By Lara Gabrielle Fowler
Between the years 1907 and 1931, the Ziegfeld Follies were the toast of New York. The lavish entertainment spectacle that featured beautiful girls in beautiful gowns was wildly popular among New York’s high society, as was its creator, Florenz Ziegfeld, whose life was as decadent as his shows.
How fitting that in 1936, at the height of the Great Depression, Metro-Goldwyn Mayer (known for removing its audience from their current financial woes with its own lavish musical productions) decided to create a large-scale biopic about the lavish and luxurious life of Florenz Ziegfeld. The 3-hour exploration of Ziegfeld’s loves and losses simultaneously reminds viewers of what life was like when people had money to spare, and acknowledges the problems of the present. Several former Ziegfeld performers appear as themselves in the film, notably Ray Bolger and the legendary Fanny Brice (from whom we hear a few measures of her signature song, “My Man,” but the camera cuts away and the rest of the song is lost. A disappointing cinematic choice, in my opinion!) A reminder that Florenz Ziegfeld was essentially left for broke when the stock market crashed in 1929 resonated with audiences in 1936, still reeling from the stock market crash 7 years prior, as well as audiences of the present day. Ultimately we are reminded that our luxuries are temporary, and that we should not take anything for granted.
The story hinges mostly on Ziegfeld’s common law marriage to Anna Held, a Polish-French stage performer, portrayed in the film by Luise Rainer. Ziegfeld (William Powell) is painted as a perpetual ladies’ man, and his line of work certainly doesn’t curtail his propensity for chasing women. Anna tolerates it to a point, but when Ziegfeld is seen kissing a drunk chorus girl, she leaves. Despite his indiscretions, the film makes it clear that she still loves him. Ziegfeld subsequently becomes involved with Billie Burke (Myrna Loy) and when he marries her, Anna is heartbroken.
Luise Rainer won the 1936 Academy Award for Best Actress for her role as Anna, and it is widely said that her scene congratulating Ziegfeld on the telephone was what secured the award for her. Though it is a brilliant and beautiful scene with magnificent acting by Rainer, for me it is the few seconds just before she gets on the phone that stand out as the most emotional moment of the film. The character is miserable, anxious, and shaky, and the emotion exuded by Rainer is raw and shockingly real.
Ziegfeld’s romance and marriage Billie Burke is the most celebrated of all Ziegfeld’s exploits, but gets the least amount of attention in the film. The character of Billie Burke doesn’t come in until 2 hours into the movie, and the exploration of Burke and Ziegfeld gets about half an hour of screen time. The birth of their child is completely glossed over (suddenly the audience is confronted with a 4-year-old child who was never mentioned previously, and is left to the task of deducing that this is the child of Burke and Ziegfeld), and it seems that Metro was in a hurry to get this expensive picture wrapped at the expense of the continuity of the plot.
Nonetheless, the last few minutes of the film, depicting Ziegfeld in the throes of bankruptcy and severely ill, is full of poignancy and in itself a representation of the American identity in the 1930’s. Ziegfeld himself, in many ways, represented the 1920’s. Extravagant, joyous, devil-may-care, his attitude was reflected in the overarching sentiment of the country. The stock market crash ruined Ziegfeld just as it ruined the spirit of the 1920’s, and the vision of this symbol of extravagance and luxury lying on his deathbed is one that holds a double meaning for audiences. The film ends as Ziegfeld has a vision of his Follies for one last time–before the flower he is holding drops to the ground.
The film is extremely long, but doesn’t particularly feel that way until the plot begins to speed about 45 minutes before the film’s end. Beautiful performances all around, and I feel that Myrna Loy’s portrayal of Billie Burke could have been a lot more exposed had the studio taken the time to expand the end of the film a bit. Myrna Loy’s high, sweet voice with just a hint of the flitty quality to it that defined Billie Burke’s, it is clear to me why they chose Myrna for the role.
The year after her Academy Award win for The Great Ziegfeld, Luise Rainer starred in The Good Earth with Paul Muni, for which she was nominated for another Academy Award…and won again. This gives her the distinction of being the first person ever to win 2 consecutive Academy Awards. The feat is matched by only 3 other people in history: Spencer Tracy (Captains Courageous, Boys Town) Katharine Hepburn (Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner, The Lion in Winter), and Tom Hanks (Philadelphia, Forrest Gump). Rainer later remarked “It was the worst thing to ever happen to me!” Indeed, Rainer worked very little after her Oscar wins due to her refusal to be typecast, and left Hollywood in 1938
to work on the stage. She retired to London, England, where she still lives, having recently celebrated her 103rd birthday. She lives a semi-quiet retired life, but made an appearance at the first annual TCM Classic Film Festival, on the occasion of her 100th birthday.
Here are some pictures of the real Florenz Ziegfeld, Billie Burke and Anna Held. See you next time!