Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.
The Great Ziegfeld
Release Date: April 8, 1936
Director: Robert Z. Leonard
Written By: William Anthony McGuire
Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Luise Rainer
Genre: Biography, Drama, Musical
Running Time: 176 minutes
Oscar Nominations: 4
-Best Art Direction
-Best Film Editing
-Best Original Screenplay
Oscar Wins: 3
-Best Actress (Luise Rainer)
-Best Dance Direction ("A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody")
Other Best Picture Nominees
- Anthony Adverse
-Mr. Deeds Goes to Town
-Romeo and Juliet
-The Story of Louis Pasteur
-A Tale of Two Cities
-Three Smart Girls
And the winner is...
The general notion that has run through most of the Academy Awards' history is the rhyming phrase "There's no business like show business." This remains true to the films that they have continually decided to recognize. Especially with The Great Ziegfeld as only the ninth winner in the awards' history, which focuses on the life of Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. (William Powell) - an entertainer who was larger than life and changed the way that we view theater. With extravagant sets, shiny costumes and catchy song numbers, he was one of the crucial figures to American theater and one who likely was deserving of a film adaptation. Considering that previous winner The Broadway Melody (1929) applied music to a behind the scenes look at showgirls, it only seemed right to focus on the man who hired such people for his troupe at Ziegfeld Follies and produced such standards as the musical Show Boat.
For it's time, the film was rather exceptional. With exception to D.W. Griffiths' The Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, it was the longest film clocking in at 176 minutes. The screenplay for the Ziegfeld biography was even considered a novelty at the time with a lot of details being embellished in favor of a more concrete and fascinating screenplay that not only emphasized why he was great. It almost made him mythic in over the top fashions. The final stretch of film in which an elderly Ziegfeld is looking back on his legacy are moments that feel too staged to have actually happened. He gazes at his magnificent work and thinks of what he could have done better, even as he is financially strapped for cash with his loving wife Anna Held (Myrna Loy), of whom he pens the iconic song "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody."
There's two sides to the final film: the man and the show. Much like other Best Picture winners of the 30's such as The Life of Emile Zola or Cimarron, the man was a heroic rebel to the standards. It was a time when the performance was the central focus of film. Powell brought a lot of energy to the character and even made the romance with Loy something tangible. It was romanticized theater as it would have been during its time. While there were a few comedic moments scattered throughout, it is mostly a tale of one man living his dream and turning his life into a cautionary tale much like Yankee Doodle Dandy or The Aviator decades later. It was also a prime example of how we would come to perceive Ziegfeld because as film has known to do, its distortion on history becomes our understanding of reality.
The show is another portion and the part that feels crammed in for the sake of spectacle. Yes, Ziegfeld was a showman and as a lover of the female form, he dressed women in sensual outfits for spectacle. He had song and dance mixed in with elaborate sets, most notably the famous rotating spiral column that when finished revealed itself to be a cake. The film takes its time to the reveal as it shows the edges of the cake with beautiful women sitting on it as George Gershwin's "Rhapsody in Blue" began playing. As the entire thing plays out , the cake becomes a massive scale with more spectacle. The scene lasts for awhile and eventually unveils this:
It is important to consider two things about this scene. The first is that this was a giant prop that took several days to film. In an era where special effects have driven movies, it is odd to think that watching beautiful set pieces for a few seconds was considered high caliber entertainment. The other noteworthy comment is that this is real. While many facts about Ziegfeld were greatly exaggerated, his shows were not. They were as big and lively as you'd imagine. Sure, George M. Cohan may have been a more tangible performer, but he was a patriotic minimalist by comparison. The Great Ziegfeld embodied spectacle to its extents while portraying a fascinating character. Sadly, both don't sit well together and the show portions often drag the movie down with jarring transitions.
It is odd to compare the success of the film between then and now. When it came out, it was the definition of extravagance and was one of the more awe-inspiring things put to screen. The fact that it was also based on a true story only made it more fascinating. However, it was also a time before film really understood how to incorporate performances in an engaging way that would appeal to modern audiences. While there are song and dances, they mostly feel staged in a way that distract from the story. They were fine and well directed, but for those wanting to focus on Ziegfeld's biopic and Powell's excellent performance, it wasn't going to happen so smoothly. It may be why this was the talkies' longest film at the time of its release. It was an embrace of theatricality, and something that as evident by 2014 winner Birdman shows that the Academy isn't above rewarding the cinematic equivalence of a pat on the back.
The film had a lot going on. Pat Nixon (then Pat Ryan), wife of President Richard Nixon, appeared in the film as an extra. So did over a thousand extras. The film, after being cut, had to be shown on 16 reels. The costumes were made by 250 tailors. The cake weighed 100 tons. In a time before directors like Cecil B. DeMille became the standard for big budget fare, this was something far more impressive. While it has become dated and hard for contemporary audiences to like, many consider it to remain the standard for musical direction. The studio MGM still considers it one of their best achievements from the time. It spawned two sequels: The Ziegfeld Girl (starring James Stewart and Judy Garland) and Ziegfeld Follies (directed by Vincente Minelli).
The film may not seem like much, but it holds the distinct honor of being the first musical to win an acting Oscar for Luise Rainer. Thanks to its elaborate sets and use of both performers and animals, it was considered to be a production so big that only MGM could handle it. This is definitely one of those films that was rewarded more because of its spectacle than its production. Still, in an era that rewarded films that depicted brave and adventurous men, this film doesn't feel out of place. While its length may cause it to fall into a camp alongside Around the World in 80 Days or The Greatest Show on Earth as far as style over substance, it still manages to have enough memorable moments and if nothing else influential directing technique, which Robert Z. Leonard wasn't actually awarded for (he lost to Frank Capra for Mr. Deeds Goes to Town).
No matter what you think of The Great Ziegfeld, it was a film the predates yet feels apart of the notion of blockbuster culture. With impressively lush set pieces, charismatic performances, and memorable songs, it embodied something about what cinema was growing into While the 30's may not be the most accessible decade in the award's history, it is a fascinating one simply for the variety of films it chose. Where the 40's would get dour and become more politically aware, it is interesting to see a film like this win because while it's a tale that is still told, it is done triumphantly through excess and ambition in ways that seem silly nowadays. It may even have influenced later films like Yankee Doodle Dandy, which elevated cinematic performance art to the next level with an impressive James Cagney performance. Even the way that the billboards create a quick montage of Ziegfeld's achievements feel reminiscent of Citizen Kane. As odd as the film may be, its influence and what it strives to be is something that shouldn't be taken for granted.