The Oscar Project 1936: The Great Ziegfeld

1936-the-great-ziegfeld-posterI didn’t know much about Ziegfeld except for the fact he’d done some kind of “follies.” The Great Ziegfeld is by far the longest winner yet clocking in at 3 hours and 5 minutes*. So it figured I’d have a lot to learn from this picture. Such as what exactly is a folly?

After the overture (five minutes of really peppy music) the film literally begins with fireworks and the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago where Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. is putting on his sideshow featuring the strongman Sandow. Jack Billings (Frank Morgan) is there with a Little Egypt sideshow as well. In three years Morgan would play the great and powerful Oz (among other characters) in The Wizard of Oz.

Twenty minutes in and it’s hard to believe there’s another 2:45 left.

But things pick up after the World’s Fair when Ziegfeld returns to his father’s music conservatory. The elder Ziegfeld opens a full crate of exposition and the younger replies with a detailed explanation of his exact future.

Ziggy takes Sandow on the road and it’s a big sensation because it’s 1893 and people pay to watch a guy pick up heavy things. But Ziegfeld blows all his profits in Monte Carlo. Becoming rich and going broke would become a running theme of this movie.

While in Monte Carlo he convinces Anna Held (Luise Rainer), an emotionally erratic French songbird, to sign with him instead of Billings.

A lot of time is spent on establishing Ziegfeld as a mad marketing genius, shrewd manipulative businessman and control enthusiast. He always gets what he wants and he gets it on his terms. I worked for a guy like this for 5 years. Great memories.

Sure enough he makes Anna a star. But one success isn’t enough for the showman and before too long he gets the bright idea for the Ziegfeld Follies. Instead of one big headliner there are many acts and hordes of women. His vision is to “glorify the American girl.”

The show premieres with glitz and glamour. And then… a guy takes the stage in blackface to sing “If You Knew Susie.” So… that happened.

But then we’re back to more musical numbers with far less racism. It felt a lot like what The Broadway Melody was trying to achieve in 1929. But Ziegfeld’s follies feature far more polished numbers with higher production value.

The set pieces are pretty magnificent. What it lacks in substance it makes up for with boatloads of style. Or at least it tries to. This movie is a shiny, tinsel-laden spectacle and I certainly didn’t mind watching Ray Bolger light up the screen with the same kind of eye-popping, jaw-dropping, smile-enducing dance moves he would immortalize three years later as the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. He just might be the best part of the movie.

The follies just seems to go on and on. There are 8 consecutive, uninterrupted musical numbers spanning 26 minutes of the film. Right when you think it’s done the curtain rises for another performance.

I am fashion!

The finale has a bit of singing and then a fashion show. I’m not kidding. It’s an honest-to-goodness fashion show. One by one, women come on stage in outlandish dresses, each one more outrageous than the last. It’s so over-the-top it’s difficult to even describe what they’re wearing. Just look at the photo. It’s hard to believe it’s not a spoof.

Later in the film there’s another solid 10 minute production sequence.

Ray Bolger plays himself as does Fanny Brice. She’s supposedly playing herself from when was she was part of the Ziegfeld follies 25 years earlier in her career.

Fanny Brice was 45 when she made this movie but frankly she doesn’t make a believable 19 year old.

But the movie puts a lot of emphasis on highlighting well-known performers of the day who got their big breaks with Ziegfeld. Eddie Cantor is another whose name gets dropped several times. He was a huge radio star in the 30s and got his start in Ziegfeld’s Follies.

So much of this film could be cut for time and story cohesion. I wish they had because unfortunately I just stopped caring about any characters about an hour in.

William Powell and Myrna Loy reunite after great success as Nick and Nora Charles in The Thin Man. They were both together in another best picture nominee that year, Libeled Lady. It seems America was Powell/Loy crazy in the 30s.

But by the time she shows up in the story (around the 2:15 mark) the film has worn out its welcome so much that even their on-screen chemistry seems tired.

This is the first of the best picture winners that I couldn’t wait for it to be over. It’s difficult to imagine it being the best picture of the year but I haven’t seen any of the other nominees so I really can’t argue.

For what it’s worth, of the 10 best picture nominees of 1936 The Great Ziegfeld has the 9th worst Rotten Tomatoes score (65%). Two of the other nominees (San Francisco and A Tale of Two Cities) have a 100%. Take it all with a grain of salt but it seems to me that they had several better options for best picture that year.

The film received 7 nominations and wins for picture, actress and “best dance direction.” This was the 2nd of only 3 years the best dance direction award would be given.

William Powell wasn’t nominated. Instead he was up for best actor for a different film, My Man Godfrey which, surprisingly does NOT have Myrna Loy in it.

Frank Morgan’s lack of nomination as well is a little surprising considering they had just introduced the best supporting acting categories this year. He wasn’t amazing but I would have thought good enough to get a nod.

My Man Godfrey became the first film with acting nominations in all four categories. It went home empty-handed. It’s the only film in history with a nominee in all four but left out of the best picture race.

And for those keeping score at home Walt Disney won his 5th Oscar at these Awards.

*At the time The Great Ziegfeld was the longest “talkie” ever made.      

DVD available from Netflix.

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