Musical Monday: The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 600. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
The Great Ziegfeld (1936) – Musical #214

Studio: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Robert Z. Leonard

William Powell, Myrna Loy, Luise Rainer, Frank Morgan, Virginia Bruce, Reginald Owen, Nat Pendleton, Ernest Cossart, Joseph Cawthorn, Jean Chatburn, Herman Bing, Raymond Walburn, Thomas Clarke (uncredited), Mickey Daniels (uncredited), Williams Demarest (uncredited), Ann Gillis (uncredited), Ruth Gillette (uncredited), Joan Holland (uncredited), Suzanne Kaaren (uncredited), Dennis Morgan (uncredited), Dennis O’Keefe (uncredited), Buddy Doyle (uncredited)
Themselves: Fanny Brice, Ray Bolger, Harriet Hoctor
Ziegfeld Girls: Wanda Allen, Lynn Bailey, Monica Bannister, Lynn Bari, Bonnie Bannon, Sheila Browning, Edna Callahan, Diane Cook, Pauline Craig, Hester Dean, Susan Fleming, Virginia Grey, Mary Halsey, Jeanne Hart, Patricia Havens-Monteagle, Marcia Healy, Margaret Lyman, Frances MacInerney, Julie Mooney, Pat Nixon, Carlita Orr, Claire Owen, Wanda Perry, Evelyn Randolph, Venita Varden, Dolly Verner

Fictional musical biography of Broadway impresario, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. (Powell). The film chronicles his rise from carnival barker to one of the United States’ most powerful entertainment figures in the United States. It also includes his romances and marriages to Anna Held (Rainer) and Billie Burke (Loy).

• Billie Burke, actress and wife of Ziegfeld, worked as a technical advisor on the film.

• Dennis Morgan (billed as Stanley Morner) was supposed to be the person singing “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” but due to an illness, he is dubbed by Allan Jones.

• The “Pretty Girl” number had 182 dancers and extra and cost $225,000, according to the book Ziegfeld: The Man Who Invented Show Business by Ethan Mordden.

• Ray Bolger’s first feature-length film. Bolger’s character was modeled after Jack Donahue.

• Frank Morgan’s character was supposed to be like Charles Dillingham, a Broadway producer.

• Several real-life performers are represented in this film, including Buddy Doyle as Eddie Cantor, A.A. Trimble as Will Rogers, and Ruth Gillette as Lillian Russell.

• The character Sally Manners, performed by Rosina Lawrence, is supposed to be Marilyn Miller. Audrey Dane, played by Virginia Bruce, is supposed to be Lillian Lorraine.

• One of 14 films co-starring William Powell and Myrna Loy

• In 1933, Universal obtained permission from Billie Burke to make a film on Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.’s life. However, the film became too costly for Universal, and the studio negotiated with Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer to take over the project. Universal had already planned on William Powell leading as Ziegfeld, which MGM had to keep when they took over the film, according to the book, Ziegfeld and His Follies: A Biography of Broadway’s Greatest Producer by Cynthia Brideson and Sara Brideson.

• Adrian’s costume designs were overseen by Ziegfeld costume designer John Harkrider, according to the Brideson book.

• Ziegfeld star Marilyn Miller was going to be cast in the film, but she demanded $50,000 for a film appearance and top billing. MGM didn’t want to give her top billing, so instead, they paid her $10,000 to cast another actress as Miller. They had to change Miller’s name to Sally Manners, because she said she would sue, according to the Brideson book.

• Margaret Perry and Jean Chatburn both tested for the role of Billie Burke, according to the Brideson book.

• The lavish costumes, sets and musical numbers.

Notable Songs:
• “It’s Delightful to Be Married” performed by Luise Rainer
• “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” performed by Dennis Morgan, dubbed by Allan Jones
• “You Gotta Pull Strings” performed by the chorus
• “You” performed by the chorus
• “You Never Looked So Beautiful” performed by the chorus and Virginia Bruce
• “My Man” performed by Fanny Brice

Filming “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody”

My review:
When it comes to legends of the stage, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. is one of the pillars.

Frequently referred to in films, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer cornered the market with films about the Broadway producer over 10 years. “The Great Ziegfeld” (1936) was the first of three films MGM released focused on Florenz Ziegfeld. The others were Ziegfeld Girl (1941) and The Ziegfeld Follies (1946), which features William Powell.

This fictionalized biographical musical stars William Powell as Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. It shows his start in carnivals and his rise to top Broadway impresario in the 1910s and 1920s. His shows were known for “glorifying the American girl,” with wildly elaborate costumes and magnificent sets.

Running at three hours, “The Great Ziegfeld” is a mammoth of a musical, with 13 musical numbers, hundreds of extras and stars some of MGM’s top stars.

MGM couldn’t name each Ziegfeld star by name that it references due to potential legal repercussions. However, it references many of Ziegfeld’s top players. The story of his career is segmented by each of these performers:
• Sandow the Great (played by Nat Pendleton) – Represents Ziegfeld’s early career in carnival
• Anna Held (played by Louise Rainer) – The rise of Ziegfeld’s career and building himself as an impresario. Also, Held was his first wife, though in real life, they weren’t married.
• Audrey Dane (played by Virginia Bruce), Fanny Brice and Ray Bolger – Ziegfeld’s great success with the “Ziegfeld Follies” and glorifying the American girl. Brice is the only performer playing herself here. Audrey Dane is supposed to be Lillian Lorraine, who Ziegfeld had an affair with. However, in the film, Ziegfeld and Dane have a flirtation, but it is only touched on. Ray Bolger has his own name, but he is supposed to be Jack Donahue.
• Marilyn Miller (named Sally Manners, played by Rosina Lawrence) and Billie Burke (played by Myrna Loy) – after Audrey leaves his show, he continues with new stars like Sally Manners/Marilyn Miller. He marries Billie Burke, and reinvents his shows again with musical shows like Show Boat (1927), Whoopee! (1928), and The Three Musketeers (1928).

The biographical film did gloss over aspects of Ziegfeld’s life, and MGM studio head “Louis B. Mayer preferred ‘confecting, not reflecting,'” according to the book Ziegfeld and His Follies: A Biography of Broadway’s Greatest Producer by Cynthia Brideson and Sara Brideson.

However, while I understand not every aspect of Flo Ziegfeld’s life is included, and other areas are softened, there is so much crammed into three hours that I’m not sure what else they would include. This easily could have become a four-hour film.

“The Great Ziegfeld” is such a gigantic film, that naturally the behind the scenes work was also complex.

The story first switched studio hands. And then many people didn’t want to be included in the film. Broadway star Marilyn Miller was approached for the film but had exorbitant demands, such as wanting to have top billing. Though successful on stage, Miller’s charm didn’t translate on film, and she was only in three films from 1929 to 1931. I think it’s a bit ridiculous that Miller requested such high demands. One wonders what would have happened had Miller been in the film, though she died the same year it was released. Since they weren’t able to make a deal, Miller said she would sue if her name was used, and a fake name was used for a young blond ballet dancer in the film.

A lawsuit did follow the film’s release, though not from Marilyn Miller. Farida Mahzar, who was Little Egypt in a carnival show, sued because the film insinuated that her act was lewd.

For casting William Powell as Ziegfeld and Myrna Loy as Billie Burke, it had less to do with the two actors looking or acting like the real people and had more to do with the chemistry that they had established in their other films.

Actress Billie Burke, best known for her role of Glenda the Good Witch in “Wizard of Oz,” was the technical advisor for the film. Burke said Loy looked nothing like her, and Burke’s daughter Patricia said that her mother was very protective of Flo Ziegfeld’s image. Though she admitted that Powell was nothing like Ziegfeld, Burke approved of his portrayal, according to the Ziegfeld book. However, the film has it that Burke married Ziegfeld near the end of his career. In actuality, they were married in 1914 until his death in 1932.

Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. and Billie Burke and William Powell and Myrna Loy as Ziegfeld and Burke

While some reviews put down “The Great Ziegfeld” as MGM musical fluff and an inaccurate portrayal of Ziegfeld, I think it’s impressive – particularly on a technical level.

Today with films, we are used to every technological advantage there is – from recreating the image of a dead actor to creating whole film sets on a computer. But consider 1936 and how close that was to the dawn of sound. It had only been seven years. And consider those 1929 musicals, such as “Tanned Legs” or “Broadway Melody of 1929.” They didn’t know how to stage a dance number or even weave songs into the plot.

Then seven years later, elaborate Ziegfeld numbers are being recreated and skillfully shot to give you the full feeling of how magnificent they were. That improvement of the movie musical in just a short amount of time is impressive.

Outside of that, this is a long but thoroughly entertaining film. William Powell is as suave as ever, Luise Rainer effectively plays a temperamental Anna Held, and Myrna Loy (who appears much later in the film) is wonderful as always.

One funny note – is you see Dennis Morgan but don’t hear his tenor voice – that’s Allan Jones singing “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody.”

And if you make a double feature and watch “Ziegfeld Girl” (1941) after this one, you may recognize some of the footage of musical numbers recycled.

It’s also fun to pick out who is playing what historic performer and marvel at the costumes. Give it a shot before disregarding this one. It’s entertaining – and impressive.

Awards and Nominations:
• “The Great Ziegfeld won Best Picture
Luise Rainer won the Academy Award for Best Actress in a lead role.
• Seymour Felix won Best Dance Direction for “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody.”
• Robert Z. Leonard was nominated for Best Director
• William Anthony McGuire was nominated for Best Writing, Original Story
• Cedric Gibbons, Eddie Imazu and Edwin B. Willis were nominated for Best Art Direction
• William S. Gray was nominated for Best Film Editing

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1 thought on “Musical Monday: The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

  1. No matter how many times (actually uncountable at this point) that I have seen The Great Ziegfeld, I remain endlessly agog at the lavishness of its production numbers, most especially the slow-climbing, spiral-shaped platform on which turn the loveliest of the lovelies in the famous MGM firmament, all the while serenaded by Allan Jones looking for all the world like Dennis Morgan, until this multi-tiered wedding cake of all wedding cakes reaches its apex with the beauty of Virginia Bruce. If I am not mistaken, this turntable-like structure (could have been recycled from this 1936 production and used for Frank Sinatra’s wistful rendition,of “Old Man River” in the !946 Ziegfeld Follies. A small quibble: As much as I love this sparkly, over-stuffed extravaganza, I just wish that director Leonard would not have chosen to cut away from the great Fanny Brice before she concluded her immortal “My Man” number just to hear some inane banter of the principals seated in the back row of a Broadway theater. I just love this blog and I thank you for writing it.


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