The Great Ziegfeld (1936, Robert Z. Leonard)
The supreme irony of this quintessential Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer film is that cameras were initially set to roll on it, William Powell and all, at Universal — how bizarre to imagine a movie primarily regarded and remembered for its gobsmacking opulence released by the cheapest of major studios, and how unsurprising that their financial woes forced the partially constructed sets and the full breadth of the project to be trucked over to MGM, where it shines as a beacon to remind us of what an odd entity that studio was in the ’30s. Whereas Grand Hotel is a good example of the stargazing, supernatural celebrity worship mentality that drove Irving Thalberg’s ideals and hopes for a certain oblique populism, this is MGM as the Dream Factory, an illusion that remains seductive even as the relevant films have largely escaped from the cultural memory; the films of Frank Capra and the material coming from the Warner studio at the same time have proven much more lasting influences, but it takes no leap in time whatsoever to be placed in awe by the musical numbers in The Great Ziegfeld. Catch it in its strongest moments and the thing sparkles, pure class, and you understand why it provided such needed escapism in its day, not least because it depicts a hero who’s often unable to pay for his lunch.
So, Ziegfeld is the victim of any number of serious problems from which we must parse out a handful of all-important and actually delectable virtues. There is first of all the fragmented, messy structure that is simultaneously a symptom of its studio’s methods — beyond the sterile-looking fanciness of the garish indoor sets being used in their films, there’s always the sense of everything that ends up on the screen being the result of a hundred hair-splitting arguments between moguls and stars and hired-hand directors; art seldom comes into the equation, for better or worse — and the inherent problems of The Biopic. Biopics are perhaps the most uncinematic of genres, if they can be regarded as a genre; real life cannot be made to conform to cinema, so a life in which multiple interesting and possibly unrelated events occurred can scarcely play well as a conventional, linear piece of movie storytelling. I have yet to see a birth-to-death biopic that successfully conquers this problem without some caveat or another.
This particular example is rife with loose ends — innumerable vignettes and details are introduced and scarcely elaborated upon, and keeps piling them on until it finally reaches Broadway. The story being told is of Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., enterprising theater producer and impresario who succeeded in adding a touch of Paris to the American musical revue, and subsequently presented the original production of Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Show Boat, among other popular ventures. William Powell, one of the screen’s truly exquisite comic actors, is foisted into this role that forces him to grapple with all sorts of unearned emotional points and pathos; the film is so bereft of any insight into his character, his deft, defiant stunts of avoiding financial crises and moving from one outsized idea to the next, that we never feel we know the man despite spending three hours with him. And therein lies the other serious and frankly mind-boggling gaffe: the movie is punishingly long, a truly wrongheaded move from MGM to push it into the territory of prestige that was then scarce. It’s difficult enough to justify a filmed biography of such a relatively sheltered and uneventful life; to push it to 185 minutes (including entrance music and intermission) seems inexcusable, especially given that the reasons to watch are the musical interludes that are heavily concentrated in the middle hour and a half of the production.
The relationship stuff is interminable. Ziegfeld’s common-law first wife Anna Held, a celebrated vaudevilian and by all accounts a fascinating and vivacious personality, is reduced to a simpering tearjerk-module by Luise Rainer, whose performance remains celebrated to this day, frankly for reasons I can’t quite follow — her tearful outbursts and exaggerated movements seemed stereotypical and irksome to me, and the movie skirts conveniently past the real Ziegfeld ultimately wiping Held off his shoes like a piece of dirt, just the sort of baffling element that could well have made this film more interesting. Myrna Loy shows up as successor Billie Burke and is credible (though the Thin Man chemistry is MIA) but upstaged by Virginia Bruce as a drunken chorus girl, no more multifaceted a character but certainly played with greater nuance. As museum pieces go, you could do worse — Fanny Brice is here playing herself with ample wit and charm that do much to explain her reputation, and for historical interest you really should see Rainer’s performance, as she and her life story (an elusive actress whose career was cut short by her own dissatisfaction with Hollywood) are fascinating and she was one of the last survivors of Hollywood’s golden era. It isn’t really her fault that the role is bad, it’s just the way it’s written to saddle her with songs about how delightful it is to “be be be be be be be be be be married.” She continues to win fans for her work here even now.
But the truth is: you’re watching for the numbers, and they won’t disappoint you. They’re spectacular. If you can get your hands on a highlights reel, the eight minutes of “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody,” helped along by Irving Berlin’s brilliant music and lyrics, simply define MGM with glittery elegance more properly and concisely than any documentary. On some sort of incomprehensibly huge spiral stage, the camera proceeds up the steps as the fleet of performers grow more and more intricate in their progressive onslaught — the final pull-back is truly breathtaking. “You Gotta Pull Strings” is ridiculously elaborate and splendidly sexy, the audacious moving platforms and flying ladies of “You” are bound to stun any musical-hater out of cynicism, and the incredible costuming and circular choreography of “You Never Looked So Beautiful,” though later mocked by Singin’ in the Rain, are still intoxicating. The point being: a week after sitting through this vastly overlong film, these scenes are all I really remember about it — these and the ones that involve Brice — along with the nicely executed title sequence, and they render it an inevitably vital piece of studio-system history. As a narrative film, this utterly fails, but there are things in it I could watch a million times.