As of right now I have watched seventeen Oscar Best Picture Winners and I am happy to report that I have enjoyed almost everyone I’ve had the opportunity to watch. I have been surprised at how good some of these films have been, especially when they came from a genre I don’t tend to watch that often. Prior to embarking on this quest, I prepared myself to watch films that I didn’t enjoy because inevitably, I was going to encounter a Best Picture that I did not enjoy. The 1936 Best Picture Winner, the Great Ziegfeld was a film that I did not enjoy.
The film opens on the Chicago Fair, showing two men trying to talk up their shows. One is the film’s main character, Florenz “Flo” Ziegfeld (William Powell), who is attempting to pedal a strongman act, featuring the world’s strongest man Eugen Sandow (Nat Pendleton). The other, and at first superior promoter, is Ziefeld’s rival for the entire film, Jack Billings (Frank Morgan). When a new idea gives Ziegfeld his big break, Ziegfeld leaves the side-show game and starts producing shows on stage. The rest of the film follows Ziegfeld as he becomes a famous producer. Ziegfeld begins his illustrious career with almost no money, landing the French star Anna Held (Luise Rainer) with just his charm, making Anna a star and himself rich at the same time. Ziegfeld and Anna end up marrying and stay together for a number of years. Ziegfeld continues working on shows, spending any money necessary to make the shows as grand as possible. Always striving for more, a theme punctuated by Ziegfeld’s obsession with building the largest staircase possible on stage. Ziegfeld’s obsession with grandeur yields him a large problem: the ever increasing threat of bankruptcy. Ziegfeld spends more and more on his shows to make them as grand as possible. He is constantly spending lavishly and constantly on the verge of running out of money.
Ziegfeld throws himself into his work, always searching for the next big star. Eventually divorcing Anna, though they stay in touch and she remains infatuated with him, it appears that his next relationship will be with his next star Audrey Dane (Virginia Bruce). Succumbing to an alcohol problem, Audrey blows her chance with Ziegfeld both professionally and romantically. Ziegfeld goes on to discover both Fanny Brice on Vaudeville and Ray Bolger who play themselves in the film. Ziegfeld eventually does remarry another one of his rising stars Billy Burke (Myrna Loy). Ziegfeld spends the rest of his life creating the most extravagant show he can afford.
My biggest problem with this film was that half of it shows scenes from Ziegfeld’s shows. There are a number of long, drawn out song and dance scenes that have nothing to do with the story line. They do serve to show us how extravagant Ziegfeld’s shows become and how his stars perform in them. I did not like this aspect of the film but I loved all the other scenes. Ziegfeld was an extremely charming and persuasive man, working his way up the ladder of success with his suave attitude rather than money. Once he earned the money, Ziegfeld used it but until he had gained wealth, he didn’t let a lack of money stop him. Throughout the film, Ziegfeld had an odd relationship with Billings. They were certainly rivals and battled against each other. Ziefeld steals stars from Billings and gets in his way while Billings thrives in Ziegfeld’s failures. Though they are rivals, the two are also friendly to one another. They sometimes work together or lend money to one another. Ziegfeld and Billings friendly rivalry was my favorite aspect of the film.
The Great Ziegfeld was nominated against 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. Beyond winning best picture it won Best Dance Direction and Luise Rainer earned Best Supporting Actress. I thought that this film had a lot of wasted time that could have been devoted to other characters. I really liked both Billings and Ziegfeld but I thought some of the female characters deserved more attention. Overall I give this film a 5 out of 10, it had some really good aspects to it but overall I thought the plot and the story could have been used much more effectively.
Oscar Best PIcture Winner 1936- The Great Ziegfeld