Watch 52 musicals, one every week, in 2015.
THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (1936)
A tale so grand it takes three hours to tell, The Great Ziegfeld explores the life of one Mr. Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. (William Powell), the visionary creator of the spectacular Broadway productions known as The Ziegfeld Follies. What is the true cost of making your dreams a reality? (Spoiler alert, an assload of money, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.) It’s a biopic, it’s a musical, it’s The Great Ziegfeld.
I won’t lie, I may have been a bit harsh on Top Hat last week for having no story, when Ziegfeld may be even more repetitive in the plot department, and for a whopping three hours to boot. Ziggy has an idea for a show, works out a clever advertising angle, borrows money to fund it, blows the profits on nice things for himself, and when the lender comes to collect, Ziggy just says, “Wait, I know how to get you your money… I have a new idea for a show!” Repeat as needed.
Musta been a fun flick to see during the Depression.
Here’s the thing, though; even though we know Ziegfeld is going to pull the same shit again and again, it’s uncomfortably fascinating to watch, and it makes you want to shout at the bastard. I’m a sucker for biopics about obsessive personality types with bad habits, and this film right here is the Patton of Broadway. But imagine if General Patton rallied his troops not with aggression, but charm.
Also known as “unabashed manipulation.”
And so we watch Ziegfeld lie, cheat, and steal his way from a sideshow barker to the biggest name in Broadway entertainment, and along the way we get to see his big-ass production numbers. Sure, at times the excessive length of the movie feels like the result of squishing a biopic and a musical together rather than seamlessly integrating both aspects, but honestly, the three-hour runtime never bothered me. Mostly because each incredible performance (more on those soon) wowed me and kept me nervously asking, “Now how’s the son of a bitch gonna pay for this one?”
Theater is hell.
I’m guessing that if you haven’t seen this film, you’re probably picturing Ziegfeld as the slick, fast-talking showbiz type. Thankfully, William Powell plays him far more subtly than you might imagine. Powell’s Ziegfeld is more clever than he is sleazy; you get the sense his grand visions come first, and his schemes are just how he makes them happen. For a character trope that’s usually based around pure malice, Powell makes sure there’s plenty of heart behind the conniving.
He bleeds (you dry) for his art!
Ziegfeld’s pal there is Jack Billings, a fellow producer played by Frank Morgan that starts as his rival and repeatedly becomes his primary source of funding. It’s fun to watch him grow tired of Ziegfeld’s antics until, oops, they’re best friends now.
That’s a scowl of love.
But enough about his actual life partner; Ziegfeld had many lady loves. The first, Anna Held, is played by Luise Rainer, and to be honest, she’s a tad annoying as a very peppy and very melodramatic French singer that Ziggy brings to New York, but apparently the Academy loved her and gave her a little statue for crying on a phone.
She’s fine, just a little over-the-top.
Myrna Loy plays Billie Burke, and she eventually gives Ziegfeld some of the tough love he needs. She’s particularly good when she demands that Ziegfeld cut the shit later in his life while still trying to be supportive.
But does it work? Watch and see!
Hey, this is a long-ass movie, so I can’t really hit everyone, but some other standouts in the cast include the charmingly silly Fannie Brice as herself, the charmingly silly Ray Bolger as himself, and Nat Pendleton as Ziggy’s original sideshow attraction, the strongman Sandow, who, yes, okay, he’s charmingly silly. But also awesome. Sandow should get his own movie.
Wait, THIS is the guy they should send to make Zig pay up.
THE SONGS AND DANCES:
There are 13 songs in this movie and not a one of them is sung from a character’s point of view like we’ve come to expect from our modern musicals. And yet, while there’s no “Debts Make Regrets, Ziggy!” or “Step Right Up (And See the Sexy Sandow),” a majority of the stage acts have a distinct parallel with the events of the film (similar to Cabaret, which, yes, I’ve seen). Ziegfeld and Billings both attend an Anna Held show in an attempt to recruit her to their respective theater companies while she sings “Won’t You Come and Play with Me?” to each of their balconies. Anna sings “It’s Delightful to Be Married” shortly before getting married. Once Ziegfeld’s various schemes have led him to running the hottest show in town, there’s a tune about ambition called “You Gotta Pull Strings.”
And you help the strings get pulled, audience!
There are many small numbers with a lone singer giving it their all, but the big acts will knock you on your ass. The main showstopper in this film is “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody.” It’s over ten minutes long, it features a humongous rotating staircase packed with dancers that the camera moves alllll the way up before pulling alllll the way back, and, save for a couple of edits, it’s almost entirely one long take. For lack of a better term, it is truly a “holy shit” moment. It’s the mic drop before intermission.
It’s still going.
It’s still going!
IT’S STILL GOING.
Oh, there’s also a great number with forty women dancing in beds, and I’m sure it’s just a coincidence that it comes right before the scene where Anna thinks Ziegfeld may be losing interest in her…
Not sure what all the writhing might symbolize…
Who knows, maybe I’m crazy and looking for connections where there aren’t any. Still, the final song of the film is a sideshow-themed number called “A Circus Must Be Different in a Ziegfeld Show,” bringing the man’s life in show business full circle. With dogs!
Who’s a puppy wupples?
I THINK THIS LINE’S MOSTLY FILLER:
I’m pretty sure this was a case of “tune first, words second,” but this week’s worst lyric is a line from “It’s Delightful to Be Married” that couldn’t be bothered to actually say anything and opted for repeating the word “be” ten times instead.
“It’s delightful to be married, to be be be be be be be be be be married.”
Context is an important part of experiencing a film, and I’ll admit that I might not have been so wowed by The Great Ziegfeld had I not preceded it with three other musicals that were fairly light on distinct, interesting protagonists. It’s probably a stronger biopic than it is a musical, but nevertheless, I really enjoyed it. If you like watching ambitiously insane types make shady deals for three hours thinking they’ll never get caught… and you also like musicals… think of it as The Wolf of Broadway.
Show Boat (1936)