The Great Ziegfeld is a film that you may or may not want to watch. Working against it is its length: it weighs in at just over three hours. I’m of the opinion that any film over ninety minutes has to justify its length, especially as it approaches two hours. Does this film justify its length? I don’t think so. There’s a five-minute overture at the beginning, several long musical numbers (including a forty-five minute one that includes an intermission) and another four minutes of music at the end. Cutting all of this out you might be left with around two hours of narrative. Any reasons to watch it? William Powell, of course.
Yes, The Great Ziegfeld is three hours long. It’s lavish and self-indulgent – a tribute to Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., a famed Broadway producer who had passed away four years previously. I knew nothing about him beforehand but had heard of his musical Show Boat (from which the song Ol’ Man River originated). He was most famed for his Ziegfeld Follies, which ran from 1907 – 1931. These were based on French folies. Going on what the film shows of them they were also lavish and self-indulgent. Understandable then, why the film is what it is – an entirely appropriate monument to a recently-departed entertainment deity of the day. It’s still very easy to nod off during the forty-five minute musical-heavy bit. I’m not a huge fan of musicals anyway, but the musical numbers here bored me to tears. (If it helps I do like Singin’ in the Rain, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, The Wizard of Oz, Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory and Mary Poppins, while I found Meet Me in St. Louis quite dull.) There was one highlight in the long musical number – Ray Bolger’s tap dancing (like Fanny Brice he plays himself).
William Powell takes on the role of Ziegfeld. He’s a very fine actor and would pick up his second nomination for best actor in the same year for My Man Godfrey (an excellent film, highly recommended). He’s good in this one too. The tale takes Ziegfeld as a young man promoting carnival-like attractions like The Great Sandow (the father of modern bodybuilding), through to success on Broadway. His is a tale of rags to riches many times over. Even though it’s a rather sanitised account of Ziegfeld’s life (it doesn’t show him sleeping around), Powell has plenty of room to do a lot with the role as the character ages (again, perhaps we do too as we’re watching…). There are plenty of other good performances, including Frank Morgan as Ziegfeld’s sometime rival, Jack Billings and Luise Rainer as his first wife Anna Held. Myrna Loy only appears after about two hours and fifteen minutes (most films would be well over by this point…) but she’s great whenever she is on-screen, livening things up quite a bit. While a made-up character, and perhaps mainly a plot device, Billings is quite a lot of fun and appears in one of the more touching scenes in the film. It’s with the arrival of Myrna Loy that things kick up a gear and in this last hour far more of Powell’s range is on display.
For all its length and flabbiness, The Great Ziegfeld finishes strongly. Should you watch it? If you consider William Powell to be a great actor, want to see him in fine form and have seen his shorter films then I recommend it wholeheartedly. Those who know little of Powell should watch My Man Godfrey, One Way Passage, the first two Thin Man films, Libeled Lady, Love Crazy and Mister Roberts before deciding. Those who don’t think much of the man (surely nobody?) needn’t bother with this one.