February 7, 2014

The Great Ziegfeld

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Florenz Ziegfeld certainly deserved a biopic. He lived a fabulous enough life, filled with the glitz and lavishness and drama necessary for a interesting film. But watching The Great Ziegfeld, it's blatantly obvious that the producers had no idea what they were trying to achieve here. Did they really, truly want to bring the legendary showman's life to the screen? Or were they more interested in a chance to make an extravagant spectacle?

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Ziegfeld's wife Billie Burke apparently had input in the film's depiction of her husband, and this, mixed with Production Code restrictions, ensured a cleaner though convoluted screen version of Ziegfeld. Some of his actions make him out to be a dick and a womanizer, yet there's also a forced push to make him likable, and in the process Ziegfeld isn't really any of the above. The movie itself is too damn long. Any picture that dares to be in the three-hour range has to have excellent focus and pacing--and The Great Ziegfeld has none of that. From a narrative standpoint, there are too many scenes in the film that could otherwise be shortened or excluded altogether. And after a third of the total running time has passed, the film starts bombarding us with its infamous musical numbers--long, elaborate sequences jam-packed with opulent design and costumes--and at first they're actually quite a sight to see. The film's "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody" number is absolutely beautiful and is amazing in its sheer size and attention to detail (though the song itself is dull)...but is it long. Like twenty minutes long! In fact, all the numbers are much longer than they need to be, and after a certain point it didn't matter how grandiose and stunning the sequences were--I was bored. I respect the very audacity to even make musical numbers of this magnitude, but they don't contribute to the narrative flow of the film in any way. They exist entirely so that we can take a break from the narrative to stare at pretty sparkly things for 10-20 minutes--strictly style and no substance whatsoever.

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Notice the dog in the middle yawning and completely over this film.

The film gets so lost in its own immense ambitions that its storytelling suffers because of it. Supporting characters played by the likes of Luise Rainer, Myrna Loy, Fanny Brice, Nat Pendleton, and Virginia Bruce are introduced and become pivotal for a few scenes before being swiftly disposed of without explanation. And like its Best Picture predecessors Cimarron and Cavalcade, The Great Ziegfeld covers a hefty amount of time--approximately forty years--but the movie never bothers to tell us how much time has elapsed between scenes. Rainer proves to be the only reason you'd want to sit through this lengthy picture--but her character is disposed of rather abruptly (again, Billie Burke to blame?) and once she's gone the film becomes doubly unbearable, as we're left with even less storytelling but more scenes of broads jumping on moving beds, broads modeling outrageous drag that would make the top RuPaul's Drag Race contestants salivate, and broads dancing and jumping around dogs. There's much bravura in The Great Ziegfeld to admire, but it does not work as a fully coherent picture. This film isn't saying to us, "let us tell you this great tale!", but rather it's more trying to say "let us show you how amazing we can make things look! We've gone a long way!". It's essentially The Broadway Melody done right, but that's really not saying much.


  1. I've seen this film yeaaaaaars ago.
    A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody - love it, still remember it.

    Seems I gave it a 7/10

  2. It's beautiful but I found it so boring all at once!! Which was really just the theme of the entire movie for me..so many ploys used by the film to try and catch my attention but I really I was just bored the entire time :\

    And I saw that post while I was writing this one up actually! I like to dig around your old posts to get an idea of where I stand :)

    1. It was back then when I started watching/rewatching all Best Picture winners in order. Unfortunately, I got reallyyyyyy stuck at West Side Story (which I must confess I am NOT a fan of), and that was that. Hope to "refuel" soon. It was a good project-idea. :)

  3. This is NOT a good (or even fair) musical. The rather fictitious story-line gets bogged down in bio-pic cliches, the musical numbers are presented rather than integrated into the plot and the acting is of the hit-and-run 'make the most of my scenes' variety. It's all sumptuously glossy and mind-numbingly boring with not a single memorable musical moment in its 3-hourish running time. Sad to say, much of this stuff was 'old hat' even for 1936 although production values like this were rarely seen onscreen back then. So, TGZ should have cleaned up in the technical award categories, of which it got none. Then .... Best Picture? No. 'Dodsworth', 'Mr. Deeds', 'Godfrey', even 'Tale of Two Cities' or 'R&J' .... but 'Ziegfeld'? Not even close.