MGM keeps rolling out the Best Picture award winners. A few weeks ago it was Mutiny on the Bounty, this time it’s The Great Ziegfeld . I think Ziegfeld belongs in the category of those Best Picture winners that aren’t necessarily the best films for that year (Driving Miss Daisy?? C’mon). I actually prefer Frank Capra’s Mr. Deeds Goes to Town and Gregory La Cava’s seminal screwball comedy My Man Godfrey (starring Ziegfeld’s own William Powell). The Great Ziegfeld al…o picked up Best Actress for Luise Rainer. She has excellent presence, some nice moments (the phone call scene, most famously), and those eyes. But for my money, I would’ve given it to Carole Lombard for My Man Godfrey. The Academy has always been a sucker for Big Emotion, and Rainer gives the audience spoonfuls of it. But then there are the well deserved Oscar Winning dance sequences by Seymour Felix.
The story follows the rise and fall of Flo Ziegfeld, broadway producer extraordinaire. We see the highs of lows of Ziegfeld’s life in “biz” and in love. It’s a Hollywood bio-pic, so you know some events will be glossed over. And the clichéd ending is, of course, completely ridiculous. But Powell’s portrayal of Ziggy tries to reflect some of the flaws in this “diamond” of a man. It’s a nice well rounded performance. If you enjoy his work, check out Criterion’s excellent DVD presentation of My Man Godfrey. And there are the Thin Man films, of course.
Ziegfeld is not a musical. It’s a movie with musical numbers. The dramatic sequences, at times, seem aimless and without purpose. So the three hour running time is a bit of stretch. But the style of the film seems to be a musical revue, road-show type. It’s not a style that we’re used to. So if you hang in there…there are some very memorable moments.
SLIGHT SPOILERS The most famous sequence in the film is the “Pretty Girl is Like a Melody” number. It was a stunner for its time. In terms of its audacity and garishness, the number has a high “how did they do that” factor. There’s also a number with Ray Bolger (the Scarecrow from Wizard of Oz). He does the splits…and let me tell you…it has to be seen to be believed.
Like Mutiny on the Bounty, The Great Ziegfeld is presented in a 1.33:1 fullscreen transfer. Edge enhancement is hardly evident. The transfer has noticeable scratches and grainy patches. One has to consider the source material, though. The film is almost 70 years old. But behind the grain and the scratches, MGM has done, I think, a marvelous job with the picture. Grey tones and blacks, for the most part, are rich. The dance sequences have a luster about them. I’m not sure, considering the age of the film, that a complete restoration could be done. I think this might be as good as it gets.
The Mono soundtrack sounds pretty good for its age. Hisses are there, but not a distraction. Voices are clear and crisp. And the singing sequences, which are important for a film with musical numbers, come in really strong, if not completely balanced.
There is a 13 minute documentary about the making of The Great Ziegfeld. It’s very charming. And the documentary is very even handed. It’s not just your typical, “the film is great ra-ra” featurette. A Ziegfeld family member is quite honest about the flaws of the film (in terms of the portrayal of Ziegfeld himself), and a Ziegfeld biographer has some nice details on the production history. But what is most striking in this piece is the appearance of Luise Rainer, alive. She must be over 90 years old. Rainer won two Oscars in a row in the mid 30’s, and then disappeared from the Hollywood scene. Her candor, about these episodes in her life, is quite touching.
There is also a 5 minute Movietone news reel at the premiere of The Great Ziegfeld. I really like this kind of stuff. And it’s odd that there’s no narration, but maybe we’re supposed to supply our own (which could be fun – try it). Hollywood personas come up to the microphone, unrehearsed, and say things about the film. I was surprised how relaxed the atmosphere was. There are many unrecognizable people that step up to the mic, but then there are people like a young Ed Sullivan and Harpo Marx, which is very cool. And the reel is, surprisingly, in great shape. Better shape then the film itself, actually. The menu has a good still picture from the movie, and there is music.
Okay…The Great Ziegfeld is not great. The video and audio are not up to the standards we’re used to, but this is a film almost 70 years old. I think MGM does a more than commendable job, considering. The “Intermission” and “Overture” portions are also classy touches. And if you’re a film buff, there are many worthwhile things to check out on this disc. The joy of film for me (at least one of the joys) is that movies are historical artifacts. The Great Ziegfeld is an excellent example of this. And hey…Fanny Brice and Will Rogers show up playing themselves. Where else could you see that except…heaven.
Special Features List
- “Ziegfeld on Film” (An all-new behind-the-scenes documentary)
- New York Hails The Great Ziegfeld (1936 newsreel)