The Great Ziegfeld
Directed by Robert Z. Leonard
Written by William Anthony McGuire
Fanny Brice: Tell Mr Ziegfeld, I’m not in and if I was in, I wouldn’t see him and if I did see him, tell him, I wouldn’t buy a thing.
This extravagant musical biopic won Oscars for Best Production, Best Actress (Louise Ranier), and Best Dance Direction (“A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody”) and was nominated for four more. While it is over-long and its luster has faded with time, it is worth seeing for a glimpse at the stage acts of Fannie Brice and Ray Bolger and for its cast.
Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. (William Powell) is a young man with a dream. Early on, he shows his genius by figuring out how to take business from friendly rival Billings’ (Frank Morgan) Little Egypt act at the Chicago World’s fair. He then proceeds to steal French actress/singer Anna Held (Louise Ranier) from Billings although he has no money. It helps that he steals Anna’s heart in the process and marries her.
Flo has a couple of signature vices: he cannot resist a pretty woman and he spends money like water. His peccadilloes end up in heartbreak for adoring Anna. Still, Ziegfield goes from strength to strength on Broadway with his Follies and musical comedies. Finally he finds contentment and stability in his marriage to Billie Burke (Myrna Loy). Just as Ziegfeld has made his greatest triumph by having four hits on Broadway at once, he is felled by the crash of 1929 and ill health.
MGM evidently couldn’t decide whether to focus on the plot or the musical numbers so went for both – resulting in a movie that is almost three hours long. The numbers are lavish, so much so that they now look a bit like camp. (I was astounded at the closing “circus” routine where about 20 chorus girls dance their hearts out around 5 Russian Wolfhounds that stand stock still while legs kick inches from their faces.) The costumes put a Vegas review to shame in magnificence and in ludicrousness. Ziegfeld’s taste is repeatedly vaunted in the movie but I couldn’t see it myself.
I can remember being shown Louise Ranier’s telephone scene in drama class in high school as an example of good acting. I thought her performance held up well. The win for Best Actress was controversial as she appears only in the first half of the picture and probably would be considered a supporting actress today. Ranier was the first thespian ever to win two back-to-back Oscars, receiving her next for her more substantial work in The Good Earth the following year. Her star fell rapidly thereafter.
Powell and Loy are fun to watch as usual.
Clip – “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody”