless, they slow down the story and make the film drag. We get too many of these pieces, and they last too long. In addition, they do nothing to further the plot. Like Dandy, Ziegfeld isn’t a traditional musical; all of its performances exist as nothing more than stage pieces, and the film doesn’t incorporate them into the story at all. This makes the production numbers moderately irrelevant, and they detract from the story as a whole.

Despite those missteps, Ziegfeld offers a lot to like, especially due to the stellar lead performance from Powell. He really carries the show, as he makes the movie work through the sheer force of his personality. We totally buy the charming snake oil salesman elements of Flo’s character, and even when the movie turns sappy at the end, he lends the piece a sense of dignity. It’s a great piece of work that helps the movie immeasurably.

The Great Ziegfeld seems somewhat too insubstantial and awkwardly constructed to qualify as a really great film. Nonetheless, the picture comes long on spectacle and comedy, and it moves more quickly than one might expect of such a long piece. Generally light and clever, it offers a surprisingly entertaining affair that mostly works swimmingly.

The DVD Grades: Picture B/ Audio B/ Bonus D+

The Great Ziegfeld appears in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 on this single-sided, double-layered DVD; due to those dimensions, the image has not been enhanced for 16X9 televisions. Despite some moderate flaws, the movie generally looked pretty good.

Sharpness mostly came across well. A few shots seemed slightly ill defined, especially when they featured leading ladies; those utilized mild examples of soft focus. Nonetheless, the majority of the flick appeared nicely distinctive and detailed. I noticed virtually no issues with jagged edges or shimmering, and edge enhancement was minimal.

Blacks looked tight and deep, and contrast seemed solid. The movie exhibited a nicely silver sheen that depicted the black and white photography well. Not surprisingly, print flaws created the biggest concerns. Throughout the film, I saw occasional examples of specks and spots, and batches of thin vertical lines also danced around the screen on more than a few occasions. While the defects created periodic distractions, they seemed pretty modest for a movie rapidly approaching its 70th birthday. Overall, Ziegfeld offered a very satisfying image.

In addition, The Great Ziegfeld presented a more-than-adequate monaural soundtrack. Nothing about the audio excelled, but it seemed solid for its age. Speech demonstrated pretty positive clarity and appeared surprisingly natural. Some lines were slightly edgy, but the dialogue didn’t seem as thin and shrill as I expected. Effects were acceptably clean and accurate; they didn’t demonstrate much range, but they lacked distortion and were fairly concise. Music seemed similarly restricted but sounded fine for its age. The songs were reasonably full and replicated the source material acceptably. Hiss appeared through the movie, but it lacked other source flaws like pops or clicks. Ultimately, Ziegfeld provided a fine piece for a flick from 1936.

Only a pair of extras round out The Great Ziegfeld. First we get a featurette called Ziegfeld on Film. In this 13-minute and 15-second program, we see film clips, home movies and other archival materials, and interviews with daughter Patricia Ziegfeld-Stephenson, actor Luise Rainer, and author Richard Ziegfeld. They discuss his career and life. Parts of this echo what we see in the flick, but we learn some other elements as well, and we learn how the fiction differs from the reality. We also get notes about the creation of The Great Ziegfeld and reactions to the piece. It’s a short but tight and informative piece.

Finally, we locate New York Hails The Great Ziegfeld. This footage lasts four minutes and two seconds and shows the flick’s Broadway premiere. We also hear some soundbites from largely unidentified – but apparently prominent – moviegoers. Though it’s a rough piece – it compiles bits without clean editing, and we see awkward starts and finishes to the comments – it offers an interesting glimpse of history. If nothing else, it merits a look to watch Harpo Marx actually say “Honk honk” into the microphone.

Though it drags at times and could have lost an hour of its running time, The Great Ziegfeld mostly presents a fun experience. Generally a light and plucky little romp, it boasts solid production values, fine acting, and enough clever moments to make it a winner. The DVD features quite good picture and audio given the age of the movie, but the collection of extras seems sparse. Nonetheless, Ziegfeld comes as a likable little surprise that I recommend.

Viewer Film Ratings: 3.7777 Stars Number of Votes: 18
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