Directed by: Robert Z. Leonard (nominated)
Screenplay by: William Anthony McGuire (nominated)
Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Luise Rainer (won Oscar), Frank Morgan
My rating: 7/10
IMDb rating: 6.8
Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
Romeo and Juliet
The Story of Louis Pasteur
A Tale of Two Cities
Three Smart Girls
Synopsis: Charting the failures and successes of showman Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., who created the Ziegfeld Follies.
Continuing the movie trend of charming people being charming, The Great Ziegfeld introduces us to several characters, very few of whom are unlikable.
The relationship between Ziegfeld and his friendly lifelong rival Billings (Frank Morgan) was probably one of my favourites in the film. Billings was the only person with Ziegfeld from the beginning to the end. They quarreled, and Ziegfeld was always stealing people from Billings (a valet, a star billings wanted to sign) but they still had a relationship based on mutual understanding, which brought me joy.
The film is carried by William Powell’s Ziegfeld. He manages to take a somewhat skeezy guy and turn him into someone very likable. He has an adorable relationship with his father and, while he never has money, this is portrayed as a result of generosity.
The standout performance, though, was Luise Rainer’s Anna Held. She plays a flighty French singer, who could easily be annoying, with so much grace and fragility that it’s difficult to not love her. My favourite line of Anna’s: “I can’t sing today, I’m much too much inside.”
The dialogue in this is enjoyably quaint, and has the slick sheen of classic cinema. In one scene, Billings is upset with Ziegfeld about poaching his valet, and Ziegfeld says, “Gentlemen don’t quarrel over gentlemen’s gentlemen.” Isn’t that great?
The film sags a bit near the end, but it’s a long film and a bit of a dip is inevitable when you reach the “fall” of a rise and fall story, especially if it’s based on reality.
As the closing for the first half (there is an intermission) there’s a massive song and dance number on a revolving stage. It’s a hell of a showpiece, but the behind-the-scenes workings of the follies are more interesting: Ziegfeld conniving and bluffing and smooth-talking to get his way and make sure everything is up to his exacting standards.
Another highlight for me was Fanny Brice’s cameo as herself. It’s a pity her shows were mostly limited to the stage – I would have loved to see footage of her in her prime.
I feel like I’ve complained about timeline on a lot of movies so far, so I feel like I should say this movie did it well. The passage of time was shown effectively, and it didn’t feel like we were jumping around in illogical increments.
The bottom line: We like slick showmen with their own questionable moral code. We like good relationships. We like charismatic people. These are all reasons to watch this, if only to be in awe of Ziegfeld’s marketing prowess. Here’s a Variety review from 1936, apparently.
And here are the rest of the post in this series.