Three hours of outsize production. It includes a good deal of spectacle which is overwhelming rather than impressive; a certain amount of humour; and some effective drama. Although hardly justifying its excessive length, the film as a whole is well worth seeing for the performances of William Powell, as the showman, and Luise Rainer, as his first wife.
Any film which runs for three hours is almost bound to lapse occasionally into boredom, and The Great Ziegfeld does not always avoid it. But this memorial to America’s greatest showman offers a good deal of rich entertainment.
The human side of the story is excellently done. Ziegfeld’s rise to great fame from the fairground, his relationships with his first wife, Anna Held, with the chorus girl who broke up their marriage, and with Billie Burke, his second wife, are well told and beautifully acted.
Less effective are the long spectacular sequences. They are neither pure stage spectacle nor real cinema.
William Powell is consistently good as the great showman. In the closing scenes, as a sick and losing fighter, he gives some impression of the man’s vulgar but tremendous vision; and ends the film with impressive quietness.
Myrna Loy appears only in the last quarter of the film. Her performance is charming and clever in its subtle suggestion of the Billie Burke of ten years ago. Virginia Bruce, too, is effective in the unsympathetic part of the hard-boiled, hard-drinking chorus girl.
The outstanding performance comes from Luise Rainer in the extremely difficult part of Anna Held. She gets over all Anna’s capricious charm and warmth, and in her unhappy moments over the loss of her husband, she is impressive and technically brilliant.
*** Luise Rainer, twenty-five year old Viennese, is one of M.G.M.’s biggest bets for stardom. Her first Hollywood contract was written and signed on the backs of menu cards. Bob Ritchie, M.G.M. talent scout, saw her in a Pirandello play in Vienna, about three years ago, went round after the show, and put her name on the impromptu dotted line the same night. Went to Hollywood to play in “Escapade,” the American version of “Maskerade.” Was well known in Vienna before she was twenty, playing mostly in drama such as Dreiser’s “American Tragedy,” Shaw’s “St Joan,” Ibsen’s “A Doll’s House,” and many Shakespeare plays. Also a great success in Paris and Berlin. Lives now near the sea in California. Her favourite companion is Scotch terrier “Johnny.” Recently married Clifford Odets, Left-minded playwright, but parted from him before the news was cold. Will next be seen “The Good Earth,” Chinese saga with Paul Muni; and starts work shortly on her starring vehicle “That Girl from Trieste.”