While Broadway is considered the pinnacle of a performer’s career, in the early twentieth century the Ziegfeld Follies were the pinnacle of Broadway. These lavish shows featured comedy acts, music, and dancing. Most famously of all, there were women in strategically skimpy and unusual costumes walking down stairs as if descending from heaven. To be a Ziegfeld girl was to be made. Speaking of made, MGM and Ziegfeld Follies were made for each other, as they both liked a big splash. The first time they came together was in 1936’s The Great Ziegfeld, a gigantic, albeit fictionalized biopic of Florenz Ziegfeld, the man behind the curtain.
The movie opens at the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. Two barkers, Florenz Ziegfeld (William Powell) and Jack Billings (Frank Morgan) are competing for their audience, and Ziegfeld’s strongman, Sandow (Nat Pendleton) just can’t compare with Billings’s Egyptian dancing girls. Ziegfeld is desperate. He offers to combine shows with Billings, who won’t hear of it, because he thinks Flo is a flake who likes the ladies too much.
Sandow wonders what Egyptian ladies have that he doesn’t have, and he does this weird, flex-y thing with his biceps, meaning, he can move just his bicep muscles in rhythm. Seriously, it’s creepy. When a lady swoons after feeling Sandow’s muscles, Flo has a revelation. Billings may have pretty girls, but Ziegfeld has novelty.
Ziegfeld, hereafter referred to as Flo, has Sandow stand outside and flex, telling the onlookers they will not only see what Sandow can do, but they’ll get to come up and touch him. The crowds flock around like bees to honey, and suddenly the act is a success. Flo takes the show to New York, where, among other brawny feats, Sandow lifts up platforms with ponies and suitcases on them. The act is such a big deal that they go on the road, and no one can eclipse them.
Well, almost no one. Flo and Sandow are finally derailed by a fight between a bear and a lion in San Francisco. Flo calls up the local humane society and tips them off about the match, then appropriates the lion to fight Sandow. The audience holds its collective breath, the lion comes out of its cage…then lays down and goes to sleep.
After that, Sandow goes into the legitimate theater, and Flo casts around for his next scheme. He meets up with Jack in London, and follows him to the Palace Music Hall, where Parisian Anna Held (Louise Rainer) is the featured performer. Flo and Jack sit in opposing boxes, and Jack is chagrined when he sees how charmed Anna is with Flo.
Flo talks Anna into coming to New York and appearing in his new show, where he gets mixed reviews from theater-goers and a mounting debt. However, Flo is a master public relations man. He sends twenty gallons of milk a day to Anna and lets it get around that she bathes in it for her skin. Anna is horrified, but the women of New York love the idea, and she becomes a trendsetter.
With Anna now a success, Flo decides to mount an even bigger production. He goes to see Jack, who, ironically, is now working for a producer named Mr. Erlanger (Paul Irving), and tells him his idea. He needs Mr. Erlanger to be his backer, because he wants to put on a show with lots of beautiful women, but it won’t be a typical girlie show. He’ll cast women he finds anywhere he can, even if they aren’t actresses or dancers, and they’re going to be costumed so the people in the back row can see them. There will be curtains and lace, of course, and stairs to walk down. These women will be glorified. Jack sputters out that Flo’s idea is folly, and Flo gets a lightbulb over his head. Yes. Ziegfeld Follies.
The show opens in 1907 to great fanfare, and features real Ziegfeld veterans Will Rogers and Eddie Cantor. The latter was in blackface, unfortunately, but it was acceptable at the time. Ray Bolger plays himself as a stagehand who’s plucked from the prop department to sing and dance at Flo’s rooftop show in his trademark vigorous fashion. He even does the splits just like when he played a certain other, not-so-brainless character three years later.
Oh, and we can’t forget all those girls. The first time we see them onstage, it’s the famous wedding cake sequence, with Dennis Morgan singing Irving Berlin’s “A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody,” with shades of Gershwin’s “Rhapsody In Blue” thrown in for good measure. The number is truly impressive, as the cake set and the scores of beautiful women seem to go on forever. It’s typical Ziegfeld and MGM style, and seems like a finale, but it’s only the beginning. The rooftop show is no less spectacular, but more intimate, with the ladies hidden by balloons that the audience has to pull off. The leading lady is Audrey (Virginia Bruce), who wants to be a star badly, but her drunken antics put a stop to that idea.
It wouldn’t be a Ziegfeld show without at least one parade of those outlandish costumes. They defy description, so I’ll let this clip do the talking for me:
Meanwhile, Anna is on the sidelines watching all of this happen, and she suspects Flo has a wandering eye. One night she walks in on Audrey kissing Flo in her dressing room. Audrey’s drunk, and the kiss is entirely one-sided, but Anna leaves Flo anyway.
Flo is heartbroken, but he does eventually move on. At a party, he meets a young ingenue (Billie Burke), who’s there with Jack, whose only task seems to bring girls around for Flo to poach. When Flo introduces himself, he doesn’t tell her his last name. She trolls him right back, and before long, they get married. They have a little girl, too, Patricia (Joan Holland), and their home life is a happy one. Meanwhile, Flo produces more Follies.
It’s a funny thing about show business: One minute things are up, and the next, they’re lower than low. Flo goes from being flat broke to flush with success and back again. His stars go to Hollywood. His plays flop while his Follies flourish. Flo’s shows introduce classic songs to America, such as “Old Man River,” and he’s still a major influence on Broadway today.
Flo is tenacious about bouncing back and coming up with more ideas, but even his strength ends up failing him. He laments that he’ll have nothing to leave anyone, and his valet reminds him, “You leave them the memories of the finest things ever done on the stage, sir. You leave them a name they can be proud of all their lives.”
Florenz Ziegfeld died in 1932, four years before The Great Ziegfeld was released. The film changed some details about Ziegfeld’s life, such as his relationship with Anna Held. The two of them lived together and told people they considered themselves married, but they never had a formal wedding ceremony. Held was a devout Catholic, divorced from her first husband, and she didn’t want to deal with all the hoops one has to jump through when a Catholic gets divorced. This was very convenient for Ziegfeld, as he liked playing the field. Not surprisingly, the informal union didn’t last.
The costumes in the film were fairly accurate, but they were much more substantial or less quirky than the actual ones worn. Also, the costume designer, Adrian, may have had his own ideas of what the Follies sequences should look like.
William Powell is a perfect Ziegfeld, playing the role with a sparky optimism not unlike his turn as Nick Charles. He effectively shows Ziegfeld going from a young upstart to an ailing but still feisty showman, and has great chemistry with his two female leads, especially Myrna Loy’s Billie Burke. Loy doesn’t imitate Burke’s musical voice; instead, she brings a lot of herself into the role, focusing on what a strong and loving wife Burke was for Ziegfeld. Louise Rainer isn’t too shabby, either–her deeply dramatic diva is somehow also restrained, even in the worst of times. I kept waiting for her to throw something at Ziegfeld’s head, but she doesn’t. That was Virgnia Bruce’s job. Well, she smashed Ziegfeld’s ceramic elephant, anyway, after he fired her.
The Great Ziegfeld clocks in at just over three hours, and it needs every minute. When a life and a show are this massive, it deserves a lot of time, and this one is a pleasure.
Have a look on my site for more Broadway from our lovely contributors, and come back tomorrow for Day Two. Another Ziegfeld post is on the way! Thanks for reading, all…
This film is available on DVD from Amazon.