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Friday, January 28, 2011

The Best Picture Countdown #9: The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

Director: Robert Z. Leonard
Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Luise Rainer

Oscar is no stranger to big, lavish productions and Robert Z. Leonard’s The Great Ziegfeld is certainly one of the biggest and most lavish. This musical biopic of the larger than life show biz impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. charts his hard-fought rise in the early 20th Century and his sad decline during The Great Depression. Carried by a marvellous performance by William Powell, The Great Ziegfeld is a greatly entertaining film.

The story begins in 1893 at the Chicago World’s Fair, where Ziegfeld, with a clever bit of marketing, draws crowds to see his strongman Sandow (Nat Pendleton). His main competition, both at the fair and throughout the story, is Billings (Frank Morgan), whom he always finds a way to best, both in business and in love. When Billings goes to Europe to sign French performer Anna Held (Luise Rainer), Ziegfeld is close on his heels and ends up charming Anna into signing with him instead. The scene in which this happens features a funny exchange between Powell and Rainer, as he regales her with stories about how he’ll make her famous and she keeps trying to bring the subject around to how much he’ll pay her for her efforts.

Back in New York, Ziegfeld and Anna marry and he begins The Ziegfield Follies, which brings him a great deal of professional success (though not necessarily financial success as he always seems to be on the verge of going broke due to his lifestyle and the sheer scope of his productions) but starts to drive a wedge between him and Anna. The Follies is known for its beautiful performers and Ziegfeld is well-known for mentoring beautiful women, one of whom is Audrey Dane (Virginia Bruce), an alcoholic whom Ziegfeld ultimately gives up on because she’s so unreliable. Eventually Anna leaves Ziegfeld (Audrey follows shortly thereafter) and he falls in love with Billie Burke (Myrna Loy). Ziegfeld and Billie marry and have a daughter but his career is on the way down. Public taste has changed and his shows aren’t making the money they used to. He rallies briefly, managing to put on four hits on Broadway at once, but when the stock market crashes, he goes bankrupt and falls ill. Later he dies, still imagining how he’ll turn it around and put on the best show yet.

The Great Ziegfeld never seems to come up in discussions of the best movie musicals which astounds me given the number of lavish, elaborate and staggeringly ambitious musical numbers staged throughout. The “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody” number, in particular, is amazing both for its scope and its execution. The only bad thing about the musical numbers is that they don’t actually advance the plot. The musical numbers act simply as demonstrations of Ziegfeld’s audacity and vision, which would be fine were it not for the fact that so much time is devoted to them that you sometimes start to feel anxious to get back to the actual story.

Part of the reason why one would feel anxious to get back to the story is that the actors are so good. Rainer won the first of her two Oscars for her performance here and the scene in which she learns that Ziegfeld has married Billie and calls him to offer her congratulations is really moving. Loy’s performance as Ziegfeld’s more practical second wife (who in real life would go on to play Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz) is also solid and it goes without saying that she and Powell play off each other marvellously (though this character isn’t nearly as sharp as Nora Charles). Fanny Brice makes a brief appearance playing herself in a sequence of scenes that marks one of the film’s many highlights. But, the real star is Powell who delivers a charming and, towards the end, heartbreaking performance. The final scene between Ziegfeld and Billings, both of whom have been ruined by the market crash but are pretending that they’re still on top of the world, is arguably the film’s best. They make tentative plans to go to Europe and find new talent, to keep their rivalry going, but it’s all too apparent that they’re really just building castles in the sand and that they both know it. It’s a sad, terrible end for two great showmen and those final moments really resonate. The Great Ziegfeld isn’t as celebrated now as it was at the time of its release, but it’s a really entertaining film that holds up quite well.

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