The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

I’m not quite sure that the producers of The Great Ziegfeld know what kind of film they were trying to make. A biopic? A musical? A comedy? A drama? All of the above? If the later is the answer then that explains a lot about the overall ineffectiveness of the film. The life of Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. is one that is tied with film history. Those various ties may be the reason the film won Best Picture, rather than the storytelling and performances.

Ultimately, the film suffers from the less than charismatic performance of William Powell in the lead role. The overarching throughline of the film is that Ziegfeld was able to outspend and out-persuade all other promoters and show producers of the era. However, Powell’s Ziegfeld doesn’t come off as the kind of man who would compel anyone to leave their current management team, especially for a salary they might never see. For early cinema history fans, Ziegfeld’s pursuit of Edison’s Sandow the Strong Man, is a flashback to the truly earliest days of nickelodeon movies. In fact, it’s the inclusion of early American theater performers like Will Rogers and Fanny Brice that brings a special charm to the film. Unfortunately, the charm wasn’t enough for the film’s three-hour run time.

The film’s strength is in meticulous recreation of the outlandish and lavish production numbers of the Ziegfeld Follies. The sheer number of cast members is staggering. Then when you add in the massive sets, one quickly realizes why the Follies is still regarded as the epitome of spectacle. This nod to theater history is the most enjoyable part of the film, by far. And that dog number? I can’t even, as the kids say.

The Great Ziegfeld (1936) 176 minutes. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard.  Starring William Powell, Luise Rainer, Myrna Loy, Frank Morgan.

About Amy L. Darnell

Teacher, scholar, student, wonderer, wanderer, fan, foe, friend, acquaintance, all of these and more, but ultimately just an Ohio daughter.
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