The Great Ziegfeld

Great Ziegfeld
Courtesy of MGM

“The Great Ziegfeld” is the last gasp in filmusical entertainment and undeniable box office. Also on its running time (10 minutes short of three hours), it is the record holder to date for length of a picture in this country.

“Ziegfeld” is the film of which William Anthony McGuire just about made a career. It started two years ago at Universal and after a year’s preparation was acquired by Metro. Following another six months, actual shooting on the cohesive cinematic components commenced. Until then sundry bits and production numbers were being created. After two years, and a reported $1,500,000 production investment, Metro has emerged with a picture whose sole shortcoming is its footage.

Feature may sustain the belief of some that its mass impressiveness of quality, plus quantity, should react in its flavor at the $2 scale on a twice daily basis. But for general release it is unquestionably open to generous shearing. Even for roadshowing, there is the question of how much better an entertainment it would be with an hour out.

At 170 minutes, it’s a bit wearing on the auditor. Broadway (world) premiere uncurtained at 9 p.m. Intermission was at 10:20, resumed at 10:30, and finale hit at midnight to the second.

How much never reached the screen may well be imagined. The shearing is obvious from the stuff projected. Ann Pennington and Gilda Gray, who were 100% sacrificed, for example, gives an idea.

By program tabulation, there are seven numbers. Actually, the tally totals 23. For instance, in the Ziegfeld Roof sequence are included five subdivisions — “You Gotta Pull Strings,” “She’s a Follies Girl,” “You” (elaborate production flash), “You Never Looked So Beautiful” and “Parade of the Glorified Girls.” Fannie Brice is billed for only “Yiddle on Your Fiddle” and “My Man,” but she also has an elaborate sequence in a 10th avenue burly, “Queen of the Jungle.”

As for what is programmed to be No. 7 of the numbers, “A Circus Must Be Different in a Ziegfeld Show,” actually this has 10 component parts. It starts with the highly imaginative and very effective Harriet Hoctor ballet, plus her own soloing (generous in footage but worth it), supplemented by “Look for the Silver Lining” from “Sally” (Jerome Kern); “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” (Irving Berlin), as a reprise, as it is handsomely mounted for the first half finale earlier in the footage; “March of the Musketeers” from “3 Musketeers” (Rudolf Friml); “Ol’ Man River” (“Showboat”) (Kern again); “Making Whoopee” from “Whoopee” (Donaldson-Kahn); “Rio Rita” (Tierney-McCarthy); “Someone Loves You After All” from “Kid Boots” (also Tierney-McCarthy); Dave Stamper’s “Tulip Time” and Buddy DeSylva’s “If You Knew Susie,” a reprise of the number which Buddy Doyle does so well in his Eddie Cantor characterization earlier in the unfolding.

Considering the recent screen standards in book musicals with five numbers for 100 to 110 minutes of running time this Metro Santaclausing of numbers becomes virtually a double-feature filmusical.

The production high mark of the numbers is “Pretty Girl” as the first half finale. This nifty Berlin tune becomes the fulcrum for one of Frank Skinner’s best arrangements as Arthur Lange batons the crescendos into a mad, glittering potpourri of Saint-Saens and Gershwin, Strauss and Verdi, beautifully blended against the Berlinesque background. It’s a scenic flash which makes the auditor wonder “What can they do to follow that?” meaning in this or future film production. But they’ve said that before, too, about previous films.

The elaborate credits all merit highlighting. From Hunt Stromberg’s lavish mounting, right down the line. McGuire’s book is almost faithful biography save for logical or necessary theatrical license. Robert Z. Leonard’s general direction has coordinated the many variegated moods, scenes and sequences into a substantially cohesive whole. William S. Gray’s film editing is a very important assist. It must have been a tremendous cutting job.

Among this riot of song and dance Seymour Felix’s dances and ensembles stand out for imagination and comprehensive execution. His maneuvering of the pulchritudinous puppets are productive of gasps. And the camera work looks like a contest among the lensers. Oliver T. Marsh seniored the focusers. George Folsey and Karl Freund are credited for shooting the Ziegfeld Roof numbers; Ray June for ‘Melody,” which, cinematographically as well as productionally, is a definite highlight; and Merritt B. Gerstad for the Hoctor Ballet in itself intricate with its maneuverings of six Russian wolfhounds in terp formations.

The histrionics, while accepted as a matter of course in the general fanfare of the flash and spec, are not the least of it. William Powell’s Zieggy is excellent. Preserving the sympathies, he endows the impersonation with all the qualities of a great entrepreneur and sentimentalist without sacrificing the shades and moods called for. Luise Rainer is tops of the femmes with her vivacious Anna Held. Myrna Loy’s Billie Burke, perhaps with constant regard for a contemporaneous artiste, seems a bit under wraps. Frank Morgan as Billings (Dillingham, obviously) almost pars Powell as the friendly enemy.

Fannie Brice is Fannie Brice; ditto Ray Bolger and Harriet Hoctor playing themselves. Character of Sampson is obviously the late Sam Kingston, long Zieggy’s general manager who worried and fretted over the glorifyer’s extravagances. Reginald Owen’s personation here is capital. The p.a. is “Sage” (presumably the late Will A. Page). Jean Chatburn, a pulchritudinous personality, emerges from cinematic obscurity with her “Mary Lou” (also called “Sally Manners”), presumably Marily Miller.

Unbilled is Stanley Morner in the composite John Steel-Irving Fisher juvenile role, tenoring “Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” number in fine style and to excellent camera advantage. It again suggests him as another surprise Metro discovery. Likewise unbilled but impressive is “Miss Blair” (in the 1893 Chi midway sequence) who is Suzanne Kaaren, a looker. The good-looking stenog in the Klaw & Erlanger office (also not billed) is identified as Helen Collins, another who will probably get further studio attention. Joan Holland is Patricia Ziegfeld, and Ann Gillis plays Mary Lou as a child, both unbilled, and both noteworthy.

Virginia Bruce as Audrey Dane seems a composite of several Ziegfeld beauts whom some elected to identify as Lillian Lorraine, but she’s really a hybrid, fictional character. Nat Pendelton, as Sandow, is exceptionally good. It is a serious-minded performance of a biceps man and not the usual hoke chores usually assigned him. Joseph Cawthorne as Dr. Ziegfeld and his Chicago musical conservatory; Ernest Cossart as Sidney, the valet (another faithful detail); Paul Irving as the pompous, diminutive Abe Eerlanger, all click. A.A. Trimble is an uncanny double for the late Will Rogers and Buddy Doyle, backgrounded by practical experience as Cantor’s understudy in several Ziegfeld musicals, is almost an alter ego for that comedian. His was the first resounding applause click opening night with his Cantor blackface routine.

Authentic Ziegfeldiana in the production includes his penchant for sending telegrams even if people were across the hall or in the same building; the fondness for elephants as goodluck symbols; the traditional good tastes and skill in dressing up his girls rather than undraping them which Adrian, MGM’s couturier, had so capably caught. Likewise the McGuire script takes care of Zieggy’s renowned profligacy at the altar of sartorial and theatrical beauty by referring to his insistence on proper lightings, rostrum pedestaling, etc.

The Sixty Club in the old Astor hotel ballroom (before it moved over to the Ritz-Carlton) is another yesteryear throwback for the Broadway historians. Also the faithful recreations of the New Amsterdam theater lobby; likewise his Hotel Ansonia suite; Anna Held’s rooms in the Savoy; the Ziegfeld-Burke manse at Hastings-on-Hudson, etc. The finale purports to show Zieggy dying in the Hotel Warwick (not mentioned by name) overlooking the theater bearing his name. He actually died in Los Angeles.

“The Great Ziegfeld” as a film property can be said to be the reincarnation of a theatrical tradition, fresh in memory of most adult theatergoers. As such — and unlike the obscurely historical sagas which have heretofore highlighted the big roadshow film hits — here is an almost contemporaneous personality. For Ziegfeld is the symbol of a tradition of show business.

Picture must have worried Metro as to its presentation. It has so much it’s understandable why they wanted to preserve as much footage as possible. And this despite the fact there are numbers, scenes and sequences (the early Sandow stuff, the midway, the milk-bath to-do, the ups and downs, the prolonged death scene when Zieggy passes on, a broke and heart-broken man) which lend themselves to pruning. But either way “Great Ziegfeld” is an outstanding picture.


1936: Outstanding Production (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer), Actress (Luise Rainer), Dance Direction (“A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” number; Seymour Felix)

Nominations: Art Direction (Cedric Gibbons, Eddie Imazu, Edwin B. Willis), Directing (Robert Z. Leonard), Film Editing (William S. Gray), Writing–Original Story (William Anthony McGuire)

The Great Ziegfeld

  • Production: MGM release of a Hunt Stromberg production. Directed by Robert Z. Leonard. Story and Screenplay by William Anthony McGuire.
  • Crew: Camera, Oliver T. Marsh,George Folsey,Karl Freund, RayJune, Merritt B. Gerstad; editor, William S. Gray; production assts., Sam Zimbalist,R. A. Golden,Art Smith, John Hoffman, Sid Algiere; dances: Seymour Felix; special songs, Walter Donaldson, Harold Adamson; ballet music, Con Conrad, Herb Madison; musical director,Arthur Lange; musical arrangements, Frank Skinner;art, Cedric Gibbons, assisted by Merrill Pye, John Harkrider, Edwin B. Willis; costumes, Adrian. At Astor, N.Y., April 8, 1936. Run time 170 mins.
  • With: Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. - William Powell Billie Burke - Myrna Loy Anna Held - Luise Rainer Billings - Frank Morgan Fannie Brice - Fannie Brice Audrey Dane - Virginia Bruce Sampston - Reginald Owen Ray Bolger - Ray Bolger Sidney - Ernest Cossart Dr. Ziegfeld - Joesph Cawthorne Sandow - Nat Pendleton Harriet Hoctor - Harriet Hoctor MaryLou - Jean Chatburn Erlanger - Paul Irving Costumer - Herman Bing Pianist - Charles Judels Marie - Marcelle Corday Sage - Raymond Walburn Will Rogers - A. A. Trimble Eddie Cantor - Buddy Doyle Singer - Stanley Niorner Miss Blair - Suzanne Kaaren Stenographer - Helen Collins Patricia - Joan Holland Mary Lou (as child) - Ann Gillis