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.