Written by: William Anthony McGuire
Starring: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Luise Rainer, Frank Morgan, Fannie Brice, Virginia Bruce
Show business and fickleness go together almost too well. Something artists know a bit too well. As tastes change, everything someone has worked for their entire lives can be diminished in an instant. New trends can end careers and making it big means a big gamble must be made. A sentiment seen in The Great Ziegfeld and while it overall has a resonant message, the storytelling over an exorbitant runtime has it play out in the dullest manner outside of a few moments.
With a chip on his shoulder to prove himself, Florenz Ziegfeld (William Powell) wants to prove he can make it on the big stage by promoting other talents. With all of his big gambles, he constantly finds himself in financial woes with a repeated return to friends and even enemies to help achieve his dream of making it big.
The deftest ideas handled in this feature come from the insatiable appetite of audiences consuming pieces of entertainment. When one enters this area, adulation will not always arrive, and even when it does in sparse amounts the attention span of the audience will quickly move on to something else. Through a contemporary lens, think of all the movies and shows released on streaming services where they have their moment in the spotlight for perhaps a day and then become disposable trash in 24 hours. It becomes a self-repeating cycle with artists having to find praise wherever they can find it before moving on to create something new. Florenz faces this with his attempts to conquer the stage entertainment industry. He may not always have money, but the passion he displays shows a man willing to do what it takes, which asks for admiration from the audience. Many can relate to this struggle of trying to reach the top, which can allow this to connect to many.
However, this film falters heavily when it comes to its efficiency in storytelling. Grand in scale in regard to the runtime and what it attempts to tackle, this film struggles in remaining engaging for nearly three hours of substance. The final conclusions made have their merit but part of what makes a good film comes from how it all comes together, and it made watching The Great Ziegfeld such an unbearable slog at times. It put me in the place of wondering when things would progress in a meaningful manner, especially trying to decipher how much fat could have been cut out for the good of the narrative. Ziegfeld’s ambitions were enormous, no doubt, but it does not necessarily mean the runtime for his narrative feature needed to follow suit.
Also hidden in the struggles of this man to survive in show business, he also struggles in the world of women and who he deems a suitable companion. The first marriage came from his slick way of speaking and making his wife believe in something they could accomplish together, but as each instance of romance informs, mixing work with pleasure can get messy. Things certainly do and it becomes the perpetual lesson this man has to learn even onto his deathbed. Truly a cautionary tale in more ways than one.
Standing out as the greatest assets are the calling card of this entire feature, which comes from the performances on stage. The musical sequences provide this grand appeal and what it provides to the audience both in and out of the screen dazzle. It provides the showtime power Ziegfeld wanted to harness throughout his career and it must be said, whenever given the opportunity, the man knew how to put on a spectacle. Unfortunately, the film did not contain enough of these sequences, as it could have certainly helped with the laboriously long runtime. Perhaps cut more of the dreck and more of the sequences that elevate the film and make it worth watching in the first place.
Mostly relevant for its Best Picture win at the Academy Awards, The Great Ziegfeld surely goes down as one of the worst ones to be awarded Hollywood’s big prize. It has wonderful intentions with what it seeks to display but it meanders for far too long within an unneeded enormous runtime, which ultimately becomes the downfall of this look at this ambitious man’s tumultuous rise and fall in the entertainment industry. A good film resides within this production but unfortunately a lack of decisiveness in the editing booth and from the director in this unsatisfying viewing experience.