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Warner Home Video presents
The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

"A pretty girl is like a melody,
That haunts you night and day..."

- Dennis Morgan, singing the popular Irving Berlin song

Review By: David Krauss   
Published: February 18, 2004

Stars: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Luise Rainer, Frank Morgan, Virginia Bruce, Reginald Owen, Ernest Cossart
Other Stars: Fanny Brice, Ray Bolger, Harriet Hoctor, William Demarest, Dennis Morgan
Director: Robert Z. Leonard

MPAA Rating: Not Rated for (nothing objectionable)
Run Time: 03h:05m:20s
Release Date: February 03, 2004
UPC: 012569512429
Genre: musical

Image Transfer
Audio Transfer
A- CC+C+ B-

DVD Review

In a year in which such classics as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, San Francisco, and A Tale of Two Cities vied for the hotly contested Best Picture crown, it might seem odd that MGM's sumptuous musical, The Great Ziegfeld, was awarded the coveted statuette. Or maybe not. Historically, the motion picture academy often favors style over substance, particularly when voting for Best Picture, and 1936 was no exception. For sheer theatrical spectacle, glamour, and girth, The Great Ziegfeld remains unmatched among 1930s musicals, but the eye-popping costumes, lavishly decorated sets, and elephantine production numbers can't mask the pervasive vacuity of this plodding, dreadfully bloated film.

That's heavy criticism for a Best Picture winner, but The Great Ziegfeld digs its own grave, as it squanders innumerable chances to captivate its audience. With its overture, entr'acte, and exit music restored, Robert Z. Leonard's production runs just over three hours, which is at least an hour too long, given the film's paucity of story elements. The life of extravagant showman Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., who devised the legendary Ziegfeld Follies Broadway revues of the 1910s and '20s, was not particularly interesting, and MGM fails to spice it up. On the contrary, the film severely waters down any unsavory aspects of Ziegfeld's character (such as his obsessive womanizing), leaving screenwriter William Anthony McGuire devoid of dramatic impetus. To fill the epic framework, scenes are stretched well beyond the limits of audience patience, with frivolous dialogue continually stalling the action.

Although The Great Ziegfeld set the standard for all future MGM musicals, it plays more like a pompous biopic, with its smattering of songs offering welcome diversion. In fact, more than 35 minutes transpire before the first musical number, during which time we witness the rise of Ziegfeld (William Powell) from a carnival barker at the Chicago World's Fair to a wily impresario who regularly experiences both dizzying success and financial ruin. On a trip to Europe, a penniless Ziegfeld discovers the temperamental, vain, yet radiant Parisian actress Anna Held (Luise Rainer, who won a Best Actress Oscar for her strikingly sensitive portrayal), and charms her into allowing him to produce her American debut. They eventually marry, but his penchant for chorus girls—most notably Audrey Dane (Virginia Bruce)—eventually ends their tempestuous romance. Myrna Loy portrays Ziegfeld's second wife, actress Billie Burke, and while she receives second billing, she doesn't appear until the third hour of the film—far too late for the patented Powell-Loy chemistry to perk up the proceedings. And in this sober, ponderous movie, anyone expecting the snappy repartée of Nick and Nora Charles will be brutally disappointed.

A few cameos by actual Ziegfeld performers breathe some life into the film, but the effects are fleeting at best. The rubbery Ray Bolger performs a delightful tap number flaunting his trademark elasticity, but it's Fanny Brice who steals the show in an amusing (and quite touching) recreation of her discovery. (Inexplicably—and unforgivably—the film cuts away from her signature song, My Man, in mid-verse.)

Still, it's a shame The Great Ziegfeld concentrates so intently on stuffy biography, because the film really shines, and often dazzles, when the Follies-style production numbers unfold. Dance director Seymour Felix obviously strives to emulate Busby Berkeley's synchronized choreography, but what the musical sequences lack in kaleidoscopic imagination, they make up for in opulence, the likes of which surely have never been equaled. You Never Looked So Beautiful Before spotlights some of the most outrageous costumes ever to grace the silver screen, but nothing can top the iconic treatment of Irving Berlin's A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody. Featured in the inaugural That's Entertainment! film, the number transforms a seemingly endless staircase into a gargantuan wedding cake, speckled with live mannequins, tuxedo-clad chorus boys, exotic dancers, even opera singers, all of whom somehow navigate the treachery of the continually revolving set. A masterwork of ingenuity and execution, A Pretty Girl signifies the essence of MGM gloss.

In its day, The Great Ziegfeld was one of the first "event" films (even including an intermission), and MGM poured money into it hand over fist. The studio sought prestige with a capital "P," and they got it, but the hype and hoopla surrounding the production undoubtedly influenced popular and critical impressions. Although scantily clad chorus girls, jewel-encrusted society women, and outlandish musical spectacles may have entranced Depression era viewers (and seduced Academy voters), today's audiences see such elements as little more than garish window dressing. As a historical relic, The Great Ziegfeld recalls a bygone, gilded era, but, unfortunately, like the Follies itself, its beauty is only skin deep.

Rating for Style: A-
Rating for Substance: C


Image Transfer

Aspect Ratio1.33:1 - Full Frame
Original Aspect Ratioyes

Image Transfer Review: The Great Ziegfeld could certainly benefit from a restoration, but one can understand why Warner vetoed such an expensive undertaking. Consequently, transfer quality ranges from above average to fair, with lengthy sequences forced to weather a veritable snowstorm of white specks, lines and scratches. Underneath the debris, the image is largely clear and crisp, although more variant gray levels would add depth and enhance contrast. Thankfully, the musical numbers enjoy a welcome vibrancy and remain largely immune to print defects.

Image Transfer Grade: C+


Audio Transfer

 LanguageRemote Access

Audio Transfer Review: As expected for a film of this vintage, the original mono track possesses plenty of audible hiss, yet it only distracts during the quietest of scenes. The musical numbers also exhibit a tinny quality, due to the primitive recording equipment. Dialogue, however, is always clear and comprehendible, and no incidents of distortion could be detected.

Audio Transfer Grade: C+


Disc Extras

Static menu with music
Scene Access with 50 cues and remote access
Subtitles/Captions in English, French, Spanish with remote access
1 Featurette(s)
Packaging: Snapper
Picture Disc
1 Disc
1-Sided disc(s)
Layers: single

Extra Extras:
  1. Newsreel footage of New York premiere
Extras Review: Two notable extras nicely frame the movie, the first of which is the all-new 13-minute featurette, Ziegfeld on Film. This making-of documentary offers background on Ziegfeld's childhood, as well as the evolution of his famed Follies, which were originally envisioned as a throwaway summer replacement show. We learn about the origins of The Great Ziegfeld and how the production was meticulously monitored by Ziegfeld's widow, actress Billie Burke, who ensured her late husband was presented in an accurate (and favorable) light. Still, Burke was reportedly displeased with the final product, although Ziegfeld's daughter Patricia believes the film properly represents her father's character and relationships with women. Highlighting the short film are feisty comments by 94-year-old actress Luise Rainer, who was heralded as the new Garbo when she arrived in Hollywood from Austria in the mid-1930s. In three years, she made eight films and won unprecedented back-to-back Best Actress Oscars (for The Great Ziegfeld and The Good Earth), but rapidly became disillusioned with the superficiality of Tinseltown and abandoned her stardom. "I needed to leave to save myself," she declares, but her vital, articulate appearance in this entertaining featurette proves she's a crusty survivor.

The second supplement is a four-minute newsreel clip chronicling the film's New York premiere, and featuring off-the-cuff comments from Cliff Edwards, Kitty Carlisle, and a very young Ed Sullivan. Harpo Marx also appears, but, predictably, does not speak.

Extras Grade: B-


Final Comments

It's tough to turn a cold shoulder to a Best Picture Oscar winner, but The Great Ziegfeld hasn't aged well, and its one-note story and interminable running time severely diminish its appeal. The film coasts along on the strength of its sumptuous (and deservedly acclaimed) musical numbers, but there just aren't enough of them to keep one interested and involved for three hours.


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