Step right up ladies and gentlemen and see The Great Zeigfeld, the story of the life and work of the extravagant stage producer, Florenz Ziegfeld (William Powell). Witness as he rises from a carnie at the world’s fair, peddling Sandow the strong man, to producing some of the biggest hits on Broadway and “glorifying the American girl.” Be amazed as he finds new fortunes and love just to lose them, nearly to rock bottom and then regain anew by just being a fast talker. The film is filled with reenactments of his greatest stage moments, some so fantastic it’s almost too much to capture on film.
Whew, don’t want to get carried away with that carnie voice. But frankly, I was surprised at how much I enjoyed this film. The way a Zeigfeld biography is intertwined with pieces of recreated stage performances is wonderful. I wouldn’t classify this film as a musical, since the musical numbers are separate from the story. The numbers are in here to show Zeigfeld’s work (you wouldn’t make a Van Gogh biography without showing a couple paintings right?) and what magnificent works he created!
One particularly amazing stage performance recreated for the screen is the number “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody.” The whole thing is on a rotating stage, with a gigantic silk curtain slowly rising as it turns to reveal more and more actors singing on the spiraling stairs. Director Robert Z. Leonard wanted to make the whole scene one continuous long shot, like you would see it sitting in a live theater, but back then cameras could only physically hold so much film. So Leonard created the illusion of one long shot, by zooming in on a key singer at the end of the reel and panning back out to start the new reel without the feel of a cut. Hitchcock later used this technique in Rope.
I’ll admit, I had this sitting, in its little Netflix envelope on the table for almost a week because three hours in 1936 just sounded like a drag. How wrong could I have been? There’s a reason this won Best Picture. William Powell and Myrna Loy are always worth watching and the story of Zeigfeld is entertaining to the end. Luise Rainer deservingly won Best Actress and her famous telephone scene is wonderful. If you enjoy the theater, it’s brought to the screen magnificently. People must’ve gone crazy seeing some of the huge stage scenes back in ’36. I was amazed just sitting on my couch seventy-four years later. If you pick just one film from 1936, make it The Great Zeigfeld.