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USA 1936
Directed by
Robert Z. Leonard
186 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
2 stars

The Great Ziegfeld

It is hard to believe that MGM’s biopic of 1920s musical theatre impresario Florenz Ziegfeld Jr won the Best Picture Oscar in its day.  Whilst there are some ridiculously extravagant production numbers that offer a certain amount of pleasure, for the most part the film is routine in direction and as biography, more fantasy than fact and sanitized fantasy at that (Ziegfeld'ss real-life wife Billy Burke had final say on the script).  Evidently audiences of the time, no doubt still under the thrall of the Ziegfeld legend, did not agree and despite the film’s $2million budget it was a hit.

William Powell plays Ziegfeld whose story we follow from his days as a sideshow huckster at the 1893 World's Fair to his triumphant years as the architect of the Ziegfeld Follies and his death in 1932, a broken man ruined by the stock-market crash of ‘29.

Divided into two halves bookmarked with a lengthy music overture, entr’acte and finale, clearly the film was a prestige production but the quality is far less apparent these days.  The first half of the film is largely given over to Ziegfeld‘s rise and his marriage to soubrette  Ann Held (Luise Rainer, an actress who surprisingly won a Best Actress Oscar for her performance, another the following year in The Good Earth and then largely faded from view). The second half covers his subsequent marriage to actress Billie Burke (Myrna Loy). 

This second half is the more bearable simply because it features some for-the-time top drawer musical interludes including a remarkable single-take number, "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody".  albeit that it, as does the film as a whole, loses a lot from being in black and white. Additional fun is to be had from appearances by Eddie Cantor singing “If You Knew Suzie” and Will Hays (both impersonators), Fanny Brice and Ray Bolger (the real ones) but for the rest, the film is drawn out well beyond necessity.




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