Movies I Need To See Before I Die: THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (1936)

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(This is a column where I review movies that I have never seen, but SHOULD have.  Being a film Geek, I have seen a ton of films.  But life is also very short, and for one reason or another, there are quite a few flicks that I have never got to.  Sure, it probably doesn’t matter if I ever see a movie like PARENTAL GUIDANCE, but a movie like LAWRENCE OF ARABIA…. well, I should have seen that already.  I’m a film geek for God’s sake!  I have now decided that I should get on that before I get too old.  I have compiled a list of films that I WANT or NEED to watch, and am going to start watching them when I have spare time.  So I will randomly be posting reviews of movies that I have always wanted or needed to see.  Enjoy!)

I love old MGM musicals.  I haven’t seen too many older than 1940 though, and there were a ton of them back in the 30’s after THE BROADWAY MELODY won Best Picture in 1929 (that review will be coming up soon).  THE GREAT ZIEGFELD isn’t as widely known as it used to be.  When people talk about musicals from the golden age, this usually isn’t the first one they mention.  But back in 1936, it was a sensation, as it was nominated for several Oscars and won Best Picture and Best Actress.  After watching SEVEN SAMURAI, I was definitely in the mood for a musical.

Now, I didn’t really know anything about Flo Ziegfeld before going into this.  In fact, the only thing I knew about him was whatever I learned from 1946’s ZIEGFELD FOLLIES, which wasn’t much.  This movie is a biopic on the famous Broadway producer, so I learned a lot about him.  It begins with Flo (William Powell) working at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 promoting a strong man act.  His competitor (for life) Jack Billings (Frank Morgan) is far more successful with his belly dancing act, but Ziegfeld gets the idea to have ladies feel his strongman’s muscles backstage and it becomes a great success.  This is merely the beginning…

The story goes on as Flo continually meets up with Billings , constantly one-upping him and even stealing his women away.  The film also shows his 2 marriages.  The first with a French actress named Anna Held (Luise Rainer) and the second with Billie Burke (Myrna Loy), who after this film became more known as Glinda, the Good witch  from THE WIZARD OF OZ.  The film also chronicles his successes on Broadway, always putting on variety shows, but he hits it big when he gets the inspiring idea to glorify the beauty of the female in the Ziegfeld Follies around 1907.  We get glimpses into his personal life too as Anna gets insanely jealous of her husband being around all those beautiful girls all the time.  You see, Flo was quite the ladies man.  Besides his successes, we see his many failures too, as well as his decline after the stock market crash.  Ziegfeld died in 1932.

I’m very picky with biopics, because I feel like it’s hard to show an entire man’s life in just a few hours, and have the characterization needed to care about him.  There are some good ones out there, but I usually prefer a more sustained story.  With that said, I can honestly say that this is one of the good ones.  I immensely enjoyed it!

The movie captured me right away with its innovate and flashy title sequence.  And the energy just kept on going as we’re introduced to Ziegfeld as a sideshow promoter.  One of the things I really liked about the movie was the relation ship Flo had with Billings.  They’re constantly competing against each other, but also you definitely see some respect there, and ultimately become good friends.  It was actually quite touching, especially in their final scene together.  Ziegfeld’s love life is also handled well, including his marriage with Anna.  But the chemistry between Flo and Billie Burke during their first meeting together at a costume ball was electrifying.  So as a drama, I found this movie quite compelling.

But besides Flo’s personal life, there is an equal amount of time spent on his ambitious career as a Broadway producer.  We get to see many recreations of stage productions from the Follies in their entirety.  Some of these numbers are simply breathtaking.  The sets are just unbelievably extravagant.  In one number in particular, the camera (in one take) goes up a massive set of stairs as it’s lined with beautiful girls singing and dancing.  That was definitely a highlight of the picture.  But there’s still some great numbers besides that one. A couple of original Follies performers even play themselves.  Ray Bolger (aka The Scarecrow from OZ) was a janitor discovered by Ziegfeld and wound up being a terrific comic performer, and shines in his sole dance number in the film.  Also, Fannie Brice plays herself and she’s just wonderful.  She’s known for being a very funny comedienne, but she also gets a chance to show off a more vulnerable side in a moment when she realizes that she wasn’t hired for her looks.  Very real moment. Even though she was playing her self, it’s an Oscar worthy performance.

And speaking of “real”, the acting feels a lot more natural than most films from the 30’s, which was usually theatrical.  Sure, there are some very “big” acting moments throughout, but I was surprised at some little touches here and there.  Like in an early scene with Flo and his disapproving father.  Their dialogue felt like it was made up on the spot, not like they were reading from a script.  William Powell is terrific as Zeigfeld.  Even though he is a portrayed as a ladies man (which I heard was even toned down for the film), you still get a sense that he was a good person overall.  This is established in a scene when he flirts innocently with a child.  It may sound creepy, but it’s not.  It’s a very touching scene that showed how kind Flo was.  And their chance meeting later on when she is of legal age is downright hilarious.  Luise Rainer is very good as Anna.  She won Best Actress for her performance here  and it’s hard to argue with that.  Her last phone call with Ziegfeld is a heart breaker.  Though one could dispute that her role is more supporting than a lead.  Myrna Loy is also magnificent as Billie Burke.  The makeup department did a great job making her look like the actress and Loy went to great lengths to even sound like her.  Powell and her shine together on-screen.  The supporting cast is memorable, but the biggest impression is made by Frank Morgan (known for being The Wizard of Oz) as Billings.  It’s a funny performance.  I loved the running gag that has Ziegfeld stealing his girls, and Morgan’s reaction to this was always funny.  But in his last scene, he also portrays Billings as a caring man.  He wasn’t nominated for Supporting actor, but should have been.

The film was directed by Robert Z. Leonard.  Now, I know next to nothing about this guy’s career, but after watching this, that is about to change.  This is a wonderfully made film, with some stunning camera work and imaginative editing.  The musical numbers are expertly re-created and full of life.  And the drama is engaging throughout it’s 3 hour running time.  And don’t let the length scare you off.  It doesn’t feel that long at all.  It all moves very swiftly, and is a pure joy to sit through. I would kill to see this on the big screen!   The script is pretty well written.  But with a movie that expands decades, of course somethings were left unexplained about the man.  Parts of his life are merely glossed over, but that’s to be expected.  I was still surprised by how much of Ziegfeld’s life was covered effectively.  And his death is handled with perfect, Hollywood elegance.  Beautiful.

For some reason, I wasn’t expecting this to be as great as it was.  Sure, it won best picture, but sometimes I find a lot of films from that era are overpraised.  That’s absolutely not the case with THE GREAT ZIEGFELD.  It’s a lavishly epic biopic, full of wonderful performances and breathtaking musical numbers.  It definitely deserved its Oscar!   ★★★1/2 (out of ★★★★)

– Not Rated but contains some moments of heavy drinking, and thematic elements that would probably earn it a PG rating.

– Running time: 3hrs 5min.

(THE GREAT ZIEGFELD is available to rent on DVD from Netflix)



Categories: Austin Kennedy, DVD/Blu-ray Reviews, Movies I Need To See Before I Die, Reviews

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