The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

The Great Ziegfeld won the Academy Award for Outstanding Production in 1937; there were nine other nominees, 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 and Three Smart Girls. I have not seen any of them. It got nominations in six other categories and won two, Luise Rayner getting Best Actress as Ziegfeld’s first wife Anna Held, and the “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” sequence winning for best Dance Direction. IMDB users rate it a measly 19th of the films of 1936, with The Petrified Forest top and Modern Times second.

Ziegfeld must be the first person to appear in fictional form in two Oscar-winning films – “Francis Zanfield”, obviously based on him, is the crucial stage producer of The Broadway Melody. The film is about his life from early days in Chicago in the 1890s to the present day (making it the third Oscar-winning film to cover this time period, after Cimarron and Cavalcade). Made by agreement with his widow in order to clear the debts of his estate, it presents him as a single-minded showman who used up money and women with little regards for the consequences. I have to say that I found Ziegfeld an unattractive character, and did not really feel he was worth three hours of my company. Here’s a contemporary trailer, which, like the film, goes on a bit too long.

A few interesting actors (interesting to me, anyway) among the cast: Frank Morgan, who plays Ziegfeld’s rival and eventual funder Jack Billings, and dancer Ray Bolger, who plays himself, both turn up a few years later in The Wizard of Oz as the Wizard and the Scarecrow respectively. Several of the leads also appear in the previous year’s The Thin Man, which I haven’t seen. The only actor from the film who is still living, as far as I can tell, is Ann Gillis, who plays Ziegfeld’s young friend Mary Lou in an early scene. Born in 1927, she did very little acting after the second world war, and oddly enough her last recorded film role was Frank Poole’s mother in 2001: A Space Odyssey. (She is only ten years older than Gary Lockwood, who plays Poole and was born in 1937. Maybe she’s meant to be his stepmother.)

This is one of those films where I begin to see the strength of the argument that I should have tried a different film project. I was sufficiently underwhelmed that I’m not going to bother detailing the difficulties I had with it: in brief, there’s the usual erasure of minorities (Fanny Brice is Jewish and funny, and there are two black speaking parts, Libby Taylor as Flossie, Audrey’s uncredited maid and an unnamed second maid; there’s also a chap in blackface singing “If You Knew Susie”); the central character is not all that interesting, apart from his core commitment to objectifying women; his second wife, as played by Myrna Loy under the supervision of the person she was playing, isn’t all that interesting either; and the stage spectaculars, while spectacular, can’t completely make up for the absence of much in the way of plot.

To be a little more positive, Luise Rayner is funny and moving as first wife Anna Held, and was the first actor to win Oscars two years running (she won for The Good Earth the following year). Her crucial scene is here, where she congratulates Ziegfeld on his second marriage:

And although there is far too much of it, the dancing and singing is generally great. Here’s the Oscar-winning dance number, “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody” – deeply creepy words, but watch the choreography and staging, from about 1:20 onwards:

1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008)