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Best Picture: THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (1936)

Nerdist’s film critic, Witney Seibold, has been been watching and reviewing every single film to have won the Oscar for Best Picture in chronological order. He has arrived at week nine, 1936’s The Great Ziegfeld.

There are two versions of Robert Z. Leonard’s The Great Ziegfeld in the world. There is a 176-minute theatrical cut, and a 185-minute roadshow cut. For the uninitiated: The term “roadshow cut” comes from the days when films weren’t booked into hundreds of theaters at once. Before the 1970s, films had to open in one major city (usually New York or L.A.), and then proceed to travel from town to town, often staying in active circulation for years. As the roadshow continued, the film in question would open in increasingly smaller towns across the country. This was done because a smaller number of prints could be made (incidentally, Jaws was the first nationwide release in American film history). The version of The Great Ziegfeld I saw for this article was the longer cut, complete with an overture, an intermission, an entr’acte, and exit music.

The Great Ziegfeld is – not to put too fine a point on it – the Platonic ideal of the movie musical. This isn’t to say that it’s the most moving drama or the most important story, but its breadth and scope and length – not to mention its overwhelming opulence – made for a glitzy cinematic experience that is rarely paralleled. This is a film that seems to have won Best Picture not for its acting or tragedy or subtlety (although its acting is just fine), but for its mere ambition.

Indeed, if one were to boil it down to something as simple as this, I think The Great Ziegfeld won Best Picture for a single musical number. Right before the film’s intermission (back when films were granted intermissions, a practice not employed since 1996), we were treated to a performance of the Irving Berlin hit “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” which employed literally hundreds of dancers, musicians, singers, and costumes, all arranged down an enormous rotating wedding cake-shaped set, perhaps about 100 feet high. The entire number is achieved in only two extended shots. The rehearsal and extras wrangling alone seemed like a colossal achievement. Add to that the song and dance aspect, and you have one of the best shots in musical history, my friend.

The Great Ziegfeld opulence

The Ziegfeld of the title is Florenz “Flo” Ziegfeld, Jr. (the dazzling William Powell), one of Broadway’s most notorious and successful impresarios. Ziegfeld began his career as a barker at a carnival, where he managed the local strongman Sandow (Nat Pendleton). By entering in an alliance with a rival named Billings (Frank Morgan, the Wizard of Oz himself), Ziegfeld started down path of showbiz success that would remain largely unfettered until his death in 1932. He would famously cull burlesque halls and European opera houses looking for talent, and was infamous for poaching the discoveries of other scouts. Ziegfeld’s musicals were mostly big hits, although were typically frothy and elaborate variety shows. It wouldn’t be until 1927’s Show Boat, perhaps the most important musical in Broadway history, that he would he would make a stage show worthy of constant revival.

The biopic about Ziegfeld plays like a frothy comedy. We see Ziegfeld mostly smiling, at the height of his success, draping his various wives in exorbitantly expensive jewels and furs. He may have been something of a cad – he was, like so many flawed stars of celebrity biopics, a flagrant womanizer – but his caddishness is often played down; the filmmakers seemed to be very forgiving of his antisocial behavior. And since it’s the ultra-charming William Powell in the role, we too are charmed enough to perhaps forgive him. Indeed, when one of Ziegfeld’s bitter ex-wives Anna Held (Luise Rainer) is given an opportunity to talk to him post-divorce, she can only cry for having lost him.

The Great Ziegfeld Sandow

Ziegfeld brushed elbows with many, many famous people, and it’s fun to play spot-that-icon with this flick. Keep an eye out for Ray Bolger, Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor, Fannie Brice, Sarah Bernhardt, Billie Burke, and others. Some of these people play themselves, although Ziegfeld’s last wife Burke (whom you may know as Glinda, the Good Witch) was played by Powell’s longtime The Thin Man compatriot Myrna Loy. Powell and Loy are one of cinema’s great screen couples.

I can’t say that The Great Ziegfeld is a truly great drama, as it doesn’t delve deeply into the psychology of the man in question, and doesn’t really present us with any sort of ultimately moving messages or drama beyond a few satisfying surface messages. Indeed, Powell vanishes for extended periods, and we get long, long musical numbers in his place. But that’s fine. Since Ziegfeld lived for – indeed invented – a specific kind of stage spectacle, it makes sense that we have a film that stands out for its opulence alone. Plus, this kind of Big Big Show doesn’t really exist anymore, instating a misplaced nostalgia in the hearts of all theater rats everywhere. And since it’s so fun to look at, you will not be bored for a second, constantly wowed by the enormity of it all.

Join me next week for The Life of Emile Zola.

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