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|Written by Kevin Johns|
|Monday, 28 February 2011 00:00|
The 9th Academy Awards ceremony was held on March 4, 1937 at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles, California. George Jessel served as host. Jessel was, at the time, a popular entertainer affectionately known as the "Toastmaster General of the United States," thanks to his frequent hosting of political and entertainment gatherings.
Following the previous year's boycott, the 9th annual ceremony saw the stars returning in droves. Suspense, however, was at a minimum, given that all the winner's names had been given to the press before the show so that east coast newspaper deadlines could be met!
MGM took back-to-back Best Picture wins by following up the 1935 Best Picture winner Mutiny on the Bounty with lavish musical and 1936 Best Picture winner The Great Ziegfeld. The film was part of a trend in biographical pictures in the mid-1930s, and 1936 Academy Awards ceremony saw two biopics contending for Best Picture (Ziegfeld and The Story of Louis Pasteur).
When asked about MGM's head honcho, Ziegfeld producer Hunt Stromberg said, "One thing I like about Louis B. Mayer . . . I went to him and told him the melody numbers of The Great Ziegfeld would cost $240,000, and he said, 'Shoot.'"
That quote tells you as much about the film as it does the famous studio head. Ziegfeld is a spectacle about spectacle. A three hour long, over the top musical melodramatic biopic about Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. - producer of a series of lavish Broadway reviews in the late 1920s, known as The Ziegfeld Follies, notorious for their beautiful chorus girls.
Early in the film, Ziegfeld notes, "I'm the funniest kind of fellow. I love all the girls," thereby establishing one of his major character flaws in the film. (The fact that he delivers this line to a child, who later seduces him once she comes of age, turns the creep factor up a few notches.)
What distinguishes Ziegfeld life's story from other rags to riches narratives is that the rise to fame is not a steady climb. It is, rather, a series of fits and starts that sees him rich today, broke tomorrow, on top of the world this year, back in the gutters the next (and always chasing down a beautiful girl of some kind).
There are some interesting points where Ziegfeld is able to manipulate media, in one case by leaking a fake story to the press about how his lead actress bathes in milk, but much of the drama is typical backstage theatre melodrama with cigar chomping producers out to make a buck and finicky lead actresses fighting to stay ahead of their understudies. (Oh, and it's at the one hour and seven minute point that we hit our first blackface number. . .)
William Powell turns in a fine performance as Ziegfeld, but it was his role in My Man Godfrey that earned him a Best Actor nomination that year. Godfrey was, in fact, the first film to earn acting nominations in all four acting categories, thanks to the newly introduced Best Supporting Actor and Best Supporting Actress categories (though it failed to win in each).
The only immediately recognizable cast member in Ziegfeld for modern audiences will likely be Frank Morgan, who plays Ziegfeld's rival and comrade through the years. Morgan is instantly recognizable as the Wizard of Oz himself, a role he would play only three years later.
German actress Luise Rainer won the Best Actress Oscar for her performance as Ziegfeld's first wife - a performance, by the way, that makes Greta Garbo's Grand Hotel performance look almost understated! It was the first of two (back-to-back) Oscars for Rainer; something she described as the worst thing that could have ever happened to her. Following the wins, expectations became too difficult to live up to for the young performer. Within three years, Rainer returned to Europe, ending her Hollywood career and making her, arguably, the first victim of the "Best Actress Curse" (which includes career decline and marriage or romantic dissolution following an Academy Award Best Actress win).
The Great Ziegfeld includes music by Walter Donaldson and Irving Berlin, original to the film. Berlin had worked with the actual Ziegfeld years before, and his music had been featured in The Ziegfeld Follies of 1918, 1919, and 1920. Some of the performers in the film had also appeared in the real life Follies, adding to the authenticity of the production numbers.
The recreation of Ziegfeld stage shows is, however, where the film both excels and ultimately fails. The musical numbers are undeniably spectacular but with beyond-lavish productions with massive sets, featuring two hundred chorus girls dancing up hundreds of steps, while thousands of yards of silk curtain rise up around them . . . the story tends to gets lost.
The film attempts to connect Ziegfeld's love of beautiful women with his beautiful stage shows, but the drama and the productions numbers feel oddly divorced from one another.
Strangely, the type of stage production recreated in the film was ultimately destroyed by the very cinema recreating it.
Not everyone can get to Broadway, but there is a cinema in every city! Even within the narrative of the film, Ziegfeld's final days are spent trying to lure his best actors back from Hollywood.
Today, when people think of lavish musical number, they think of the cinema of the late 30s and early 40s, meanwhile Ziegfeld and his Follies are all but forgotten. The film, then, is a cinematic celebration of an art form killed by filmmaking.
Rather than serve as an excellent example of 30s cinema, The Great Ziegfeld is an awkward tombstone for the already dead Broadway Reviews of the 1920s.
For More Info:
The Academy Awards: The Complete History of Oscar by Gail Kinn Jim Piazza, Black Dog and Leventhal Publishing Inc.
Previously in The Oscars Project: