[box cover]

The Great Ziegfeld

One expects an Academy Award-winning picture to have something to say, or to take itself way too seriously — what's surprising about 1936's The Great Ziegfeld is how goofy it is. A biopic about Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. (played by the always-watchable William Powell), it follows his life from his early days performing in sideshows with strongman Sampston (Reginald Owen) to his Broadway years, where he arranged his most famous act, The Ziegfeld Follies. Every step of the way Ziegfeld runs into highs and lows like a manic-depressive, going from tremendous success to near poverty with a smile on his face regardless of his condition, until the stock market crashes and he finds himself broke and near death. The film's epic length (185 minutes) and box-office success (it grossed $40 million from a $2 million budget) may have given it the respectability it needed to win, but as a biopic it's totally lacking: Ziegfeld is a broadly drawn character most notable for his skirt-chasing and his penchant for sending people wires. The film highlights his devil-may-care attitude and his desire to entertain — Powell was a master at playing the type — but it never gives him gravitas or an inner life. The script draws much of its narrative from Florenz's love-life, following his first marriage to European performer Anna Held (Luise Rainer, winning the first of two consecutive Best Actress Oscars) — who leaves him because she thinks it might get him back — and then his second marriage to Billie Burke (played by Powell's Thin Man partner Myrna Loy). The movie also gives screen-time to the people Ziegfeld helped make famous, including Will Rogers and Eddie Cantor (played by doubles), as well as Fanny Bryce (playing herself). Much like Ziegfeld's show, this project (as directed by Robert Z. Leonard) is a variety act, with Powell the affable guide through musical numbers and dramatic moments with the narrative kept paper-thin, the main draw being the middle section in which the movie becomes its own Follies in a 30-minute stretch of singing and dancing. It's creaky, set-bound, and not all that cinematic — but somehow it holds together and manages to stay afloat. Warner presents The Great Ziegfeld in full-frame (1.33:1 OAR) with DD 1.0 audio. The print isn't in optimal condition, and many scenes feature noticeable collateral wear, though the transfer is in fine shape, and there are no noise distortions. Extras include "Ziegfeld on Film" (13 min.), which talks to Rainer and Ziegfeld's living relatives, and newsreel footage from the theatrical premiere featuring Harpo Marx (4 min.). Snap-case.

Back to Quick Reviews Index: [A-F] [G-L] [M-R] [S-Z]

Back to Main Page