blogging by Andrew Wickliffe

The Great Ziegfeld (1936, Robert Z. Leonard)

Second-billed Myrna Loy shows up in The Great Ziegfeld at around the two-hour mark. The film runs three hours. The about a half-hour of it is musical numbers; they’re presumably recreations of the actual Ziegfeld stage productions, but even without having read the Wikipedia article first, it’s obvious Ziegfeld’s a glorifying tribute. Loy’s most significant scene is when she—playing stage, film, and radio star Billie Burke—tells husband Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. (played by William Powell) she’s okay with him cheating on her to get his mojo back. The way Loy sees it, Powell needs to cat around with his showgirls to make a show a hit. Unlike Powell’s other ingenues in the film, he’s not trying to star-make Loy; she knows the showbiz score. At least when it comes to brilliant men.

Of course, even with Hayes Code constraints, Ziegfeld goes out of its way to show Powell as a better husband than his wives realize. First wife Luise Rainer is the protagonist in the first half of the picture and gets so shafted in the second we don’t even find out she died, spending her life after leaving Powell miserably pining for him. He was supposed to run back to her, and we see him start that process, then the film cuts ahead. The film successfully obfuscates the actual couple’s common-law marriage and then their common-law divorce. It also drops the most important mistress, instead turning Virginia Bruce’s pursuit of Powell into a drunken jealousy (of Rainer) arc for Bruce. Powell’s just a hapless victim; Bruce kisses him once, Rainer sees it, leaves him. In the dialogue, Powell explains he’s just got to keep the girls happy, and sometimes the only way is for them to drunkenly maul him.

He had been grooming Bruce earlier, but it could’ve very well just been for stardom.

Because for Powell to get really excited about a woman, he’s got to steal her from best friend, alter ego, and rival Frank Morgan. They start together at the Chicago’s World’s Fair, with Morgan hawking Egyptian bellydancers and Powell trying to play it straight with strongman Nat Pendleton. Once some horny bored housewife notices Pendleton’s pecs, however, Powell realizes he’s got some premium beefcake to sell, and he starts making it big.

Even though selling beef—literally what Powell’s disappointed musical teacher dad Joseph Cawthorn says to him—isn’t what Powell wants to do with his life long-term, he does realize if he sells cheesecake, he can make a fortune. Not just chorus girls, but glamorous chorus girls, ostensibly the average American girl (so many of them look exactly the same; it’s quickly uncanny). There are never any casting sessions—other than Powell proving his fidelity to the audience and resisting nubile Jean Chatburn–and there’s little insight into Ziegfeld’s actual creative process. Director Leonard only seems interested in the musical numbers, not even feigning interest in the characters.

Outside Rainer for the first half.

Heck, the movie even fudges the ending, even though the film came out only three years after the story ends. Nothing matters as much as the musical numbers.

There’s an impressively mounted one with a giant staircase. But it’s impressive as a technical feat, not because Leonard all of a sudden gets better at directing the numbers. Then there’s a great Harriet Hoctor ballet number. Oh, and Fanny Brice (as herself) is all right. Though it sort of douses her in misogyny. The film’s wading in it—and with a delayed bit of racism thrown in too—but Ziegfeld’s intentionally cruel to Brice and leans in on it. Everyone must suffer for the Ziegfeld genius.

Powell’s fine. It’s a very flat part, but he’s likable. Loy’s okay. It’s an extended cameo, and they should’ve created the unbilled major supporting role with Ziegfeld. Plus, she gets a crap part. Not crappier than Rainer, obviously, because Ziegfeld tosses Rainer for Bruce, but then it turns out it isn’t actually promoting Bruce. It’s just getting rid of Rainer.

Oh, the Ray Bolger number is good.

A.A. Trimble is a lousy Will Rogers.

Morgan’s easily the best performance, but it’s also the least complicated role.

Incredible photography from Oliver T. Marsh, George J. Folsey, Karl Freund, Merritt B. Gerstad, and Ray June. Sometimes bad editing from William S. Gray; some of it is lacking coverage or just weak direction from Leonard, but not all of it.

Subtracting out the musical numbers, Great Ziegfeld’s a middling, lengthy studio programmer with some good stars. With the musical numbers… it’s the same, just with unimaginatively presented, grandiose musical numbers. While they don’t add anything to the film, they would look great on the big screen.

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