8.07.2014

Blogging Best Picture: 1936, "The Great Ziegfeld"



The Great Ziegfeld is tough going, mainly because it’s long.  As in, at least ninety minutes too long.  At the time, it set a record for the longest sound film ever made in Hollywood.  (It runs 185 minutes and includes an overture, entr’acte, and exit music, in case you’re wondering.)  A biopic about the long and fabled career of Broadway showman Flo Ziegfeld, he of Follies fame, it stars William Powell as the man himself, Luise Rainer (who won a Best Actress Oscar) as his first wife Anna Held, and Myrna Loy as Billie Burke, who became the second Mrs. Ziegfeld—and who was, of course, still working as a Hollywood actress in 1936, which I find hilariously weird.  (Can you imagine a modern-day equivalent? “Jennifer Lawrence as Edie Falco in The James Gandolfini Story!”)  But one of the weirdest things of all about The Great Ziegfeld is the way in which it pays homage to cultural forms (here, vaudeville and the musical revue) that the movies effectively worked to supplant, but to which they also remained indebted.  There would be no Busby Berkeley, no Broadway Melody or Gold Diggers, without Ziegfeld—and yet by 1936 Busby Berkeley and Broadway Melody had already begun to render Ziegfeld’s chorus lines and stage spectacles outdated and irrelevant.  It’s a little bit like the way Cecil B. DeMille’s The Greatest Show On Earth (Best Picture 1952) stages a cinematic spectacle that’s supposed to make people long for the good old days when people went to the circus instead of the movies, or something. 

Want to know the weirdest thing about the 1936 Oscars?  My Man Godfrey (which, by the way, would probably be my pick for the best film of that year) was nominated in all of the major categories, including Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Supporting Actor, Best Supporting Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, except for Best Picture.  What’s more, it didn’t win a single award.  But it’s probably better remembered today than any of the actual Best Picture nominees, which, as in the previous year, were pretty dreadful.  (A Tale of Two Cities?  The Story of Louis Pasteur?)  Next up is 1937’s The Life of Emile Zola.  Wish me luck!

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