Thank you to the makers of ‘The Great Ziegfeld’. This is how a biopic should be made.
The film tells the story in a pretty accurate (so I gather) way of Florenz Ziegfeld, from the 1893 Chicago’s World Fair, to his death in 1932. The audience see him make money, lose money, fall in love and promote the idea of the all American girl.
It is a mammoth film. It is sprawling in its length, contains massive production numbers and was an expensive and extravagant film to make in the middle of the depression.
William Powell plays Ziegfeld with authority throughout. Whereas his particular performance is not particularly memorable, he is steady throughout and delivers a safe portrayal of the theatrical master. Luise Rainer plays Anna Held, the French performer and Ziegfeld’s first wife with charm and sensitivity. She took the Oscar for her performance and it is largely felt that she won for one scene in particular, where she breaks down in tears whilst congratulating Ziegfeld on his second marriage over the telephone. The dramatic scenes are best when she is on screen, and this scene in particular is a highlight. Myrna Loy plays his second wife, Billie Burke, and although does not have the emotional impact of Rainer, was a good box office choice. Frank Morgan plays Billings, Ziegfeld’s friend and rival and delivers a fun, more light performance than the other leads.
The film is also great for star spotting. Most famously Fanny Brice and Ray Bolger appear on the stage for Ziegfeld.
The reason why this film is so good is that it not only tells a story with good acting, but it adds more to make it interesting, in the form of wonderful song and dance routines that add so much. With wonderful costumes, music by Berlin and inspired routines, these numbers break this epic into measurable chunks, making it largely, I think, a pretty fast paced film.
I cannot mention this film without mentioning ‘A Pretty Girl is like a Melody’. It is probably the best direction of a musical number that I can think of in the history of film. Following a short solo singing performance the curtains are gradually opened to reveal a large rotating spiral staircase full of dancers and performers. The production is over eight minutes long and taken in one shot, and it has got to be seen to be believed.
I know that this film usually hangs around the bottom of other Best Picture Ranks that I have seen, and I am at a loss to understand why. Maybe the subject doesn’t have modern appeal, maybe some find the length a little daunting, and maybe it is a little dated. However, I think that this is a stunning piece of cinema and any film makers looking for inspiration on how to make a biopic interesting and different, whilst still keeping authenticity could do worse than watch this little known winner.