Winner '36:
First Saw It:
The Great Ziegfeld
August 3, 2006, on DVD
Bridesmaids: Anthony Adverse, Dodsworth, Libeled Lady, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Romeo and Juliet, San Francisco, The Story of Louis Pasteur, A Tale of Two Cities, Three Smart Girls
My Vote: Dodsworth, though I haven't seen San Francisco, Pasteur, or Two Cities
Overlooked: Modern Times, Swing Time, Come and Get It

The Great Ziegfeld

Director: Robert Z. Leonard. Cast: William Powell, Luise Rainer, Frank Morgan, Myrna Loy, Virginia Bruce, Nat Pendleton, Paul Irving, Reginald Owen, Fanny Brice, Jean Chatburn, Joseph Cawthorn, Ann Gillis, Marcelle Corday, Ray Bolger, A.A. Trimble, Buddy Doyle, Ruth Gillette. Screenplay: William Anthony McGuire.

Photo © 1936 MGM
At nearly three hours, MGM's lavish but curiously inert extravaganza The Great Ziegfeld is destined to aggravate even the most lenient audiences. Bewilderingly paced and structured, the film offers an ostensible backlog on Florenz Ziegfeld's career as a grandiose showman, and yet we seldom know exactly when various events are taking place or how much time has passed between sequences. Just as puzzling are the movie's palpable urges to take shape as a full-fledged musical, a metamorphosis which never quite comes to pass. Loyally, lavishly recreated spectaculars from the Ziegfeld portfolio drum up considerable interest each time they arrive onscreen; the mind-bogglingly detailed and deliciously outfitted number "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody," mounted upon a tiered and rotating stage as massive as the Chrysler Building, is a particular standout. Still, these vivid tableaux are perpetually stifled between crushing book scenes, where the improvident Ziegfeld sweet-talks his way into further funding from harrumphing producers, and a whole menagerie of women run afoul of his ardent but inconsistent affections. As Ziegfeld, William Powell is passable, mostly by avoiding a more obvious or unctuous approach to the part, but several supporting players make bigger impressions, like Virginia Bruce's boozing, scheming starlet, Myrna Loy's late-arriving but calmly engaging Billie Burke, and Ray "The Scarecrow" Bolger's irresistible moment in the spotlight as a tap-dancing version of himself. Then there's the curious case of Luise Rainer, a Best Actress Oscar winner for her second-tier role as Ziegfeld's humiliated first wife Anna Held. Her persona is certainly distinctive, moonfaced but fluttery, half Garbo and half hummingbird, but she pours rather too much affectation into most of her scenes; Rainer and her voice coach seem to think that impersonating a French woman is an aerobic activity in itself.

Altogether, you stay with The Great Ziegfeld for three reasons: to admire the reliably wondrous production values of Thalberg's MGM at its most resplendent, with consummate costumes and elegant art direction all around; for the inherent, archaeological interest in seeing these gonzo entertainments restaged with such care, with an occasional assist from real-life accomplices like Fanny Brice; and to ponder what in the hell Oscar voters were thinking when they awarded this sporadic and indecisive project the Best Picture Oscar. The film's second hour is indisputably its best, and the whole enterprise outclasses Thalberg's other three-ring circus of the same year, a risibly middle-aged take on Romeo and Juliet with waxen Leslie Howard and a hopeless Norma Shearer. Still, Ziegfeld's virtues aren't enough to compensate for its utterly listless direction or its testing of our patience. Contrary to the most famous nugget of showbiz wisdom, the movie leaves us wanting considerably less than we're given. Grade: C+

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: Robert Z. Leonard
Best Actress: Luise Rainer
Best Original Story: William Anthony McGuire
Best Dance Direction: Seymour Felix (for "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody")
Best Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons; Eddie Imazu & Edwin B. Willis
Best Film Editing: William S. Gray

Other Awards:
New York Film Critics Circle: Best Actress (Rainer)

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