Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer; the difference is that between biography and
autobiography. So thoroughly Ziegfeldian is The Great Ziegfeld, which had its
premiere at the Astor Theatre last night, that it would be easy to pretend it
had been produced by the Great Glorifier himself rather than by Hunt
Stromberg. For the picture has the opulence, the lavishness, the
expansiveness, and the color of the old Follies; it has the general
indifference to humor which was one of Ziegfeld's characteristics; and it has
the reverential approach with which, we suspect, Mr. Ziegfeld might have
handled his own life story.
That story is a full three hours in the telling and, if you have an interest
in the sordid financial details, it is reported to have cost Metro about
$500,000 an hour. The budget shows on the screen. It is there in the cast,
with William Powell, Myrna Loy, Luise Rainer, Virginia Bruce, Frank Morgan,
Fannie Brice, Ray Bolger, Reginald Owen, Ernest Cossart, Harriet Hoctor, and
the many others who prompted the studio's weaker students of astronomy to
advertise their wares with a "more stars than there are in the heavens"
slogan. It is there, too, in the glittering sets, the exuberantly extravagant
song and dance numbers, the brilliant costumes, the whole sweeping panoply of
a Ziegfeld show produced with a princely disregard for the cost accountant.
What William Anthony McGuire has attempted in his screenplay, and with
general success, is to encompass not merely the fantastic personal history of
Ziegfeld but the cross-sectional story of the development of the Follies,
the Midnight Frolic on the New Amsterdam Roof, and the other theatrical
enterprises floated under the Glorifier's aegis during a span of about forty
years. The two biographies-of the man and of his creations-are, naturally,
inseparable; but both have been told with such wealth of detail and
circumstance (real and imaginative) that even the three-hour film narrative
is fragmentary and, in some places, confused.
The picture begins with Ziegfeld (portrayed by Mr. Powell) exhibiting Sandow,
the strong man, on the Chicago midway, and it follows him as he progresses
from sideshow entrepreneur to head of his vast theatrical enterprises. The
history devotes ample footage to his meeting with Anna Held (Luise Rainer),
their romance and parting; to his launching of the Follies in 1907; his
alternate rise and fall on the tides of fortune; his marriage to Billie Burke
(here Miss Loy); his bankruptcy; and his death almost four years ago after
staging a successful comeback.
Although it has been screened with a chromatic eye for detail and setting and
has been enlivened by the performances of its players, this phase of the film
might-it seemed to me-have been abridged by producer Stromberg and Robert Z.
Leonard, its director, to admit more such incidents as the briefly narrated
but rousingly comic hiring of Fannie Brice, the dancing of Ray Bolger, and
the presentation of some other well-known alumnae and alumni of the Ziegfeld
shows. It was unfortunate that Eddie Cantor had to be represented by a proxy
(Buddy Doyle) and we would have been better pleased without A. A. Trimble's
impersonation of Will Rogers. A glimpse of W. C. Fields would have been
perfect, but Metro probably couldn't arrange everything.
Adhering to its Ziegfeldian tenets, however, the picture achieves its best
moments in the larger sequences devoted to the Girls-ballet, chorus, and
show. At least one of these spectacular numbers, filmed to the music of
Irving Berlin's "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody," with overtones of "Rhapsody
in Blue," never has been equaled on the musical comedy stage or screen. And
some of the others, notably the circus ballet led by Harriet Hoctor, are
scarcely less effective. The score generally was plucked from the catalogue
of hits in the old Ziegfeld shows and contains, as well, "Yiddle on Your
Fiddle" and "My Man," sung by Fannie Brice, and "I Wish You'd Come and Play
with Me" and "It's Delightful to Be Married," sung rather pleasantly by Miss
Confronted with a film of this size-not merely in volume, but in its
Croesus-like treatment-it is almost impossible to remain critically detached.
If the picture overcrowds its screen, at least we must admit it is an
impressive kaleidoscope; and probably nothing short of that could reflect the
gaudy career of America's foremost showman.
Mr. Powell's portrayal is no less attractive than it is flattering to the
original. Miss Loy is a stately Billie Burke, and somewhat lacking, we fear,
in Miss Burke's effervescence and gaiety. Miss Rainer continues to justify
the epithet winsome, but is inclined to emotional excesses which are not
entirely justified and frequently were extremely trying. Frank Morgan is
splendid, as usual, as Billings, a composite of several Broadway theatrical
producers, and there is valuable assistance from Virginia Bruce, as an
equally composite showgirl; from Reginald Owen as Ziegfeld's business
manager; and Ernest Cossart as his valet." (Frank S. Nugent, New York Times,
April 9, 1936)