31 May 2009

Best Pictures: The Great Ziegfeld, 1936

Right from the opening titles, you know to expect big things from The Great Ziegfeld, a biopic chronicling the life and times of one of America's greatest showmen. The concept of the showmen is a curious one, and almost obsolete. But in this film you see it fully realized in the life of Ziegfeld and the lavish musical numbers mimicking those Ziegfeld actually did.

And its the musical numbers that provide the biggest thrill of the film, and they occupy most of the middle section of the film. After an hour of traditional biography material, detailing Ziegfeld's romantic entanglements and development from glorified ringmaster to true impresario, we get several huge production numbers that truly befit Ziegfeld's reputation. One particularly lavish number features a large circular stairway (pictured above) which the camera climbs, incorporating Gershwin's Rhapsody in Blue to great effect. It's the highlight of the film, and for good reason.

However, these numbers also cause problems for the film's structure. They are the film's centerpiece, but everything around them dulls in comparison. The work is the meat of Ziegfeld's life. His offstage dalliances are far less interesting, though William Powell makes good use of what he is given. I suppose we, in the twenty-first century, are just very used to seeing tales of men going through numerous women that we're jaded. Part of the problem, though, is that the film sanitizes and lessens these flings so as to soften the scandals.

Still, we are given a lavish biopic with a good cast to boot. Myrna Loy, though given second billing, has very little to do in her role of Ziegfeld's second wife Billie Burke. Luise Ranier is the real standout in her role of Anna Held, though her scenes are allowed to go on far too long. She's humorous, but we grow tired of her by the time we are meant to pity her. We also get some good turns from members of Ziegfeld's troupe playing themselves, namely Ray Bolger and Fanny Brice. All in all, it's a pretty standard biopic with some fabulous highlights, and for those we have Ziegfeld himself to thank.

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