In a way, Ziegfeld Follies is kind of like Man With a Movie Camera: they’re both movies that are rather difficult to write about since neither one has a real plot. They’re both concept movies. In the case of Ziegfeld Follies, the concept is Florenz Ziegfeld (played once again by William Powell) in Heaven planning a show featuring some of the greatest film stars. The movie is a true all-star extravaganza featuring the likes of Judy Garland, Esther Williams, Lena Horne, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Fanny Brice, Kathryn Grayson, Red Skelton, and Lucille Ball in a series of musical numbers and comedy sketches like you might see in the Ziegfeld Follies.
Ah, Ziegfeld Girl. Even though it has some flaws, it’s one of my personal favorite movies. Ziegfeld Girl chronicles the lives of three different girls, Sandra Kolter (Hedy Lamarr), Susan Gallagher (Judy Garland), and Sheila Regan (Lana Turner), as they are each plucked from obscurity and become stars in the Ziegfeld Follies.
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.