Welcome to part one of my Ziegfeld in Hollywood series, examining how Hollywood has paid tribute to the glorious days of the Ziegfeld Follies. First up is none other than MGM’s lavish biopic of the man behind the Follies, The Great Ziegfeld.
The Great Ziegfeld follows the life of Florenz Ziegfeld (William Powell) beginning with his days at the 1893 World’s Fair working as a promoter for the legendary strongman Sandow. While working for Sandow, Ziegfeld turns Sandow into the most popular attraction by drumming up media attention. He later set his sights on Polish-French stage star Anna Held (Luise Rainer) and wants to do for her what he did for Sandow. Even though he doesn’t have any money, he meets with her and charms her into letting him promote her anyway. After Anna’s stage debut in New York is underwhelming, Ziegfeld starts ordering large quantities of milk and refuses to pay for it. He tells the press that Anna bathes in the milk to keep her skin beautiful. Curious crowds begin flocking to the theater to see for themselves whether or not the milk baths work. Anna is now a hit and she and Ziegfeld are soon married. However, no longer content with having just one successful stage star, Ziegfeld decides he wants to turn hundreds of women into stars, and thus the Ziegfeld Follies are born.
Since Anna is already starring in her own show, this means she can’t star in the Follies, and she soon becomes jealous of the attention Ziegfeld gives to other women, Audrey Dane (Virginia Bruce) in particular. Ziegfeld tries very hard to turn Audrey into a star, but ultimately, her alcoholism gets in the way. Anna divorces Florenz and he soon meets actress Billie Burke (Myrna Loy), who he marries. Ziegfeld’s career carries on, but eventually, the public loses interest in his shows. This only makes him more determined to return to the top and he goes on to have four hit shows on Broadway at the same time. However, the stock market crash of 1929 hit Ziegfeld very hard and his wife Billie had to return to the stage to make ends meet. But Ziegfeld never gave up the dream of making yet another comeback and was planning his next show up until the day he died.
The Great Ziegfeld had the potential to be the a completely different movie. The rights to Ziegfeld’s life story were originally purchased by Universal Studios, but Universal then sold the rights to MGM when it started to become too expensive to produce. Universal’s original vision for The Great Ziegfeld included William Powell as Ziegfeld, Billie Burke playing herself, featured former Ziegfeld performers Fanny Brice and Eddie Cantor, and also included parts for Judy Garland and her sisters. Although Judy Garland was never in the Follies, I think she and her sisters could have made an interesting addition since they performed together as a sister act in vaudeville. But, ultimately, I think it was best that the movie was made by MGM instead. No other studio could have really paid tribute to Ziegfeld’s lavish stage productions better than MGM. And since MGM was going to loan William Powell to Universal to play Ziegfeld, they instead loaned him out to make My Man Godfrey, which was a big success for Universal.
As with any Hollywood biopic, The Great Ziegfeld takes lots of creative liberties with reality. First of all, Ziegfeld and Anna Held were never married. They lived together for sixteen years, quite scandalous at the turn of the century, but Held called their relationship off after Ziegfeld got his mistress an apartment right by theirs. Since Billie Burke was involved with the script as it was being written, she made sure the womanizing was minimized and that Florenz came off as good as possible. Ray Bolger plays himself as a stagehand-turned-performer, but he never actually performed in the Ziegfeld Follies, nor was he ever even a stagehand. The movie shows the first ever Ziegfeld Follies in 1907 as taking place in The New Amsterdam Theater, but it actually took place on the rooftop of The New York Theater. The Follies didn’t move to The New Amsterdam Theater until several years later. The movie also shows the first Ziegfeld Follies as featuring the song A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody. Although A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody is the signature Ziegfeld Follies song, it didn’t premiere until the Ziegfeld Follies of 1919.
Although MGM certainly did a fantastic job of capturing the extravagance of Ziegfeld’s shows, they actually went a quite above and beyond Ziegfeld’s extravagance. The Pretty Girl is Like a Melody number alone cost over $200,000 to produce. Ziegfeld could have produced an entire show for that amount and had money left over. Now, let’s talk about the Pretty Girl is Like a Melody number, one of my favorite movie scenes of all time. I don’t think there’s any scene that epitomizes what MGM in the 1930s was all about more than this scene. It’s glitzy, it’s lavish, and it’s 10 times more extravagant than anything any of the other movie studios of that time would produce. Every time I watch The Great Ziegfeld, I end up rewinding that scene and watch it a few times over. It’s one of those scenes where you’re completely aware that this could never be a real stage performance, but you’re willing to forget about that little detail. I’m always awestruck by the fact that they were even able to pull that scene off because it had to have been such a logistical nightmare to produce. Building the set took months by itself. But then to have so many things happening one right after the other, and to have all that action happening in two very long shots, there was just no room for error there. There are 180 people in that scene and every single one of them had to know exactly what they were doing and at what precise moment they had to do it. It’s just a remarkable piece of film making. I think the movie deserved to win Best Picture for that scene alone.
Although I wouldn’t call The Great Ziegfeld one of my favorite movies, I do quite enjoy watching it from time to time. Honestly, I probably would like it more if it were a shorter movie. I just don’t have all that much patience for three-hour-long movies. But I do like William Powell’s performance, he brings a great deal of charm to Ziegfeld. Luise Rainer was fantastic as Anna Held, I do think she deserved her Best Actress Oscar for this role. Fun fact: Luise Rainer was the first actress to win back-to-back Best Actress Oscars, first for The Great Ziegfeld and again in 1937 for The Good Earth, a feat only repeated by Katharine Hepburn. Not bad for someone who didn’t even know who Anna Held was when she accepted the part. However, if you’re a Loy/Powell fan and are expecting lots of screen time with the two of them together, don’t get your hopes up on this movie. Even though Myrna Loy gets second billing, she doesn’t appear until the movie is nearly over. I’m a big sucker for extravagant musical numbers and there’s certainly no shortage of those in this movie. The musical numbers are what makes this such a nice movie for me to revisit every once in a while.