Monday, March 12, 2012

Jordyn Does the Best Picture Winners: The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

Ugh. And here we encounter the first of the dreaded Best Picture winning biopic. And our second musical...sort of. In just over three hours (five minutes over to be exact) we are told the life story of Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. a relative unknown to us in the 21st century, but a big banana circa 1936. Ziegfeld was a Broadway producer mostly known for his Ziegfeld Follies: extravaganzas of singing, dancing, and girls walking around in lavish, bizarre costumes found in Lady Gaga's wettest dreams.

We meet Ziegfeld aka "Flo" (William Powell) at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair. The eager young buck spends his days promoting Sandow, the World's Strongest Man, (Nat Pendleton) while competing with his rival and frenemy Jack Billings (Frank Morgan) for business and women. From Billings, Flo learns of a beautiful French singing sensation named Anna Held (Luise Rainer). He promptly charms Anna into signing with him and makes her a respectable star on Broadway and eventually marries her. Flo finds success with his signature Follies, rescues Fanny Brice (playing herself) from Vaudeville, gives Ray Bolger (i.e. the Scarecrow from The Wizard of Oz, also playing himself) his big break, and attempts to make the fictitious and alcoholic Audrey Dane (Virginia Bruce) into a star. Anna becomes frustrated with Flo's "flirtations" and divorces him. He quickly remarries, this time to Billie Burke (Myrna Loy) and finds happiness and success until the stock market crash. He loses everything and dies three years later whilst remembering his greatest shows.

The Great Ziegfeld wears many hats: Biopic, Musical, Backstage Musical, Romance, Epic...but what it comes down to is a biography with some musical scenes in it. And unfortunately, the crux of it all rests on Ziegfeld and whether or not we care about him. Frankly, I don't. Not because he is a huckster and shyster, but because he is boring as a man in his private life. Supposedly, the real Ziegfeld was a notorious womanizer. The film portrays him as a flirt and flatterer, but in the face of temptation, he never falls. (That's the Hays Code shitting on history, by the way.)

The man had vision, that's for sure, and he had drive and ambition. But if we can't see the dirt, who the fuck cares? People want scandals, sex, booze, illegitimate children, drugs, mental illness, bulimia, heartbreak. No one wants see or read biographies on people who lead boring lives no matter what great art they put forth. So even if Taylor Swift is nice as pie and popular as hell, I would find a biopic about Britney Spears far more entertaining*.

The Great Ziegfeld is, really, just a chance for Louis B. Mayer to show poor, depression-era Americans how much money he can waste on sequins and feathers. It is a movie about spectacle which I guess is in tune with Ziegfeld himself; all style and no substance. The middle section of the film is very heavy on this. During the long, long, long tracking shot of "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody" I had forgotten all about Ziegfeld and his personal life. We enter an entirely different movie for about 40 minutes...or at least it seems like 40 minutes.

All right, what else is there? Luise Rainer won Best Actress for her portrayal of Anna Held. She is an irritatingly, coquettish prima donna and I...for some her. No matter what the real Anna was like, this Anna is a precursor for the Manic Pixie Dream Girl if she liked orchids and diamonds instead of rainbows and unicorn stickers. Many will find this performance irritating, as I did at times, but at least I felt something during her scenes.

On the other side of the "love triangle" is Myrna Loy's portrayal of Billie Burke. Saint Billie is down to earth and just as worshipful of her husband, but without the expensive tastes. She offers a nice alternative to the floozies that surround Ziegfeld day in and day out. Granted, Billie Burke served as a consultant on the film so...

All right, I've seriously run out of things to say about The Great Ziegfeld. It is what it is and you like bombastic musical numbers than I suggest watching it. If you don't...stay away. I'm done. Insert quippy wrap-up here.

Impressions circa 2004
Negative. Over long and pointless.

Other Nominations and Wins
(bold represents win)
  • Best Director - Robert Z. Leonard 
  • Best Actress - Luise Rainer
  • Best Original Screenplay 
  • Best Art Direction 
  • Best Film Editing 
  • Best Dance Direction - Seymour Felix for "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody"

1936 Best Picture Nominees
(bold represents films I have seen...followed by my opinion in 10 words or less.)
  • Anthony Adverse 
  • Dodsworth 
  • Libeled Lady 
  • Mr. Deeds Goes to Town 
  • Romeo and Juliet 
  • San Francisco 
  • The Story of Louis Pasteur 
  • A Tale of Two Cities 
  • Three Smart Girls 

What I Learned From...The Great Ziegfeld
You gotta dream big to make it big.

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