Covering forty years of a man's life from 1893 until 1932 in a hugely engrossing 184 minutes of screen time (plus intermission), THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (1936, MGM) is the summit of the so-called Golden Age of Hollywood, a "guilty pleasure" masterpiece, and a richly deserved Best Picture Oscar winner. Nothing could be more suitable for family viewing now, except for the length with working people and students who have to get to bed after homework. Maybe a Friday or Saturday night. The life story of Broadway showman Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. (a wonderfully cast William Powell), the film opens at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair with a young Ziegfeld ("Flo") promoting a strong man named Sandow (Nat Pendleton). His main competition across the midway is Billings (Frank Morgan) with a dancing girl named Little Egypt. Billings and Flo will become lifetime friends from this beginning.
Around the 45 minute mark of a slow first hour, undeserved Oscar winner Luise Rainer shows up as Gay 90s European singer Anna Held. (Rainer is very good in the supporting role, but no match for Best Actress competitors Greta Garbo in CAMILLE or Carole Lombard in MY MAN GODFREY.) Held's big number is "It's Delightful to be Married." Off-stage, she seemingly becomes Ziegfeld's first wife.
THE GREAT ZIEGFELD becomes absolutely spectacular in its second hour-and for a full hour. Dazzlingly choreographed back to back musical numbers include the Oscar-winning "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody", "You Never Looked So Beautiful Before", and the mind-blowingly lavish "Wonderful You". Only one studio in Hollywood could have made this fabulously entertaining movie that keeps topping itself with musical numbers for half an hour on either side on a theatrical intermission. (Entr'acte and prologue music have been restored to the VHS tape version I am reviewing.) It is all enthralling and exhausting.
At the beginning of the third hour, second-billed Myrna Loy finally shows up as Billie Burke at a party and soon marries Flo. (This confuses me. The real Burke was still alive in 1936. She was the Good Witch three years later in THE WIZARD OF OZ. Why didn't she play herself here?) Billings is still around as a pleasant pest to borrow money for rival stage productions. For Barbra Streisand fans, the real Fanny Brice shows up for a few fun scenes. And Anna Held divorces Flo over seeming adultery with a vain showgirl named Audrey (Virginia Bruce). Then she has a telephone scene that is one of the most overrated scenes for me in Hollywood's history as she congratulates Flo on his marriage to Billie. (One undistinguished telephone scene, and she wins a Best Actress Oscar over Garbo and Lombard?!)
The last 45 minutes of THE GREAT ZIEGFELD has Harriet Hocter play herself for another opulent musical number, "A Circus Should Be Bigger in a Ziegfeld Show." A young lady from the film's first half hour, Sally, gets a show named after her. We are up to the 1920s, and Ziegfeld has four shows running on Broadway at the same time. (One, RIO RITA, he personally supervised the 1929 film of. It shows up now and then on Turner Classic Movies.) Billings and Flo both go broke in The Great Crash. The movie ends with the great showman's poignant death in 1932.
This MGM blockbuster, mammoth even by today's standards, was produced by Hunt Stromberg, directed by Robert Z. Leonard, and written by William Anthony McGuire. In 1936, William Powell appeared in not just this cinematic sparkler, but also AFTER THE THIN MAN (also with Loy), MY MAN GODFREY (Oscar nomination), and LIBELED LADY (again with Loy). It is a stupendous product of the Hollywood factory and star systems, and again it is about perfect for family viewing--complete with an intermission if you need to do its 184 minutes in two nights.
(Reviewed from restored roadshow VHS videocassette.)