by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved
I stayed up late last night, watching the 1936 film The Great Ziegfeld. It was made by MGM — at a time when Warner Brothers and RKO were the top studios in Hollywood for musical production — and stretched out nearly three hours in length, an elephantine “quality” film which managed to be pretty dull despite lavish production values and a solid performance by William Powell in the title role. The movie won the Academy Award for best picture and also the first of two back-to-back best actress Oscars for Luise Rainer, who played Ziegfeld’s first wife, Anna Held. (Ironically, the TNT network was showing this piece of cheese as part of a birthday tribute to Myrna Loy, who played Ziegfeld’s second wife, Billie Burke — but who doesn’t appear until this three-hour film is already two hours and seven minutes old.) Rainer’s performance was the sort of highly stylized, studied bad acting that won Academy Awards in the 1930’s (even good actresses who won Oscars in that period, like Katharine Hepburn and Bette Davis, tended to win them for showy but mediocre performances: Hepburn for Morning Glory instead of Christopher Strong or Alice Adams, Davis for Dangerous instead of Of Human Bondage or Bordertown.)
MGM spent a lot of money on The Great Ziegfeld, but — alas — not the extra money which would have been needed to make the film in the then-new three-strip Technicolor process. This is one film from the Thirties where the limitations of black-and-white are really annoying, especially when you consider how dully directed the “spectacular” musical numbers are. At Warners, Busby Berkeley was using the full resources of the film medium and artfully stylizing his big numbers to take advantage of the good aspects of black-and-white (the high contrast and dramatic possibilities of light and shadow); in this MGM film, director Robert Z. Leonard and dance director Seymour Felix shot the numbers as if from a well-placed seat in a theatre, achieving dramatic verisimilitude at the expense of entertainment value. Felix won the dance direction Oscar for the number, “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” (the clip usually chosen to represent this film in historical anthologies, and still the best thing in it) — an award Fred Astaire and Hermes Pan should have won for “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” from Follow the Fleet — but the numbers are dull, mostly composed of “glorified” chorus girls being revolved on very slowly turning circular platforms or slid in and out on movable beds.
Why they didn’t get a really talented musical director like John Murray Anderson (who not only directed several of the Ziegfeld Follies himself but proved that he could handle a big-budget film musical with The King of Jazz at Universal six years before) instead of a hack like Leonard is beyond me, especially given all the other talent they had behind the camera: writer William Anthony McGuire (another Ziegfeld alumnus) and no fewer than four top cinematographers: George Folsey, Karl Freund, Ray June and Oliver Marsh. The Great Ziegfeld remains a pretty dull movie, a three-hour endurance test and the kind of frustrating film that could have been very good indeed if the filmmakers’ visions had matched their budget allocations. — 8/3/93
The film was The Great Ziegfeld, MGM’s monster musical from 1936 and an interesting comparison with Avatar if only because it was fun comparing what constituted a blockbuster in 1936 versus what does so now. What constituted a blockbuster in 1936 was a big, splashy musical based on the life of a producer who was already a legend — a work with an only intermittent relationship with truth (even the opening credits stipulate that the movie is merely “suggested by romances and incidents in the life of America’s greatest showman, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.”) — with sexy, appealing stars in the leads and a spare-no-expenses production budget. Ironically, the genesis of The Great Ziegfeld lay in the extravagance of the real Ziegfeld, which had kept him in continual financial trouble even when he was at the peak of his career as an impresario — and which stuck his widow, actress Billie Burke, with a small mountain of debts (I’ve seen estimates as high as $4 to $12 million, though given that Ziegfeld died in 1932, well before modern-day inflation, those totals are probably highly exaggerated).
Burke was determined to repay all Ziegfeld’s creditors in full rather than declare bankruptcy, and to do that she resumed her career as an actress in Hollywood (where she and Ziegfeld were living when he died — in the movie he dies in New York but Burke had taken him out west thinking that the fabled California sun would be good for his health), making memorable films such as A Bill of Divorcement and The Wizard of Oz. She also sold the rights to Ziegfeld’s life story to Universal in 1933, and that studio commissioned William Anthony McGuire, one of Ziegfeld’s most important writers, to do the script — but two years later Universal’s financial troubles led them to put the project in turnaround, which meant that they weren’t going to produce it themselves but were willing to pass it on to another studio in exchange for the costs they’d already spent developing it plus a small profit. This is a common practice today but was virtually unheard of in the 1930’s (though ultimately quite a number of Universal-developed properties ended up at MGM, including Madame Curie as well as two movies Universal actually produced themselves and sold to MGM for remake purposes, Waterloo Bridge and Show Boat).
Universal agreed to relinquish The Great Ziegfeld to MGM in exchange for $300,000 (well above the $225,000 to $250,000 Universal had spent on pre-production), an undisclosed settlement, MGM taking over the salaries of McGuire and some of the other principals, and Universal getting a one-picture loanout on the star of The Great Ziegfeld, William Powell, as soon as the movie was finished. (The film Universal made with Powell was Gregory La Cava’s comedy classic My Man Godfrey.) One other thing Billie Burke did to raise money that horrified many of Ziegfeld’s friends and close associates was she licensed the show name Ziegfeld Follies for a 1936 production by the Shubert brothers — whom Ziegfeld had loathed as bitter enemies — a show that was actually a bigger hit than Ziegfeld’s last Follies in 1931 and broke one standard song, “I Can’t Get Started,” which was introduced on stage by Bob Hope (a major boost in his career from his Broadway debut in Jerome Kern’s Roberta to Hollywood and radio superstardom) and Ziegfeld veteran Fanny Brice.
The Great Ziegfeld opens during the legendary Chicago World’s Fair of 1893 (recently the subject of the marvelous book The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson), which directly inspired Disneyland — Walt Disney’s father Elias had been part of the construction crew and had regaled his sons with tales of how beautiful it had all been. Ziegfeld is there promoting the German strong man Sandow (Nat Pendleton in a surprisingly effective and credible German accent), while next door on the fair’s midway his rival, Jack Billings (Frank Morgan in what is probably his best role next to The Wizard of Oz), is packing ’em in with the exotic dancer “Little Egypt.” Ziegfeld gets the message, loud and clear — strength doesn’t sell, sex does — and when the fair closes and he and Sandow move to New York, Ziegfeld reconceptualizes the act to attract straight women eager to see Sandow as a sex object and response to the invitation to feel up Sandow’s biceps at the end of the performance.
When the two rival impresarii travel to Europe on a talent-hunting trip, Ziegfeld signs French singer Anna Held (Luise Rainer) right from under Billings’ nose, spends an inordinate amount of money on her vehicle, has a box-office hit but is still scrambling for money because he spent so much mounting it (a running theme through both Ziegfeld’s real-life career and the plot of this movie), and marries her. (The real Ziegfeld never married Anna Held, though he had an ongoing relationship with her and they lived in the same building, one floor apart; later he moved another mistress, Lilly Lorraine — called “Audrey Dane” in the film and played by the great, and sadly underused as usual, Virginia Bruce — into the same building on a different floor, and Anna ran into the two of them one day, split with Ziegfeld both personally and professionally in 1912, and remained a star but died of a rare form of bone cancer in 1918.)
The movie alternates between lavish re-creations of Ziegfeld’s production numbers, staged by dance director Seymour Felix in a surprisingly straight-ahead style that makes them seem surpassingly dull — maybe these extravagant but static tableaux worked on stage, but in a movie, six years after Busby Berkeley came to Hollywood to make Whoopee (based on a Ziegfeld production starring one of Ziegfeld’s legendary “names,” Eddie Cantor) and started shooting numbers from overhead and swooping the camera through his acres of chorus girls instead of just maintaining a respectful difference and giving us what we would have seen from a good seat in the theatre, they’re surprisingly boring — and scene after scene of Ziegfeld getting into financial hot water, both from the elaborateness of his productions and the incredibly expensive presents he gave every woman he was after, of which (almost inevitably given what business he was in) there was always an ample supply. McGuire’s script is a bowdlerized, largely (but, blessedly, not entirely) desexualized version of Ziegfeld’s real story, playing up the sentiment heavily, especially in the plot scenes involving Luise Rainer and her character.
TCM showed this film January 12 — Rainer’s 100th birthday (and yes, she’s still alive — when Katharine Hepburn died it was widely, and erroneously, reported that Olivia de Havilland was now the oldest Academy Award acting winner, which is an indication of how completely Rainer has been forgotten) — as part of a tribute to her that also included her other Academy Award Best Actress winner, The Good Earth — and while it’s true that she had the backing of the biggest studio in Hollywood and both The Great Ziegfeld and The Good Earth were major blockbuster hits, watching her overly droll, coy, cutesy-poo, schticky acting here it’s hard to believe anyone, anywhere, at any time actually thought this performance deserving of an award. Rainer’s performance is actually a severe detriment to the movie — she gets one good song, “It’s Delightful to Be Married” (the melody was by one “V. Scotto” and its lyrics were by the real Anna Held), but even there she simpers her way through it and one wishes MGM could have borrowed Ginger Rogers from RKO for the part.
Rainer always credited her Oscar to the famous telephone scene, her last scene in the movie — when she receives word that Ziegfeld has married Billie Burke (played here by Myrna Loy, who doesn’t enter until the 127th minute of this 172-minute movie but who brings her part a quiet dignity and strength that not only ennobles the film as a whole but makes her character out to be a far better partner and wife for Ziegfeld than Rainer’s!) — but seen today the sequence looks dreadfully phony and false, and it’s hard to see why this kind of over-the-top overacting would have wowed the Academy voters of the 1930’s. (Then again, Al Pacino finally won his Academy Award for an equally overwrought and schticky performance in Scent of a Woman, after being passed over for years for his truly great films.)
MGM deserves credit for using several people genuinely associated with Ziegfeld, including McGuire and set designer John Harkrider, along with some of the actual Ziegfeld performers, notably Fanny Brice (who plays herself and burns up the screen in her two big numbers). Some of the other Ziegfeld performers either weren’t depicted at all (like W. C. Fields and Bert Williams — having Williams as a character would probably have hurt the box-office receipts in the South, but it still seems like a missed opportunity, especially since Mantan Moreland would have been superb in the role) or were impersonated — Eddie Cantor was played by his Ziegfeld-era understudy, Buddy Doyle (since the real one was still under contract to Sam Goldwyn), and Will Rogers by A. A. Trimble, a Cleveland map salesperson who frequently entertained at Rotary Club luncheons with his Rogers impersonation. (The real Rogers had died in a plane crash the previous year, but it’s unlikely he would have been available even if he’d still been alive because he’d been a major star at Fox doing movies with John Ford like Judge Priest and Steamboat ’Round the Bend.)
What they didn’t do was get a truly great director. The person they should have got to make this movie was John Murray Anderson, who knew Ziegfeld — he’d directed most of the Follies — and who also knew movies, as he’d proven in 1930 when he directed a Ziegfeld-style extravaganza, The King of Jazz, at Universal and showed he could do a film in the Ziegfeld grand manner while still making it fluid and cinematic. But The King of Jazz had been a box-office flop (probably simply because Universal spent two years making it, and by the time it was released it was 1930, the Great Depression had happened, the Zeitgeist had changed and audiences were now only bored by sumptuous musicals in two-strip Technicolor) and it killed Anderson’s chances in Hollywood — he only worked on two more movies, Bathing Beauty (1944), on which he directed Esther Williams’ final spectacular water ballet; and The Greatest Show on Earth (1953), Cecil B. DeMille’s circus extravaganza , on which Anderson shot some of the scenes of actual circus performance.
Universal had assigned (mostly) comedy director A. Edward Sutherland to the project; MGM, when they initially took it over, had briefly announced it for George Cukor (which might have been interesting; maybe he could have got Luise Rainer to act like a human being, as he did with Joan Crawford in The Women and A Woman’s Face), but they ultimately gave it to Robert Z. Leonard, former husband of silent star Mae Murray (with whom he’d made films that were essentially musicals — at least she danced in them — even before movies had sound) and specialist in extravagant but rather leaden productions (though the year after The Great Ziegfeld he would direct Jeanette MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in Maytime, their greatest film together and a doomed romance that reached far beyond the meager emotions and simple-minded stories of most MacDonald-Eddy vehicles). Leonard turned in a decent job by his lights in a film that deserved something more than that.
Also one of the quirkier aspects of the movie was the number of people who were depicted under assumed names; not only did Lilly Lorraine become “Audrey Dane” but Marilyn Miller, one of Ziegfeld’s greatest stars, was called “Sally Manners” and played by Jean Chatburn. (Miller died one day before The Great Ziegfeld was released and there was enough of an urban legend surrounding the timing behind that that Liberty magazine, in its review of the movie, wrote, “It’s not true that Marilyn Miller died of a broken heart at not getting the lead in this.” Ten years later, Miller would be depicted under her own name in MGM’s biopic of Jerome Kern, Look for the Silver Lining — where she was played by Judy Garland, a totally different “type” from the real Miller but still an incandescent performer whose turn was one of the highlights of that lumbering but often entertaining movie.) The script also made a major plot point of Ziegfeld saying to four men in a barber shop who thought he was washed up that within a year he would have four hits running on Broadway simultaneously — only the film gets one of the hits wrong (they were Whoopee, Rio Rita, Rosalie and The Three Musketeers) — in the movie Rosalie is replaced by Show Boat and McGuire’s script thereby missed the chance to make the point of how much a departure Show Boat was from all previous musicals: not a plotless “revue” like the Ziegfeld Follies or a light, frothy story designed as a star vehicle like Marilyn Miller’s Sally, but a serious dramatic work dealing with race relations, gambling addictions, poverty, abandonment and many of the darker sides of life that had previously never shown themselves on the Broadway stage.
Perhaps the fact that a lot of these shows had already been bought and filmed by other studios — Show Boat by Universal, Sally by Warners and Rio Rita by RKO (though ultimately MGM would acquire remake rights to both Show Boat and Rio Rita) — accounts for the fact that we only hear snatches of their music on the soundtrack instead of actually seeing any of them. Still, The Great Ziegfeld is a movie I found myself liking better this time around than I had before — the numbers, however static and over-the-top, have their own demented appeal that shows what audiences in Ziegfeld’s time would have liked about them, and the plot portions, though not always especially well cast, have a wit and charm (more from McGuire’s one-liners than Leonard’s lumbering direction), while the collapse of Ziegfeld’s fortunes during the Great Depression (he’s persuaded to stop spending all his money buying jewels for his girlfriends and start buying stocks instead — just as the 1920’s boom ends and the market self-destructs, right in time to lose his entire fortune) is a plot turn that seems all too timely now! — 1/14/10