The Good: Good acting, Decent spectacle
The Bad: Light on bonus features, Light on character development, Long and feels long.
The Basics: Occasionally funny, The Great Ziegfeld is erratic, but enjoyable.
People today seem to think that what they see is new and different, but the more I experience, the more I come around to the idea that it has all been done before. So, while people seemed to love Jerry McGuire when it was released, the longer I watched The Great Ziegfeld, the more I felt that it was familiar. The title character is a producer who is something of a scoundrel when it comes to booking his acts. And this film mixes the behind-the-scenes of theater with the on-stage productions in a way that is remarkably like The Broadway Melody (click here for that review!).
The longer The Great Ziegfeld went on, the more I felt cheated by the film. While it opened in the waning days of vaudeville and circus-type shows, it seemed like it might be enjoyable. In fact, I thought it might be like a precursor to Carnivale (click here for that review!) because of how honest it seemed to be about the sideshow acts. But quickly, the movie turns into a series of escapades where Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. tries to develop theatrical productions which showcase women he has become enamored with. The thing is, the movie remains in a very predictable and static trend where Ziegfeld meets a woman, the film illustrates a huge theatrical production and Ziegfeld moves on. The thing is, while much of the film might be impressive on stage - like the "Ziegfeld Follies" number - in the cinematic presentation, it just seems like a film trick or well within the range of film endeavor. The film is based upon the life of Florenz Ziegfeld, but as this is my only experience with the character, my review is limited entirely to the fictionalized biography.
At the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. is unsuccessfully marketing his strongman, Sandow, because he is opposite a burlesque show on the midway. When he finds the right formula to make Sandow a success, he brings the strongman to the top before a booking trick leaves him destitute. He chases his competition, producer Jack Billings, to France where he steals Anna Held out from under him. He returns with her to the United States, where he struggles to make her a star. Ziegfeld gets stable long enough to put a whole revue of women on stage in "Ziegfeld's Follies," which highlights the natural beauty and talent of common women. The revue is a success and Ziegfeld tries to build upon his success.
But Ziegfeld is unable to keep his hands on money and while he is building his productions, he continues to spend wildly. As he searches for the next talent to exploit, Anna becomes jealous of the way he operates and divorces him. Taking Billie Burke as his new wife, Ziegfeld moves on to try to make a meaningful production, which takes the form of "Show Boat."
The Great Ziegfeld is a film that does not seem to know what it wants to be, a biography or a presentation of the stage works that Ziegfeld produced. Even so, there is just enough to recommend it. But the film is erratic and it takes a break from the behind-the-scenes aspects of Ziegfeld's story to show what is on stage frequently. As such, there are lavish song and dance numbers which go on for fifteen minutes at a time (the film is three hours long) which do not advance the story, develop any of the characters or do anything other than attempt to dazzle the viewers. But the film lacks the vibrancy and immediacy of live theater, so it falls flat in many points where nothing happens, save the theater is presented on screen. If movies contributed to the death of vaudeville, it is bewildering why producer Hunt Stromberg and director Robert Z. Leonard think people would want to watch that on-screen.
In all, The Great Ziegfeld is dated and the entertainment in it comes mostly from the on-stage bits of the film, even if they do not advance any greater narrative or character development. So, when the film suddenly breaks from the on-stage song and dance numbers to the newspapers decrying the failures of Ziegfeld, it seems like it might be a real departure. But it's not. Throughout the film, every time Ziegfeld puts up a show, he is met with an obstacle afterward which he gets out of the same way. The film is repetitive and formulaic and the protagonist never grows beyond his initial characterization.
Ziegfeld is a womanizer, loves virtually all women and wants to produce theatrical works. He borrows money, has momentary success, the banks call in his loans and he tries to get out of his financial woes by finding the next great female talent. Ziegfeld does not seem to grow, develop or change. As well, he falls back on gambles in one form or another and he does not learn from his mistakes. As things like the stock market crash come, he tries to connive and charm his way out of his problems.
Ultimately, though, the best that The Great Ziegfeld has is its acting. William Powell is consistently wonderful as Ziegfeld. Powell has a natural charisma that translates perfectly to this character. Powell is plausible as a man who could string along bankers, producers and win over women consistently, if from nothing else than his overwhelming confidence which he brings to the role. Powell has a stiff back when his character is authoritative and an easy demeanor when he is flirting and the combination works perfectly for this particular role, even if he plays the part almost the same way at the end as he does at the beginning.
Just as the film seems unsure of whether it wants to be a behind-the-scenes biography or a presentation of theater on film, The Great Ziegfeld suffers because it poorly mixes drama and comedy. Characters will be in the midst of long, serious discussions which will suddenly be undone by Ziegfeld whipping off some witty wordplay and garnering a laugh or two. There is over-the-top physical comedy, like a stagehand tripping over rugs and the like. But then, there will be an hour when nothing funny or even remotely worth smiling at happens and the viewer feels like they were set up for something which was not delivered upon.
On DVD, The Great Ziegfeld has only the original newsreels which accompanied the film and a documentary on the making of the movie. The documentary is marginally interesting, but not the best bonus feature I have ever seen.
Ultimately, that's how I felt about The Great Ziegfeld, it was erratic and long, dated (it includes one minstrel show-style act even!) and repetitive, but it is not truly unpleasant and there is just enough to recommend to anyone who likes old movies.
[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this is part of my Best Picture Project by clicking here! Please check it out!]
For other works exploring the behind-the-scenes of shows, please check out my reviews of:
30 Rock - Season 3
For other film reviews, please be sure to check out my index page by clicking here!
© 2010, 2009 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.