Thursday, January 13, 2011

Another Look at “The Great Ziegfeld” (MGM, 1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was The Great Ziegfeld, a massive MGM biopic of the great showman Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. (the real Ziegfeld was short, dumpy-looking and decidedly Jewish in appearance — so who did they get to play him? Tall, slender, handsome and totally Anglo William Powell) which won the Academy Award for Best Picture of 1936 and brought Luise Rainer, who played Ziegfeld’s long-suffering wife Anna Held (she met him when he hired her from a London stage show and then left him after a jealous hissy-fit when she found him in the arms of one of his other female performers — though, at least in the movie version of Ziegfeld’s life, he was innocent — and her big scene in the movie is her last one, when she makes a phone call to him on the occasion of his remarriage to actress Billie Burke and nearly breaks down in tears) the first of her infamous back-to-back Academy Awards for Best Actress. The film also won the Best Dance Direction award (the third and last year the Academy gave an Oscar in that category) for Seymour Felix’s lumbering production number to Irving Berlin’s classic song “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” — which incorporates various other pieces of music as well, including “Vesti la giubba” from Leoncavallo’s I Pagliacci, “Un bel dì vedremo” from Puccini’s Madama Butterfly and Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. (All those pieces of music were still under copyright in 1936 and I shudder to think what MGM’s clearance department went through getting the rights to them.)

The Great Ziegfeld was originally going to be produced by Universal — they bought the rights from Billie Burke in 1933 and scheduled the production for 1935, with A. Edward Sutherland directing from a script by William Anthony McGuire (who’d written several of Ziegfeld’s actual shows), William Powell borrowed from MGM to play Ziegfeld and Billie Burke cast as herself — only by 1935 Universal was in dire straits financially due to cost overruns on John Stahl’s Magnificent Obsession and James Whale’s Show Boat (a year later Carl Laemmle would be forced to take out a loan that enabled his lenders to take over the studio if he couldn’t repay in time — which he didn’t — and the new owners had a fire sale of Universal’s story assets, selling MGM Madame Curie and the remake rights to Waterloo Bridge and Show Boat) and the two studios settled, with Universal receiving $300,000 to cover their costs and MGM taking over the film, keeping William Powell (though they still owed Universal a loan-out on him, which Universal used to cast him in My Man Godfrey with his ex-wife Carole Lombard) but casting a younger actress as Burke and ultimately giving the part to Myrna Loy because she and Powell had been such successful co-stars in The Thin Man, Manhattan Melodrama and Evelyn Prentice.

The script has only a loose resemblance to the reality of Ziegfeld’s life (the credits only say the film was “suggested” by Ziegfeld’s story) — he was far more compulsive sexually than he’s depicted here (or could have been under the Production Code!); one associate recalled walking into Ziegfeld’s office at the wrong moment and finding a would-be chorine spread-eagled on his desk with Ziegfeld, his pants down but otherwise fully dressed, humping away at her — and in particular for inventing the breakup of Ziegfeld’s marriage to Anna Held: in real life she died in 1918 and he remained at least technically single until he met and married Billie Burke. The issue McGuire chose to build his script around was Ziegfeld’s legendary reputation for extravagance; even when his shows were making money he was burning through it, partly because he insisted on such a lavish scale of production his shows had a huge “nut” to make before they could turn a profit, and when they did burn a profit he blew it on lavish spending on himself and his friends, including his girlfriends de jour. In real life, Ziegfeld left Billie Burke $4 million in debt when he died, and she was determined to pay off his debts in full — which she did by returning to acting (she made her “comeback” movie, A Bill of Divorcement, with John Barrymore and Katharine Hepburn, just months after Ziegfeld’s death), leasing the rights to the name “Ziegfeld Follies” (ironically to Ziegfeld’s hated rivals, the Shubert brothers) for a new edition in 1936, and making the deal for this movie.

This time around I found myself liking The Great Ziegfeld better than I had before even though it’s a peculiarly static, lumbering spectacle — at least in part because since watching this film I’ve seen some of the early-talkie versions of Ziegfeld’s musicals and the static, lumbering quality seems to have been part of his shows as well (the 1929 film of Rio Rita is probably the closest idea we can get to what a Ziegfeld spectacle actually looked like on stage) — and I found myself liking Luise Rainer a bit better, though possibly only for sentimental reasons (she’s still alive, having just turned 101, and with the death of Katharine Hepburn she became the earliest living Academy Award acting winner; indeed Turner Classic Movies prefaced this showing with Rainer’s live appearance at the 2010 TCM Classic Film Festival — in which her hearing aid malfunctioned so all the audience questions had to be written out for her so she could read and answer them, much the way Beethoven communicated); her performance still seems excessively mannered, overacted in a way that periodically impresses the Academy’s voters, but parts of it are moving and she does manage to charm in her musical numbers (apparently using her own voice) even though she’s out-acted by both Loy (even though Loy doesn’t enter until the 127th minute of a 172-minute movie!) and Virginia Bruce as the alcoholic showgirl who sets her sights on Ziegfeld and leads to the breakup of his first marriage. (Bruce was a highly talented performer who got exactly one role at the quality level she deserved — the title part in the 1934 Monogram version of Jane Eyre, in which she totally out-acted Joan Fontaine in the 1943 Fox version and probably came closer than anyone in the role to Katharine Hepburn’s legendary performances of it on stage — otherwise it was all supporting roles in big movies like this and Born to Dance and vehicles like The Invisible Woman in which she was charming but way overqualified.)

I still wish MGM had taken a chance in assigning the director for this film and gone with John Murray Anderson — who’d directed most of the Ziegfeld Follies on stage and had proven with the awesome 1930 musical The King of Jazz that he could make a movie — instead of reliable hack Robert Z. Leonard (though in 1937 the stars must have aligned properly for Leonard, since that year he shot Maytime, the best of the Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy movies and the one truly great film on his credit list); if you compare the rather stiff “Rhapsody in Blue” segment by Seymour Felix with the dazzling one Anderson did for The King of Jazz, you’ll have an inkling of what this movie might have been with a theatrical genius at the helm instead of a competent technician. I also wish they would have filmed at least the big musical extravaganzae in color — but then MGM was a surprisingly conservative studio when it came to using color (Louis B. Mayer even tried to talk David O. Selznick out of filming Gone With the Wind in color on the ground that it wouldn’t make any more money, but Selznick said, “The story demands color” — and as it turned out Selznick was right commercially as well as artistically, since Gone With the Wind had a strong and lucrative reissue history it wouldn’t have had if it had been in black-and-white), and the numbers here are so campy perhaps color would have just been gilding the lily.

Indeed, whatever entertainment value The Great Ziegfeld still has is due to the sheer bizarreness and over-the-topness of the numbers — and the charm and personability of Powell’s performance, as well as the supporting cast (notably Frank “Wizard of Oz” Morgan as a rival producer Ziegfeld is either stealing stars from or asking to bail him out financially until the 1929 stock market crash happens and ruins both of them), including such genuine Ziegfeld stars as Fanny Brice and Ray Bolger. (Eddie Cantor and Will Rogers are both portrayed in the film even though neither plays himself — Cantor because he was still under contract to Sam Goldwyn and Rogers because he was already dead. Buddy Doyle’s Cantor impression — he does “If You Knew Susie” in blackface — is pretty lame, but Rogers’ replacement is A. A. Trimble, a man Rogers had used to fill in for him when he was still alive, and he’s quite convincing.)

The Great Ziegfeld also has the peculiar distinction of allowing its star a rare opportunity to portray the same character in a sequel even though he dies at the end of this film (expiring as he literally sees all the shows he produced — including, in a typical example of MGM extravagance, some we haven’t seen previously represented in this film); in 1944 MGM started production on Ziegfeld Follies, which opens with William Powell as Ziegfeld in heaven, looking down at the MGM musical contract list and wishing he could do just one more Follies with those people — though the release of Ziegfeld Follies was delayed until 1946, 10 years after The Great Ziegfeld and five years after MGM’s second trip to the Ziegfeld well with Ziegfeld Girl (which may be the only movie that ever used a musical number as stock footage — they reprised part of the “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” number from The Great Ziegfeld, only they reshot the top of the giant staircase so that Judy Garland instead of Virginia Bruce was at the summit).

Nor was that the end of Ziegfeld’s representation on film: in 1968 Walter Pidgeon played him in Funny Girl, the biopic of Fanny Brice starring Barbra Streisand in her film debut (in a role she had previously played on stage), marking at least the second time Pidgeon had remade a Powell role (in 1939 he did Stronger than Desire, a remake of the 1934 Powell-Loy vehicle Evelyn Prentice with Rita Johnson in the second female lead that in the earlier version had been played by Rosalind Russell, in her screen debut), and in 1978 Paul Shenar played him in a TV-movie called Ziegfeld: The Man and His Women.

For more on The Great Ziegfeld: