Great Ziegfeld, The (1936)
Release Date: April 8th, 1936 MPAA Rating: Not Rated
Director: Robert Z. Leonard Actors: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Luise Rainer, Frank Morgan, Virginia Bruce, Fannie Brice, Reginald Owen, Ray Bolger, Ernest Cossart, Joseph Cawthorne, Nat Pendleton, Jean Chatburn
t the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago, Florenz “Flo” or “Ziggy” Ziegfeld Jr. (William Powell) works as a carnival barker for Sandow (Nat Pendleton), a record-holding weightlifter, vying to garner bigger crowds for every show. But he constantly loses out to the “Little Egypt” bellydancers across the way, with the bellowing yet perpetually chipper Jack L. Billings (Frank Morgan, easily the best supporting player in the film) selling out all his seats. Ziegfeld proposes a last-minute partnership with Billings, hoping to delay the loss of his job by the coming Saturday, but he’s turned down. Fortunately, Ziggy realizes that the sex appeal of the Egyptian dancers can be directed toward his strongman by allowing women to touch his muscles.
Flo’s profits – and luck – tend to go up and down randomly, though he’s still capable of stealing away Jack’s woman (Ruth Blair [Suzanne Kaaren]) and even his valet Sidney (Ernest Cossart). But he’s not so favorable with his father, Dr Ziegfeld (Joseph Cawthorne), who disapproves of his profession. Nevertheless, Florenz keeps pushing the limits of his show, even going so far as to stage a fight between a man-eating lion and a grizzly bear. It’s not long, however, before his gimmicks turn fraudulent, forcing Ziegfeld to flee to Monte Carlo.
Once there, he manages to lose $50,000, pressuring him to head to London with little more than 50 cents to his name. Ziggy runs into Jack yet again, borrows some cash, and attempts to steal away Billings’ next target: a French singer with great potential (Luise Rainer as Anna Held). Although they each seek the world’s greatest artist – specifically to exploit – Florenz comes across as quite the conniving crook. He speaks volumes about his advertising and publicity skills, but he resorts to taking on significant loans (it’s never explained how he has so many affluent backers willing to front risky bets) and fails to carry through with his contracts. All the ladies seem to like him, but he’s no good as a showman or a businessman.
Powell is as charming as ever, but his character is something of a scoundrel (the oddly affable kind, which he would portray in several other notable pictures, including “Libeled Lady” and “I Love You Again”). He employs underhanded tactics to steal talent and conduct deceitful negotiations, and uses boastful or beguiling language and lavish gifts – quite irresponsibly – to seduce his Broadway stars. His efforts rightly find him broke over and over again. But, for some inexplicable reason, he’s able to approach Jack for further financing, to come out on top. He’s not so much the “Great” Ziegfeld as he is the “Crooked” Ziegfeld.
“You don’t seem to remember the time, the place, or the girl!” Despite this biopic showing Florenz in a largely negative light, from his shady dealings to his brazen unfaithfulness, a significant portion of the hefty running time is spent on classic ’30s entertainment. Dancing (including a magnificent tap-dancing number by Ray Bolger, and a circus-themed ballet), impersonations, singing, orchestral and operatic music, elaborate costuming, massive stage props, burlesque ensembles, and plenty of scantily-clad women make the Ziegfeld Follies very much a component of the film, as if each skit (staged by Seymour Felix) runs in its entirety, uninterrupted, and edited together in alternating sequences with his recreated history (including his infidelities).
Eventually, these musical numbers intrude so regularly that the plot begins to stall for lengthy spans of time; it’s as if the movie pauses to exhibit footage of the Follies themselves, hoping to combine the two for dual forms of entertainment. In fact, thanks to so many separate performances, it takes more than two hours before Myrna Loy (as Billie Burke) makes an appearance (a long wait for Powell’s “The Thin Man” costar). And by that point, she’s much too wholesome and generous for Ziegfeld. Yet he continues to keep winning in his creative endeavors (he orchestrates additional successful shows), in his finances (his house is so palatial that it has two Christmas trees during the holidays, and he continues to spend money extravagantly and recklessly), and in his love life (marrying Burke, much to Anna’s chagrin). By the end, even the tragedies of career hang-ups, the ’29 stock market crash, and crippling depression can’t stop the unflappable friendship of Billings and the unwavering love of Burke from feeling enormously undeserved for such an unsympathetic opportunist.
– Mike Massie