The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

Dir. Robert Z. Leonard. Starring William Powell, Luise Rainer, Frank Morgan

Before we start, I want to make clear that I am not “motivation Internet guy.” I don’t think everyone in a movie needs to be obviously motivated by something, least of all villains. (Who thinks Anton Chigurh needs a motivation? Or Old Man Clanton?) I don’t think it’s “fallacious” or whatever these r/movies ghouls argue about in the comments. I also don’t think that slapping a childhood scene on the front end and hoping we’ll make the connection works for every movie. It’s great in Citizen Kane (though this has a little more to do with Gregg Toland than Herman Mankiewicz), and I like how it works in The Aviator, just to name two pictures that do it, but aside from being annoyingly Freudian in this dogmatic kind of way, that itself is usually a copout along the lines of simply giving no motivation at all. When you’ve got a three-hour movie in front of you, though, a movie which has the protagonist’s name in the title, and which is presumably a story of his life through his productions, it seems like some driving force, any instigating event, would be appropriate to discuss. The Great Ziegfeld doesn’t have one of those, really. I think there are little half-measures which might be meant to indicate to us something along those lines, such as that scene where Ziegfeld (Powell) returns home from the World’s Fair and walks in on his dad and a child pupil that Flo is “engaged” to. He tells her that one day he wants to get a whole group of women together to perform, and I guess that’s not nothing, but all the same there must be a hundred different paths that he could take which don’t involve him doing any of the things he does in his lavish, volatile, exciting life. Surely he could achieve this goal by reaching a high enough position in the Catholic Church to be able to get a group of singing nuns together, or perhaps he could invent a barnstorming all-women’s professional baseball league. Why theater? Why the extravagance? Why the willingness to take the path of the little metal ball in the pinball machine from success to bankruptcy to success again? Why are the man’s last words “I’ve got to have more steps, higher, higher,” and why should they have gone there? The movie never comes close to answering that question, and without it the movie is just a very attractive, occasionally entertaining nostalgia piece.

In its own way The Great Ziegfeld is like The Artist, movies which are nostalgic about how distant another time in showbiz feels. The spread of time is not nearly so distant in Ziegfeld, which is part of the reason that it’s not nearly as obnoxious as its fellow Best Picture winner. That nearness in time is evidenced by the number of people who they get back to play themselves, such as Fanny Brice, and to see her in the movie is the single greatest justification of the picture’s existence. Or we could note that one of the people playing themselves, Ray Bolger, was still years out from the role that would make him known to everyone in America. But it’s an extraordinarily Hollywood movie about the New York stage, when Show Boat and the shockwaves it sent through musical theater were still new, when vaudeville and music hall and follies acts were the way people soaked up their entertainment: for much of the picture, a pre-Chaplin era when the movies were novelties. There’s a scene where the carriages are called for many of the great families of New York who came out to see Anna Held (Rainer), and although Ziegfeld is disappointed about how they reacted to his new expensive star and thus the plot moves that way, the scene is really about those families. Surely by 1936 there was no need for someone to shout the names of whose big Packard or Cadillac stood outside a movie palace. The Great Ziegfeld can drive some distance on that fuel, but it’s not a substitute for what might have made the movie more than a collection of performances. It’s hard not to be awestruck by the sheer hugeness of what the studio made and what Leonard filmed for the “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” sequence. Somewhere about halfway through I felt my jaw starting to drop involuntarily as the take continued and as more and more stuff was added to it. The song is good enough, and the costumes are extravagant, and we’re rising higher and higher on the revolving wedding cake; it’s so big that it defies traditional proportions on the screen. It’s like the Death Star but musical. (If I were in a film studies class, there’d definitely be something to say about how the specter of this wedding cake, rising higher and growing bigger, is a sort of challenge to femininity to get up to the plate and be worthy of it, but I am blessedly old for this interpretation anymore.) There are two or three other group dance sequences in this movie which I think are, in their own right, really impressive and well-staged and which even feel like good fits, but unless it’s Ray Bolger doing a comedic little bit or Fanny Brice doing literally anything, they don’t feel essential.

The question of why Wiliam Powell was never Cary Grant is answered in this movie. In 1955, Powell has a significant supporting role in Mister Roberts as an alky doctor, and it’s classic Powell in a lot of ways: very funny, very smooth, calculating, sardonic, and of course mustachioed. But it’s not a performance that receives a lot of depth, nor does it require it. Grant could reach for that worldliness, as he does in North by Northwest, eyeing up Eva-Marie Saint with the predatory eye of your average Mad Man; with Powell in that role, a lot of it would have come off as primarily jokey, “may I kiss Madame’s hand” with eyebrows raised in polite appreciation. Depth, as we’ve covered, is not Ziegfeld’s strong suit, but I also can’t help but wonder if this is as much a failure of William Anthony McGuire’s script as it is a failure of Powell’s inability to get more out of the character. He swoops in, he pays a compliment or two, he negs as necessary, and whoosh, he’s signed [insert beauty here] and racked up another notch in his showbiz bedpost as promoter and ladies’ man. There are other people he sways through sheer cheek, though as they are usually men with accents, that’s not so different than doing it with women on whatever scorecard someone might have had in the ’30s. One likes Powell in this movie, but it’s telling that the scene where he’s most magnetic is the one where he’s talking to little Mary Lou. There’s less for him to work against and more razzmatazz for him to summon up himself; I still can’t help but think that Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind while he’s chatting with/about Bonnie is the superior version. I’m making this sound like Powell is bad in this movie, which he is certainly not. In many ways his charm holds the whole thing together, because this movie is emphatically not a biopic, and it is absolutely sprawling; without looks back to Powell, the entire thing is unmanageable, and his presence manages it. But at the same time, Powell’s not digging for more in the character, not finding reasons why, and as much as anyone I’d say he’s why this picture has the ceiling it does.

There are performances by the women playing the women in Ziegfeld’s life that stand out much more than Powell’s: Rainer’s Held, Myrna Loy as Billie Burke, Virginia Bruce as the fictional but I suppose necessary negative foil for those two, Audrey Dane. Bruce is good in the movie, although her pretty face and occasional drunkvoice are most of what she needs to get the point across. (Again, if this were a film studies class, perhaps one with a scoop of Richard Dyer, there would be so, so much to write about Dane’s desire to be a star without having to “suffer” for it. Somewhere Lucille LeSeuer and her publicist just arched their eyebrows in tandem.) Rainer plays someone French (see above about Europeans), and she does what she can with a scene which I admire more for its ambition than its execution. Dying of some illness, Held gets on the phone to congratulate Flo for his recent marriage to Burke. She had been married to Ziegfeld before, and suffers through years of him being more interested in his shows than in her; an evening where he tries to scold a drunken Dane looks bad when she walks in on them, and she leaves. She makes a comment on the phone that it’s wonderful that two people can congratulate one another for their successes even after they’ve split. After the conversation ends she begins to weep. All of this, wisely, takes place with the camera focused purely on Rainer. There are no cutaways to Powell, nor do we hear his voice. This scene is emphatically about Held, and although by today’s standards it feels like a lot, it’s nonetheless effective because of how committed Rainer is, her face shining with happiness to speak with her ex-husband once again, and her eyes still sad with the knowledge that she let him go. Loy’s take on Burke is an interesting one. One would expect that as the famous Nora to Powell’s famous Nick, there should be chemistry between them, and there definitely is. It’s surprising that Burke is so domestic, so willing to do what Held could never quite work herself up to: Burke will subduct her professional career to her husband’s professional career with the kind of unquestioning devotion that makes your head spin a little.

Between Bolger, the character of Burke, and Frank Morgan, playing a producer named Billings who is at once Ziegfeld’s rival and his get-out-of-jail free card, we’re a little shy of halfway to the cast of The Wizard of Oz. (We haven’t talked about Morgan at all so far, which is a shame; I’d say he gives the best performance of anyone in the movie.) If there is some kind of legacy that The Great Ziegfeld, one of the more anonymous Best Picture winners we’ve had, can profess, it’s in the pure, unworldly magic that Ziegfeld’s shows meant to project. The movie does not know that in three years a musical far more beloved than itself will be released, to be consumed by generations of movie devotees and movie agnostics across the world, but in its attempts to showcase wonder, it acts as a bridge nonetheless.

One thought on “The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

  1. I think you don’t give Powell enough credit for his broad talent and the very diverse roles he undertook in his career. He could and did give performances with great depth. His best were usually when he was on the wrong side of the law and playing heavy. His Ziegfeld performance was wonderful. His role spanned many years and Powell, very subtly, aged his character through his voice, his body language and conveying a weariness in the man as he ages and becomes ill, The take on Powell’s performance by his peers was high praise. Frank Morgan thought he would be winning best actor. Billie Burke wanted him for the role and was very happy with his portrayal of her late husband. Even Alfred Hitchcock loved his performance. And, yes, Powell was fantastic with the little girl who played Mary Lou. He was always very endearing in scenes with children.

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