Friday, August 16, 2013

The Great Ziegfeld (Best Picture 1936)

I wanted to like The Great Ziegfeld. It stars William Powell and Myrna Loy, two of my all-time favorite Golden Age Hollywood stars. It also features Luise Rainer in a Best Actress-winning role. So I guess maybe my expectations were high. Unfortunately, it ended up being more of a period piece than an entertaining work of film.

It starts out fun, with Ziegfeld (Powell) and Frank Morgan as competitive "barkers" at the Chicago World's Fair. Powell is selling strength, in the form of character actor Nate Pendleton as strongman named Sandow. Morgan is selling sex, in a form of a stripper exotic dancer named Little Egypt. As soon as Ziegfeld realizes he can sell Sandow with sex, too, he is on his way. Throughout the film we see Powell and Morgan pushing to get the best of the other; their scenes together are pure joy.
A few years later they meet up again in Paris, each vying to sign the European sensation Anna Held (Rainer). I don't know if it's because of the fifty-plus year difference between when it was made and when I saw it, but to me Rainer is an anchor who drags the film down. Her coquettishness is probably supposed to be charming, but to me she is just annoying. Her scenes with Powell lack any feeling of passion or chemistry whatsoever. Of course Ziegfeld succeeds in bringing her back to the States and turning her into a sensation. And she is the one who suggests that he creates his famous "follies." For those of you who may not know, "follies" are a series of separate songs and dances instead of one linear story, as were (and are) the norm. His "Ziegfeld Follies" were a huge success, and unfortunately  that brought out a lot of "gold-diggers." The film never shows us that Ziegfeld was explicitly unfaithful to Anna, so it was a bit strange to see her sue him for divorce when she sees him with a chorus girl. The chorus girl does let it slip that he is paying for her apartment, so maybe this is 1936 code that they're sleeping together? In this scene, though, we see that nothing is happening, so it's doubly odd. It plays (now?) like Anna is having a hissy-fit and that he is the victim of her jealousy. Plus, he is then shown to be in a depressed state because he has lost her!
This whole section of the movie is boring in the extreme. Luckily it is not too long before the lovely Myrna Loy shows up as his new love interest, Billie Burke. I don't know if it is because of their (film) history together or their actual talent, but immediately upon their meeting each other you believe that they are destined to fall in love. Their screen chemistry is *loads* better than Powell and Rainer's. It is here that we learn that Ziegfeld has a reputation as a ladies' man, as Burke at first refused to go out with him as "just another companion." She succumbs, of course, and now we are ready for the "happily ever after" ending. However, it's 1929 by this point, and after the Great Crash Ziegfeld manages to hang on for only a few years before he dies, wanting "more stairs" to Heaven. There is one last great scene between Powell and Morgan, both knowing that the other was wiped out but neither willing to admit it to the other. You get the feeling here that, after all, these two men really were friends.
Unfortunately (there's that word again), Powell's opportunities to really grab a scene and act are few and far between. He seems to be walking through this role, with little emotional commitment to it or anyone around him. He is the center of the whole film, but he doesn't own the story. He was nominated this year for his role in My Man Godfrey (co-starring his ex-wife, Carole Lombard), but not for Ziegfeld.

On the other hand, Luise Rainer does get to chomp into the scenery when she hears that her ex-husband has re-married. She bounces back schizophrenically from happiness to sadness and back again in a tour de force performance. She shows just how much love she had bottled up for him, winning the Best Actress Oscar this year.     
Now, I know I haven't talked about the musical parts of this musical film. If you are familiar with this film at all you may already know that there is a "staircase" scene that lasts for eight minutes. It evidently cost MGM more to produce in that eight minutes than it cost to produce any of Flo Ziegfeld's actual follies! You may be like some of my friends who see things like this and think that they are marvelous. Me? I mostly don't get it. I can appreciate the joy of watching Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers sweeping through a ballroom, but I don't understand the entertainment value of one-hundred extras dressed up in exotic costumes parading down a moving staircase. 'Nuff said? In this film, the "spectacle" is the thing. If you would prefer Ray Bolger singing to farm maidens, or Fanny Brice singing a torch song, this is the wrong film for you. Both talents are here playing themselves, as both actually did get their "start" in Ziegfeld's follies.
Not playing herself is Billie Burke, who in this film is portrayed by Myrna Loy. Burke is, of course, a few years from becoming immortalized as Glinda The Good Witch in The Wizard of OZ. Here, however, she was judged to be not famous enough to help "carry" the picture.

So as a time capsule, showing 21st Century audiences just what constituted entertainment in 1936, The Great Ziegfeld is a nice way to spend three hours. As a classic motion picture biography, it leaves a lot to be desired. 

The other noteworthy aspect of 1936 was that it was the first year that the Academy Awards presenting Best Supporting Actress and Best Supporting Actress statuettes. Among the first nominees were Basil Rathbone (most famous as Sherlock Holmes) and Beulah Bondi (most famous as James Stewarts' mother in It's A Wonderful Life). The awards went to Gale Sondergaard and Walter Brennan.

The Great Ziegfeld
*Academy Award Best Picture 1936*
Produced by Hunt Stromberg
Directed by Robert Z. Leonard
Screenplay by William Anthony McGuire

This is a great trailer because it sells the spectacle....
and then lists a bunch of actors nobody has ever heard of!
Because of the added expense, you will have to pay more than $2
to see this film.  What is inflation coming to...!!

Also Nominated:
(in alphabetical order)
Anthony Adverse
Libeled Lady
Mr. Deed Goes To Town
Romeo And Juliet
San Francisco
The Story of Louis Pasteur
A Tale of Two Cities
Three Smart Girls
This year the number of nominated pictures went down to ten again after being at twelve for two years. The nominees would stay at ten for the next ten years until they were whittled down to five, where they stayed for several decades. This year I actually know and have seen a few of these! Four of them I've never heard of, but the others are worth a watch if your library has them. Libelled Lady is Spencer Tracy with William Powell and Myrna Loy again in a romantic comedy about libel and money. It definitely has it's moments, especially when Powell is wooing Loy. Really, can these two do anything wrong? Mr. Deed Goes To Town is Gary Cooper in a fine Frank Capra social comedy; he won Best Director for his work here. San Francisco is Spencer Tracy (again) and Clark Gable in a story set around the SF earthquake. A Tale of Two Cities I saw in high school as a class when we read the book; I remember liking it. Maybe I should see it again. And The Story of Louis Pasteur won its star, Paul Muni, the Best Actor Oscar. We'll talk about him more next week. 

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