The Best Picture Project – The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

Directed by Robert Z. Leonard,

Screenplay by William Anthony McGuire

Starring William Powell, Luise Rainer, Frank Morgan and Myrna Loy

For the first time in this series – in what is my 50th post in this series – we start with a quiz.  From the list below, find the outlier and tell me why it’s the outlier:

2005 – Brokeback Mountain

1990 – Goodfellas

1982 – ET

1980 – Raging Bull

1979 – Apocalypse Now

1964 – Dr. Strangelove

1956 – Giant

1952 – The Quiet Man

1952 – High Noon

1951 – A Streetcar Named Desire

1950 – Sunset Boulevard

1948 – The Red Shoes

1948 – Treasure of the Sierra Madre

1946 – It’s A Wonderful Life

1944 – Double Indemnity

1941 – Citizen Kane

1936 – The Great Ziegfeld

Because it’s the subject of this post, you get no points for guessing the outlier in the list was The Great Ziegfeld.  However, you do get credit for knowing why it was the outlier: of the listed films, it was the only one to actually win the top prize at the Academy Awards, and doing so over other, more deserving nominated films (My Man Godfrey) and far more deserving un-nominated films (Modern Times).  In other words, the things that all the films but The Great Ziegfeld have in common is that they were arguably the most superior films of the years and but still managed to lose to an inferior film of the Ziegfeld.

In a large way I think the Academy clearly made it known – at least by implication – when it gave the Award just how skeptical it was of a film like The Great Ziegfeld taking the top prize.  After all, the movie is a biopic of Flo Ziegfeld, and should therefore live and die based upon the star’s performance as Ziegfeld – if the star crushes, the film takes home the gold and so does he, but if he fails, so does the film and everybody goes home empty-handed.  But while Powell was fine in this film, charming and rocking a pencil-thin moustache like nobody this side of John Waters, he did not receive an Academy Award Nomination for his role here, rather it was for My Man Godfrey, and even though I’d like to think winning Best Picture was the ultimate endorsement the Academy could give for Powell’s performance, I really think the fact he went un-nominated paints the film as one of the most embarrassing winners of the Best Picture Oscar.

And in the end, I think the film should be an embarrassment to the Academy.  After all, it’s rather sluggishly paced – it’s 176 minutes, for cripes sake – and bloated by a couple of excessively long, static and fairly stage-bound musical numbers that bring little excitement.  The worst offender of the musical numbers, in my eyes, fell about 90 minutes into the film and took place on a stage set up to look like a wedding cake.  This number went on and on and one for something like 10 minutes and felt like 10 hours and basically stopped the film dead.

Probably what made the musical numbers truly interminable for me is that the film is not a musical at all.  Of the stars, only Rainer sings, and really that’s only for comic effect and if it’s not a musical at all, the half-hour or so of musical numbers only serve to do one thing: make a 2 ¼ hour movie into nearly a 3 hour movie.

Today, the most celebrated, and really, the only memorable part of the film is the Louise Rainer phone call scene, in which her character, Anna Held, calls her ex-husband, Ziegfeld, to congratulate him on his new marriage.  The scene itself is certainly heartbreaking, but given its reputation, I expected the phone call to go one for several minutes, so the director could really milk every last drop of pathos and pain from the situation.  What surprised me, though, was just how short it was – the phone call itself lasts about 70 seconds total, which is all the time it took for Rainer to win herself an Oscar.

Unfortunately, while Rainer knocks this scene out of the park she was basically insufferable pretty much everywhere else.  She was brittle, lacked subtlety, and seemed to be overacting in what can best be described as a supporting performance.  Because it’s a supporting role, it’s strange she won Best Actress, a fact one can compare to Louise Fletcher winning in the same category for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest 40 years later: in a year without five strong Best Actress candidates, just promote the longest of the supporting players into the main category.  In this case, it was Rainer who got tapped to go to the big leagues, and like any good rookie, she swatted it out of the park.

The two bright spots in the film for me were in the supporting players.  The first was Frank Morgan – the Wizard from The Wizard of Oz – who was pitch perfect as Ziegfeld’s one-time rival and eventual backer/cheerleader Mr. Billings.  He was funny, beffuddled and charming all at the same time.  In other words, he perfectly added to the story, as a supporting player shoulder.

The other bright spot was Myrna Loy, but in this case it’s nothing to do with her performance, which basically called for her to show up and look pretty.  But, if that’s all she had to do, she did it perfectly, looking stunning all the way around.  It’s amazing to me sometimes just hoe good-looking old-time movie stars were, including a woman like Loy, who never really seemed to lose her classic beauty, even as she age.  I don’t want to belabour the point but, “Holy crap, what a gorgeous woman.”


Ziegfeld’s second wife, Billie Burke was played by Myrna Loy.  Billie Burke’s most notable film role was as the Glinda, the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz, which incidentally co-starred Frank Morgan, who had a role in this film.

For the list of other winners seen and those to go, click here.

Also, don’t be afraid to buy something I wrote.  Follow this link here for more info on buying my books.

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