MGM’s tribute to one of America’s greatest showmen saw the studio at the peak of it’s powers; no expense was spared in bringing the life of Florenz Ziegfeld to the screen and the result is a musical extravaganza, a cast of thousands and a clutch of Oscars, including Best Picture of 1936.
Ziegfeld was the epitome of the great American showman. Born in Chicago to German immigrant parents in 1867 he began his career in showbusiness by acting as manager for the strongman Eugen Sandow at the Chicago World’s Colombian Exposition. It was in 1907, however, when he produced the first of his annual Follies – a musical fantasia with epic staging and extravagant costumes, featuring nubile young dancers personally chosen by Ziegfeld to appear in the shows (known as the ‘Ziegfeld Girls’) and star performers, including Fanny Brice, W.C. Fields, Sophie Tucker and Will Rogers. It was his common-law wife, the Polish-French actress Anna Held who first suggested hosting the Follies, based on the Parisian shows at the Folies Bèrgere. The Ziegfeld Follies ran on Broadway each year from 1907 through to 1931 featuring many up-and-coming stars and using the talents of the best costume and stage designers. Ziegfeld died in July 1932, but the Follies briefly continued with the consent of his wife, the actress Billie Burke, and later appeared as radio programmes. Two other films, Ziegfeld Girl (1941), with James Stewart and Judy Garland, and Ziegfeld Follies (1946) featuring a host of musical stars were both produced by MGM.
The Great Ziegfeld stays fairly true to Ziegfeld’s story throughout its 3 hour running time, although Ziegfeld’s widow, Billie Burke kept a close eye on proceedings which means most of his infedilities haven’t made it to the final cut. The epic scale befits the subject matter and at its best it is a gloriously entertaining spectacle, which, even in black and white, is visually stunning. The film begins in Chicago with Ziegfeld’s sideshow strongman and moves swiftly through to his first successes on Broadway. Along the way we are treated to a selection of musical numbers, each grander and more elaborate than the last. The centrepiece is the famous A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody number, directed by Seymour Felix (who won the Academy Award for ‘Best Dance Direction’). Employing 180 performers and filmed in two long takes this spectacular setpiece cost over $200,000 in itself, more than Ziegfeld ever spent on a whole show. The swirling staircase, encircled by over 4000 yards of rayon curtains is a classic movie musical moment. As well as a selection of contemporary music hall songs (Luise performs two; Won’t You Come and Play With Me and It’s Delightful to be Married) the film also includes new compositions by Harold Adamson and Walter Donaldson (You, She’s A Follies Girl, Queen of the Jungle, You Never Looked So Beautiful and You Gotta Pull Strings).
This was Luise’s second American film and the one which cemented her place as a star. She plays Ziegfeld’s common-law wife Anna Held and took home her first Academy Award, for Best Actress of 1936. Much has been made of this victory, with many commentators of the opinion that she won the award for only one scene and that Best Supporting Actress would be more suitable (1936 was the first year the supporting category was included). The scene in question is the now legendary ‘Telephone Scene’ in which Anna Held congratulates Ziegfeld on his engagement to his new love, Burke, choking back tears. It’s a scene which Luise claims she wrote for herself, based on Jean Cocteau’s play La voix humaine, and which Louis B. Mayer initially ordered to be removed from the film; she plays it to perfection. To bring out her sorrow and tears she remembered a stray cocker spaniel she had seen the night before! “Sadness is sadness,” she said in a 1979 interview when talking about the scene,”When you’re sad, you may be sad about one thing or another, but the feeling is the same and if it wells up in you, you can make use of it and translate it into whatever you need.” So iconic did this performance become, Luise repeated it numerous times on stage, at charity concerts and even on radio programmes well into the 1950s. In 1965 when Luise made a guest appearance in the television series Combat! the press were furnished with a publicity still of Luise on the telephone, a reminder to all that even if you’d forgotten her name you would always remember the scene.
It is a very moving moment, but to ignore the rest of her performance in the film does Luise a great disservice. She portrays the underdog with pathos and humanity and Held’s journey is one which captures the audience’s empathy throughout. Her performance is not just another weepy, however, and she also shines in the musical numbers and is particularly coquettish and charming, especially in the very funny scene of her first meeting with Ziegfeld and when she recieves his flowers. Much of the consternation about the Oscar win lies with the failure of Luise’s fellow nominees to win the award, and a belief that MGM ‘bought’ their new star the Oscar, heavily publicising the role and excercising their influence over the voting. Also in line for the Best Actress Oscar that year: Irene Dunne for Theodora Goes Wild; Norma Shearer for Romeo and Juliet; Carole Lombard for My Man Godfrey and Gladys George for Valiant is the Word for Carrie. Hindsight compounds the argument that this relatively unknown German actress, in only her second American film, robbed some of Hollywood’s biggest stars of their chance to nab an Oscar; Dunne was nominated five times but never won, this was Lombard’s only nomination and Shearer, already a winner in 1930, would have claimed the first double. Similar accusations would be made the following year, when Luise won her second Best Actress Academy Award, beating Greta Garbo, who never won an Oscar. But, the award should be seen in context with the other performances of the year, not with the benefit of hindsight. Whilst the MGM publicity machine certainly went into overdrive to promote the film as Oscar-worthy, it is unfair to say that Luise’s victory was undeserved; after all, the film was also nominated in six other categories (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Dance Direction, Best Art Direction, Best Editing, Best Writing (Original Story)). It should be noted that Luise was also awarded the Best Actress accolade by the New York Times Film Critics Circle, a panel much less likely to be influenced by MGM’s publicity machine.
Casting for the production included a selection of MGM stalwarts and starlets. William Powell, in his second of three films with Luise (between Escapade (1935) and The Emperor’s Candlesticks(1937)), plays Ziegfeld; Myrna Loy, who, despite second billing, appears after over two hours have elapsed, plays his second wife, Billie Burke. Burke, best known for her role as ‘Glinda the Good Witch’ in The Wizard of Oz (1939), was in line to play herself in the film but the studio decided to cast an actress to play the part. Burke did visit the set and, having sold the rights to Ziegfeld’s story, oversaw some of the production. There were also turns from some of those who appeared in the original Follies, including Fanny Brice, Harriet Hoctor and Ray Bolger, as themselves. (For a full cast list, see below).
The Great Ziegfeld has weathered better than many of its contemporaries. The three hour running time certainly contains peaks and troughs, but the spectacle hasn’t been dimmed over the years. It’s a film which shows MGM at its best, with no expense spared on production values; a film which is of a time before CGI technology and of a type which we no longer see. Its main flaw is that it doesn’t quite balance the storytelling with the setpieces, unsure of whether it’s a straightforward biopic, with musical interludes, or a full-blown musical.
The Great Ziegfeld is currently available on DVD in the UK and in the USA. Both versions include a short documentary, Ziegfeld on Film, which includes new interviews with Luise Rainer and Ziegfeld’s daughter Patricia Stephenson. Also included is a short newsreel showing stars arriving at the New York premiere.
William Powell as Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.
Myrna Loy as Billie Burke
Luise Rainer* as Anna Held
Frank Morgan as Billings
Fanny Brice as Herself
Virginia Bruce as Audrey Dane
Reginald Owen as Sampston
Ray Bolger as Himself
Ernest Cossart as Sidney
Joseph Cawthorne as Dr. Ziegfeld
Nat Pendleton as Sandow
Harriet Hoctor as Herself
Jean Chatburn as Mary Lou
Paul Irving as Erlanger
Herman Bing as Costumer
Charles Judels as Pierre
Marcelle Corday as Marie
Raymond Walburn as Sage
A. A. Trimble as Will Rogers
Buddy Doyle as Eddie Cantor
Directed by Robert Z. Leonard**
Screenplay by William Anthony McGuire**
Produced by Hunt Stromberg
Filmed by Oliver T. Marsh
Ziegfeld Roof Numbers filmed by George Folsey and Karl Freund
Hoctor Ballet filmed by Merritt B. Gerstad
A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody filmed by Ray June
Edited by William S. Gray**
Art Director: Cedric Gibbons** and Eddie Imazu**
Gowns designed by Adrian Greenburg
Associate Art Directors: Merrill Pye, John Harkrider, Edwin B. Willis**
Recording Director: Douglas Shearer
Musical Director: Arthur Lange
Special Music and Lyrics by Harold Adamson and Walter Donaldson
Musical Arranger: Frank Skinner
Dances and Ensembles staged by Seymour Felix*
* Academy Award Winner
** Academy Award Nominee
Criticisms of the Latest Films: The Great Ziegfeld (Picturegoer, Sept 1936)
Three Hour Musical [Review] (Film Weekly, 27 February 1937)