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The Great Ziegfeld

In the 1930's Hollywood loved the great spectacle. The Broadway Melody series and Gold Diggers of 1933 (which did not include any songs by Kanye West) did their best to recreate the stage review shows that took Paris and New York by storm in the late 19th century. In 1936 the movie world paid tribute to the man who popularized those reviews, Florenz Ziegfeld. William Powell plays the title role in The Great Ziegfeld. When we first see him he is promoting a small time show in Cairo featuring the godfather of bodybuilding Eugen Sandow. He makes a little money, enough to turn down his father's offer of using the elder Ziegfeld's conservatory to discover the next big thing in music. (Coincidentally the conservatory did nothing to discover the next big thing in music which was at the time developing with no outside help in the brothels of New Orleans.) Meanwhile Ziegfeld heads to London, broke once again after losing big at the casino, and steals young French singer Anna Held away from rival producer Jack Billings. He whisks her off to New York despite having no money, and the first few shows in America quickly lose more money. Eventually Ziegfeld pioneers the art of getting little tidbits about stars into the paper by telling reporters that Anna bathes in milk. Anna is not happy about any of this, but she is also seemingly the most insecure person in the world, so she ends up falling in love with him. The financial success doesn't last long however, as Ziegfeld keeps pampering Anna with gifts, and then spends the rest by putting all of it on a new show, the Ziegfeld Follies. The follies were a huge success, based on the Parisian revue shows at Moulon Rouge, only less risqué, and they were a staple of Broadway for 30 years. They featured elaborate singing and dancing, elaborate costumes and performers like Will Rogers and Eddie Cantor. At this point the movie gives up on the narrative and just focuses on the production, as we see several musical numbers. The point is to give the audience a chance to see what these shows were like, which when the movie was released in 1936 they could not do, as depression era economics made producing a show like this impossible. After the montage of follies we see Ziegfeld run through a succession of women. One of them is singer Audrey Dane who kisses him in a backstage drunken stupor, which Anna sees causing her to leave. Meanwhile Ziegfeld has left the follies behind and produces several other shows. It is after one of these that he meets Billie Burke. As her producer disapproves of her being seen out socially with anyone, they have to meet in secret in the shadow of Grant's tomb (the one in New York, not the one in LA) where he confesses his love for her and they eventually get married. But as his personal life becomes more stable, his professional life falters. His shows fail to grab the attention of the follies and many of his stars leave Broadway for Hollywood. Eventually Ziegfeld overhears a group of men in the barber shop talk about how he's washed up. He tells them he will bounce back, but he obviously doesn't believe it himself. Billie is behind him all the way, and eventually his shows are all hits, including Show Boat. Ziegfeld is happy that finally money will not be any concern, and he invests his money heavily, but the victory is extremely short lived as the stock market crashes. Ziegfeld falls ill and after Billings drops by to see him and talk about one more follies, he dies, mumbling stage directions to a production in his head. With Powell, the producers made a very good choice. He had commercial success with the Thin Man series, though nothing of his would be considered all that memorable today. Luise Rainer also does a wonderful job as Anna, a role for which she won the Oscar for Actress in a Leading Role. She won the same award the next year for her work in The Good Earth, making her the first person to win back to back Oscars. What the modern viewer has to understand is that this is primarily a vehicle for audiences to experience the Ziegfeld Follies. There is no narrative at all for vast stretches as we see entire dance numbers. And the musical interludes are very good, but to really enjoy this movie as a whole, you have to come in wanting to see elaborate dance numbers. Among the other nominees that year were film adaptations of Romeo and Juliet and A Tale of Two Cities, as well as Paul Muni in The Story of Louis Pasteur, one of the first disaster movies, San Francisco, and the original Mr. Deeds Goes to Town. (That was back when 10 movies got nominated for best picture instead of five like we have now.) The Great Ziegfeld however wins out with its wonderful acting all around and the well produced musical numbers, which must have made the audience feel like they were actually at a Broadway review.


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