Sunday, May 8, 2011

The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

"SHE is not good enough for MY follies!"

Nominees: "Anthony Adverse" "Dodsworth" "Libeled Lady" "Mr. Deeds Goes to Town" "Romeo and Juliet" "San Francisco" "The Story of Louis Pasteur" "A Tale of Two Cities" "Three Smart Girls"

He Said: Great for 1936, Great for 2011

So, a friend happened to be in Regina this past weekend (thanks again Mr. G) and he picked up a copy of The Great Ziegfeld for us from the library, helping me maintain my cheapassness and thus not having to buy the movie; here's hoping I am able to continue this trend as we watch these best picture flicks. Although, as shall soon be revealed, I wouldn't have minded actually owning this movie in the end. So, due to these circumstances we have postponed Crash in lieu of The Great Ziegfeld. And now on with the review.

I think I can sum this movie up with one word: fantastic. I was going into this movie thinking I would hate it. First of all, it is an old movie which I tend not to like as they are slow paced, have poor film and sound quality, and tend to have boring stories. Secondly it is about a man and his big Broadway musical productions, I generally hate Broadway musicals and anything to do with them. Lastly, it is about a man I have never heard of and don't really care about. Boy was I wrong on all accounts. This just goes to show you that you don't always need to keep an open mind, if the product is good enough.

So here is the plot briefly. It is about Florenz Ziegfeld. He starts off producing a small nothing strong man show at the Chicago fair. Then he hits it big when he lets a female audience member touch the strong man's arm and she nearly faints (yes this apparently actually happened in real life, at least according to the special features, see below) so he gets it in his head to change his strong man show a bit and off he goes on a round the country tour with his strong man Sandow. After this works for a while he then heads off to New York to start big time musical shows. Over the course of the three hours he constantly finds himself in dire need of money, in spite of his shows being a huge success. He is somehow able to procure the money from various sources, typically his friend and competitor Mr. Billings, but then wastes his earnings on extravagant gifts for the various women he is always trailing after. He gets married, divorced, and married again. And ultimately loses it all in the 1929 stock market crash. The odd part is how he repeatedly takes advantage of Mr. Billings, steals his girls multiple times, steals the limelight, and borrows tons of money and yet Mr. Billings is always by his side lending him money any time he needs it. Mr Billings even shows up at the end when Ziegfeld is on his death bed offering companionship and hope. As this is based on real life I can't help but admire their relationship in a way, and how in spite of the constant competition they are able to remain relatively close friends. Somehow I doubt this exists in life today with any friendly competition amongst bigwig businessmen.

The start of the film has this interesting heading during the opening credits: “Suggested by romances and incidents in the life of America's greatest showman, Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.” Romances is definitely a good word to describe his womanizing, if my life was anything like his I think my wife would kick my ass a few times over. Having seen a few of these older films recently, I decided that I definitely prefer the credits at the start of the movie, for some reason it makes the film seem tighter or better, not sure how to put it, but it is something that I prefer, perhaps quaint is a good word for it, maybe it conjures up a time of simpler days and more formal days without being too stuffy. Like I said, I like it but can't quite explain why or how.

The acting was terrific, writing was good, directing and editing terrific, the huge set pieces and 7 minute one take spiral staircase showpiece was utterly amazing. Amazing for now and certainly amazingly outstanding for 1936. This film is almost worth watching just for this one single piece, it is just so hard to fathom how they were able to do this some 70 years ago. Apparently this one set took months to build and cost some $200,000 and then shot in one fluid shot. I really do love the way they shot this movie and other older films and some of the new ones (think Tarantino); with long shots and single long takes. It really makes you feel like you're there and more like the feel of a play rather than a movie, and maybe that's what they were going for in this film since it is loosely based on a Broadway producer. This is so much easier to watch and more appealing than the quick shots and quick edits of the films in the past decade or so. I think those quick edits just feeds into our ever increasingly short attention span society, and frankly more often than not I find them headache inducing. Even the sound quality was amazing for the time, and I don't know how Oliver's! sound quality was so bad compared to this one and and yet Oliver! was filmed some thirty years later.

There are small points of criticism, like how Florenz Ziegfeld seems like such a manipulative so and so who but always seems to get his ways and in spite of this everyone likes him including the audience, charm I suppose. The French actress and first wife of Ziegfeld, Anna Held was a somewhat annoying character, being way too melodramatic at times. And then there is this little girl at the start of the movie who is his pretend wife just as a game, and then he appears later on all grown up and still in love with Ziegfeld. This is simply a bit of an ew moment, but luckily our hero Mr. Ziegfeld does the right thing and distances himself from her.

The only real big criticism I have is that I think the film somewhat assumes you know the general time frame history of Ziegfeld, as the movie never has any sort of dates attached to the events even though you clearly see him and the other characters age and the only real date qualifying event is the 1929 stock market crash. We ended up having to go onto Wikipedia afterwords to actually get a feel for when different events in his life happened just so I can put a context onto the time during the movie. It turns out, the movie starts when he is in his thirties in the late 1800's and ends just after the stock market crash. I think this would be worth a second watch, and definitely worth it even if you know the history of Ziegfeld, the production shots are amazing and it truly is a movie about the journey rather than the end.
Also on the DVD was a special featurette about the real Florenz Ziegfeld and how it compares to the movie. This was a very interesting added feature that shows how closely to real life the film is, of course with some dramatic changes here and there. But the neat thing is that in essence the film showed his life and what some of his Broadway productions were actually like.

This movie is excellent and I really do encourage everyone to watch.

Next up, this time Crash for real this time, yes Jesse the good crash.

She Said: Great Zeigfeld!! This movie rocked!

Okay, maybe rocked is a bit strong of a word, but I really liked it. Right away, I was totally intrigued by Ziegfeld, the womanizer with crazy dreams of dancing girls and stairs right up to heaven. He was just so charming: I kinda wanted to be a Zeigfeld Follie's girl too.

His favorite Ziegfeld Girls are as follows:
  1. A little girl who takes piano lessons at his father's music school who calls him "her fella" and shows up later to kiss him and beg for a job... a little freaky, but at least he resists her advances (though you do wonder for a bit if he will, the hound dog he is).
  2. Anna Held, a French singer played by a German starlet who he steals away from his arch rival/best friend, carts off to New York, turns into a big star, marries, and then 'cheats' on, causing her to leave, not because she doesn't love him (she does!) but in hopes that he will come back to her.
  3. Audrey Dane. The star he 'cheats' on Anna with, mostly by wooing her so that he can have another big hit broadway show... except she's a drunk and leaves him right after Anna does because he keeps telling her not to drink.
  4. Billie Burke, his 'true love', whom he meets and woos after Anna leaves him. He eventually marries her, has a daughter, and stays with her until he dies, after spending all their money and forcing her to work as a Broadway star to support him
  5. Fanny Brice, played by Fanny Brice. I love her nose. He's not really in love with her, but he does sign her as a Ziegfeld girl and help make her a star. Did I mention I love her nose?
  6. Me. I wish.
Kurt's already gone into all the fancy sets and dance numbers and stuff, which frankly, I found visually amazing but a bit boring... the middle part of the movie kind of dragged a bit for me. As impressive as the sets were, and totally Oscar worthy, I wanted to get back to the story of these people. Thank goodness it ends firmly in the story, with Florenz Zeigfeld penniless and dying, but surrounded by people who thought he was pretty great.

Verdict: The Academy was right!

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