In my quest to watch all the movies that have won the Oscar for Best Picture, I watched The Great Ziegfeld this week. Ambitious, yes. Great? Not so much.
The Great Ziegfeld won in 1936, against Anthony Adverse, Dodsworth, Libeled Lady, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Romeo and Juliet, San Francisco, The Story of Louis Pasteur, A Tale of Two Cities and Three Smart Girls.
Directed by Robert Z. Leonard, who got his start as a silent film director, the film stars William Powell and Myrna Loy, also known as Nick and Nora from the Thin Man movies, and German-born actress Luise Rainer, who won an Oscar for her performance. After winning another the next year, for The Good Earth, Rainer deliberately stepped back from show business, only reappearing for an occasional TV role.
The movie tells the story of Florenz "Flo" Ziegfeld Jr. (William Powell), of Ziegfeld Follies fame, tracing his career from early days as a carnival barker to his many Broadway successes. Among his many accomplishments, Ziegfeld introduced such stars as Eddie Cantor, Fanny Brice and Will Rogers to the American public.
Half bio and half musical, the more than three-hour film makes room for both solos and lavish musical numbers. One of those numbers, "A Beautiful Girl is Like a Melody," reportedly cost more to produce than one of the actual Ziegfeld's shows.
Ziegfeld's widow, second wife Billie Burke (Myrna Loy), was consulted for the movie, which may be why he gushes to Burke that he wished he'd met her earlier. Burke was very protective of her husband's image, which might be why the film dances around his well-known womanizing. Instead of depicting him as a man with a wondering eye, the movie depicts Ziegfeld as generous to a fault, openly enthusiastic about beautiful women and almost accidentally falling for their charms. Such infidelity with a chorus girl led to the breakup of his first marriage, to singing star Anna Held (Luise Rainer).
Of course, the movie might have been implying such behavior, rather than showing it explicitly, in part because of the Hays Code, which was in force at the time and greatly regulated on-screen actions. Also, Ziegfeld himself had died only four years earlier.
In an accompanying documentary, Ziegfeld's daughter with Billie Burke reveals she thought Powell was a perfect choice to play her father because he was charming. According to photos appearing in this documentary, he also bore some resemblance to him. However, while he has a pleasant smile and a gentle manner, Powell's Ziegfeld doesn't seem like the sort of charismatic entrepreneur who could woe talent and backers alike. It's possible that Ziegfeld himself was also even-keeled, but it's difficult to watch a film that's based on somebody's life, if that character doesn't draw your eye.
By contrast, Rainer is far more interesting as Anna Held. She's sometimes flirtatious, sometimes dramatic, with her share of the sort of "Oscar moments" that voters love. Her vocal skills make her convincing in the role. Sadly, when she leaves, the film loses much of its charm. Likewise, Virginia Bruce adds interest with her drunken chorus girl, Audrey Dane, whose affair with Ziegfeld costs him his first marriage.
Myrna Loy as Billie Burke, however, is as passionately pleasant as Powell's Ziegfeld. Again, perhaps this was a factor of Burke herself, wanting to be portrayed positively.
Since so much of the movie is taken up with musical numbers, the quality of those numbers is disappointing. No doubt they were flashy at the time, but the biggest, splashiest scenes consist primarily of the performers standing in contrived poses while set pieces move around them or curtains and other props fall from the ceiling. While this sort of visual extravaganza might have impressed audiences who had seen less musical theater, it strikes the modern viewer as showy and fake.
Most of the songs are forgettable, as well, except for two notable exceptions: "Look for the Silver Lining" (used this very week on So You Think You Can Dance) and "A Beautiful Girl is Like a Melody."
The dancing is understandably weak, primarily because the chorus girls seem to have been hired for their looks, instead of their dancing abilities. This may be why, in so many scenes, they simply wear outlandish costumes, worthy of the flashiest drag queens, and strut about the stage. A couple big dance number call for choreographed movement (I hesitate to call it dancing), the most unintentionally funny of which involves dozens of women rolling out of bed, folding blankets in unison, chugging fake champagne and then kicking their legs wildly on moving beds before collapsing. Hardly a Busby Berkley routine.
At the same time, it's hard to look away from this movie, as you wonder how much worse it can get. Plus, there are some notable cameos, from Fanny Brice as herself, and from Ray Bolger (The Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz), who gets to shine in a couple of dance routines (at last, real dancing!). Fanny Brice's humor falls flat by today's standards, consisting of her pulling funny faces and saying things in weird accents (for which one can probably blame the screenwriters). Still, she shows off her prodigious vocal talents, proving her star quality.
Of course, Oscar voters at the time were probably moved by the fact that this movie memorialized a beloved figure on Broadway. Many were probably dazzled by the musical scenes, and so the movie trounced its competitors and took the Oscar.
The movie is disappointing, nonetheless. As a biography, it fails to interest the viewer in the subject, namely Ziegfeld. As a musical, it mistakes glitz and glamour for real performance values. Unless you're a completist like myself, this is one Oscar winner to skip.
Rating (out of 5): **
It takes more than sequins to make a good musical number.