OBPC #9: The Great Ziegfeld, 1936

Rating: 1½ stars (out of 4)

The Great Ziegfeld (1936):  Dir. Robert Z. Leonard.  Written by: William Anthony McGuire.  Starring: William Powell, Luise Rainer, Myrna Loy, Frank Morgan, and Fannie Brice.  Unrated.  Running time: 176 minutes.

I confess, dear reader, I know little about the life of Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.  Call it a general aversion to old-timey musicals.  But this film plays like a confection version of the man’s life.

Starting from the ranks of sideshow showmen, the film supposedly details the life of Ziegfeld on his way to successful Broadway producer.  Most of his shows star young attractive women in wacky outfits.  He doesn’t always have the funds to finance his overambitious projects (at least not right away), but what does he have?  Charm.  And that’s enough to convince all his financiers, and the simple-minded women of the film.

Instead of painting what must have been the life of a flawed and complicated man, the film squanders such an opportunity by glossing it in pure inoffensive sugar.  Quirky but inconsequential characters suck any dramatic tension from a script that occasionally shows signs of verbal wit.  But mostly the film tries too hard to sell its jokes.

Thrown into the story are handsomely constructed set-pieces representing Ziegfeld’s shows.  One sequence basically constructs a cake out of singers, dancers, and gals.  Another transforms into a costume parade, apparently glorifying Lady Gaga’s rejected designers.  The scenes boast some impressive staging and choreography, but to what end?  Only to make us forget about the thin plot, apparently.

To be fair, William Powell as Ziegfeld ought not to be blamed—he turns in a solid performance which saves the film from being unwatchable.  Alternatively, Luise Rainer mostly hams her role as the Ziegfeld’s first wife Anna Held, and her scenes go on far too long. Surprisingly, the film does manage some poignancy in its final minutes—but at three hours long, it’s too little, too late.

Listen, Ziggy—I’m not offended by a historically inaccurate biopic.  But I am annoyed by a dull one.

Next film: The Life of Emile Zola, 1937

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