Tuesday, March 9, 2010

The Great Ziegfeld: Ars Gratia Artis

Director: Robert Z. Leonard

Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Luise Rainer, Frank Morgan, Ray Bolger, Fanny Brice

Studio: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Total Oscars: 3 (Best Picture, Best Actress—Luise Rainer, Best Dance Direction—“A Pretty Girl Is like a Melody”) out of 7 nominations (Best Director, Best Original Screenplay, Best Art Direction, Best Editing)

Art for art’s sake. That is the English translation of the Latin motto encircling Leo the Lion of the MGM logo. For The Great Ziegfeld—not at all coincidentally a MGM picture—that motto has the utmost veracity.

The Great Ziegfeld is one of the more unique films I have ever seen. Nominally, the film is a biopic with early 20th century Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld as its subject. Chronicling the rise and decline of Ziegfeld, the film documents his two loves—the women in his life and the spectacular Broadway productions he masterminded. Ziegfeld’s women—particularly Anna Held—and his shows are in this film rendered with immense artistic quality. Luise Rainer (the oldest surviving Oscar winner who celebrated her 100th birthday this year) makes an astonishing debut as Held, and the recreation of Ziegfeld’s shows simply must be seen to be believed.

The crucial problem with the film is exactly what I liked best about it. Rainer is transcendent as Held and the song and dance numbers are so spectacular that they completely overshadow the story of Ziegfeld. The musical numbers are especially superfluous, ballooning the running time of the picture to an unnecessary three hours and six minutes. Instead having a spotlight shine on Ziegfeld, the film ultimately becomes a celebration of artistry itself, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Let’s delve into the biopic part of the picture. The story very much takes a “rise and fall” approach with the life of Florenz Ziegfeld. Ziegfeld (Powell) is shown to us at the start of the film as a young man, at odds with his father, who is the headmaster of a music conservatory. “Flo”, as he is referred to, is a carny. His big attraction at the Chicago World’s Fair is the strongman Sandow, but his rival (Frank Morgan, best known as Oz from The Wizard of Oz) is pulling in a far vaster audience with his exotic “Egyptian” girl show. Everything changes when Ziegfeld learns how to exploit the strongman. An elderly woman asks to feel his muscles, becomes titillated, and the light bulb goes off over Ziegfeld’s head. Sandow makes Ziegfeld rich, though he is shown to have a penchant for squandering his fortune.

Eventually, Ziegfeld makes it to Europe. He sees Anna Held (Rainer) sing, and becomes immediately smitten. Penniless though he may be—and facing stiff competition from the Frank Morgan character—Flo is able to woo Held to sign with him. This is one of the more unbelievable (though based on true events) parts of the story, as Held is presented as rational and in control—and smartly played by Rainer. She doesn’t even seem to like Ziegfeld, but yet she too is captivated by him. Ziegfeld makes her a huge star shortly after they return stateside, but he resorts to pulling stunts like telling the press Held takes milk baths to look beautiful in order to keep her name in the papers. If Ziegfeld has a true talent, it is promotion. Though Held objects to being objectified, the pair marries.

Ziegfeld has greater ambitions. He wishes to create a show dedicated to “glorifying the American girl”, and invents his Follies—a song and dance revue featuring beautiful women in spectacular and ornate costumes. It is here that the film veers, as whole parts of Ziegfeld’s Follies are recreated on film. The acts themselves contribute nothing to the screenplay, but costume lovers have a feast of eye candy to drool over, dance lovers will have breathtaking routines to admire, and the music is pleasant to all ears. Besides, there is true, extraordinary talent on display.

Ray Bolger—best known as the Scarecrow (another Oz alumnus) is one of the talents showcased. He plays himself in the film, and if you’ve only seen him as the Scarecrow, you’ll marvel at his rubber-legged tap routine here:

Fanny Brice is also featured in the film—in one of her few film appearances, and when you watch the movie, you’ll understand why Barbara Streisand was an ideal choice to play Brice in Funny Girl (a role for which Streisand won an Oscar). There are also several elaborate musical numbers, the piece de resistance being the performance of “A Pretty Girl Is like a Melody”.

The number begins with Dennis Morgan (dubbed by Allan Jones), singing the song onstage. As the huge curtain slowly opens, a tiered, rotating platform (my wife says it looks like a cupcake) begins to rotate, and girls, clowns, dancers, a big band—nearly every kind of performer imaginable—adds something to the act as the platform slowly spirals upward. At the top is a girl in an ornately feathered gown, then the camera pulls back to reveal the magnificence of the entire set as viewed from the highest seats in the theater. It is a truly breathtaking sequence—the most expensive MGM filmed at the time—and although it has absolutely nothing to do with Ziegfeld’s story (aside from his masterminding of the idea) the magic of performance and spectacle is captured on film. You can view it here:

Eventually, Ziegfeld’s marriage to Held disintegrates—mostly because Flo is a cad who simply cannot keep his dick in his pants. Not with all of the beauties he has ready access to. They divorce, but a scene where Held tries to reconnect with him is achingly played by Rainer.

And now a digression on Luise Rainer, if you don’t mind. The Viennese actress’ greatest admirer was Irving Thalberg, who insisted on casting the relative unknown in The Great Ziegfeld. Her screentime in the film is brief, but the telephone scene has such immediate impact that it sealed a Best Actress victory for her. Rainer won in the subsequent year, playing a mute Chinese peasant in an adaptation of Pearl Buck’s The Good Earth. The roles—one chatty, the other silent—proved her incredible range and defined Rainer as a serious actress. Thalberg died in 1937, and with Rainer’s champion gone, she made only a few more films for MGM. Louis B. Mayer tried to typecast her, but Rainer resisted his efforts and insisted on quality material and a higher salary. Mayer’s response: “We made you and we are going to destroy you.” Mayer never got the chance, as Rainer quit the business in 1938. On leaving the business, she commented, “I talked serious instead of with my eyelashes and Hollywood thought I was cuckoo.” She told Mayer: “Mr. Mayer, I must stop making films. My source has dried up. I work from the inside out, and there is nothing inside to give." For Rainer, integrity as an artist meant more than commercial success.

I greatly admire this decision, and the rest of her life was filled with adventure. She had two marriages; helped victims of the Spanish Civil War, helped playwright Bertolt Brecht escape the Nazis by obtaining a visa simply because she “loved his poetry”, studied medicine, lived in New York and Europe, and lived life on her own terms. Perhaps this is what is still keeping Rainer alive today, at the age of 100!

The last third of The Great Ziegfeld follows Flo’s final marriage to Billie Burke (a Follies girl who would most famously be known as Glinda the Good Witch—yet another Oz connection in this film). Burke is played by Myrna Loy, who costarred with Powell in fourteen features (most notably as Dashiell Hammett’s crime solving married couple Nick and Nora Charles, whom Powell and Loy played in The Thin Man and its five sequels). Flo finally finds true and equal companionship, but his financial mismanagement catches up to him and his shows become less popular. Ziegfeld vows to be on top again, and he opens four shows on Broadway at the same time, but the stock market crash of 1929 proves to be his ultimate doom.

Ziegfeld’s story is the story of how to make a buck in America, and I think every successful businessman also needs to be part showman. The story—though presented in a clich├ęd, predictable manner, has many modern day parallels. I couldn’t help but think of Vince McMahon—owner of World Wrestling Entertainment—in Ziegfeld. Both men have a knack for exploitation, showmanship, manipulation of the media, and self-promotion. Both men rose up out of the shadow their fathers cast, eventually eclipsing them. There is also a whole lot of Flo Ziegfeld in Harvey Weinstein.

His story is also about a love affair with art and spectacle, and the thrill of an audience that delights in being entertained. Though Bolger’s tap dancing, Brice’s comedy, and a huge, twirling platform filled with dozens of singers, musicians and dancers contribute nothing to the forward momentum of Ziegfeld’s story, a film about Ziegfeld’s life would not be whole unless the acts he loved were also celebrated. The story meanders and often stops dead in its tracks to show us yet another recreation of Ziegfeld’s Follies, but there is an awesome power in seeing the past preserved and come to life. Where the rules of screenwriting and filmmaking become broken, art is triumphant. Art for art’s sake indeed.

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