The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

The Great Ziegfeld holds the distinction as the first biopic to win Best Picture at the Oscars, which might surprise you, if, like me, you’d never heard of the man. Florenz Ziegfeld, the great showman of the early 20th century, who brought his Ziegfeld Follies to Broadway. Vaudeville! Ladies dancing! Blackface! …oh. Um, awkward.

This movie seems to come from an era in movie history when filmmakers were still trying to figure out what made a movie a unique form of entertainment. Like some of the other pictures I’ve seen during this project, this seems to be less a film in the way I think of it now and more of a set piece for a different kind of entertainment, namely, the on-stage Follies that made Ziegfeld famous.

What starts out as a relatively straightforward biographical film about a guy running a Strong Man sideshow quickly detours down a creepy path, when Ziegfeld playfully discusses his “engagement” with a 6 year old girl. Even in jest, it reads as questionable considering Ziegfeld’s already shown himself to be a ladies’ man, and it certainly doesn’t improve when the little girl shows up again some fifteen years later to throw herself at the now-successful Ziegfeld (who, I don’t need to point out, is now fifteen years older than his previous self as well.)

But all that personal backstory is really just a framing for the true point of the film: the recreated stage performances. The first big number is Irving Berlin’s “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody” (which I only knew of in parody form as the Magnetic Fields’ “A Pretty Girl is Like…”). It’s an impressive performance, with this giant rotating set of steps filled with dancers and curtains, and I find it really difficult to describe. As a neat side note, it was filmed in one long shot (with a cut for a close-up). Curiously, even though I could appreciate the technical precision of such a segment, I wasn’t really moved by it emotionally. I can imagine that seeing it on an actual stage would be different, but all this film proves to me is that you can’t expect the same effect when you try to transfer something from one form to another. Something gets lost in the process.

It’s strange how quickly celebrity fades. This is sort of a theme in the film, though not entirely in the way I read it today. Ziegfeld lost big in the stock market crash (I find that in the movies of the 1930s, the stock market crash is viewed with the same sense of Nothing Was Ever the Same Again that our generation has with 9/11), and he couldn’t manage to pull another show together out of sheer hubris the way he’d done in years past. He died in 1932, just a few years before the movie was released. His wife at the time was deeply involved in production, probably hoping that his star would last forever. But now? He’s just another name soon to be lost to time.

 

Theme: Showmanship

First Time Watching? Most def

Final Verdict:  As an American girl, I certainly felt glorified.

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