Tag Archives: william powell

THE GREAT ZIEGFELD (1936): A Fitting Epic

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.

William Powell and Luise Rainer as Florenz Ziegfeld and Anna Held.

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!

Anna Held.

Ziegfeld with Billie Burke

The real Billie Burke with Myrna Loy.

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CLFP: “My Man Godfrey” (1936)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A magnificently crafted screenplay and powerhouse comedic performances by Carole Lombard, William Powell, and Alice Brady are the hallmarks of this beloved zany comedy that is unmatched in its blend of screwball camp and surrealist humor. It has become one of the most respected comedies to come out of Hollywood, and its appeal stands the test of time–the script is just as hysterically funny today as it was in 1936. Its unceasing barrage of witty lines and humorous situations renders the film a difficult one to keep up with, and a real challenge to examine.

Godfrey Smith (William Powell) is out of work, and makes his home at the city dump in the midst of the Great Depression. A socialite by the name of Cornelia Bullock (Gail Patrick) approaches him, explaining that she is in need of a “forgotten man” to complete a scavenger hunt for a party. She offers him $5 if he obliges. Offended, he chases her off, forcing her to trip and fall on an ash pile. Cornelia’s sister Irene (Carole Lombard) is delighted at this spectacle, and she and Godfrey strike up a discussion about the nature of scavenger hunts and the ethics of using human beings as objects in a game (“It’s kind of sordid when you think about it,” Irene says). In order to prevent Cornelia from winning the scavenger hunt, Godfrey offers to be Irene’s “forgotten man.”

The party is chaos, with participants trying to register all their finds at the same time. Amid people showing off items such as spindles, goldfish, and Chinese gongs, Godfrey and Irene emerge and Irene is declared the winner of the scavenger hunt. When Godfrey is asked to make a speech, he calls the entire party a group of “nitwits,” saying that it will be a pleasure to return to the dump. However, in appreciation for his help in her victory, Irene offers him a job as the family butler. He accepts, grateful to have a job.

When Godfrey starts work the next day, he learns the extent of the Bullock family’s eccentricity. Irene has a tendency to throw childlike temper tantrums, which the dizzy scatterbrained Mrs. Bullock (Alice Brady) treats with performances by her live-in protegé, Carlo, which invariably upset Irene even further. The long-suffering Mr. Bullock is having trouble with money, but every time the concept is mentioned, Carlo sighs dramatically and Mrs. Bullock commands the conversation to stop as it’s “upsetting Carlo.” Cornelia is set on revenge against Godfrey for taking away her scavenger hunt victory, but Mrs. Bullock ultimately protects him saying “He’s the first thing Irene has shown any affection for since her Pomeranian died last summer.” Indeed, Irene takes to Godfrey very quickly, in a way that makes Godfrey uncomfortable.

Cornelia, still set on getting Godfrey fired, hatches a scheme to accuse him of stealing her pearls. Godfrey realizes that he has been framed, and begins to hatch a scheme of his own. We learn that Godfrey is not all that he has claimed to be. Raised in a rich, aristocratic family, Godfrey chose to live in the dump to get a taste of how the other half lives. Godfrey’s scheme involved buying stock for the family by taking Cornelia’s pearls and transmuting them into gold, then into stock, then back into pearls. Cornelia got her pearls back, the family’s money troubles were over, and Cornelia had a complete change of heart in regard to Godfrey. He did take some money for himself in order to open a nightclub called “The Dump,” and there he made a name for himself again and married Irene, whose feelings he had begun to return.

As uproariously funny as this movie is, My Man Godfrey is an incredibly difficult piece to analyze. The dialogue is so rapid fire and each line so funny that it is difficult to extract specific bits of dialogue that drive the story forward or provide important information about the characters. The nature of the film is that every bit of dialogue is important, and trying to find a quote more noteworthy than another is an exercise in futility. This is a brilliantly crafted film in every way; from the screenplay to the directing to even the cinematography, My Man Godfrey is a screwball masterpiece. Though Lombard was undoubtedly the star, Alice Brady gives a bravado performance as the nutty mother that nearly steals the show. The moment she shows up at the scavenger hunt party carrying a goat, the character of the mother is established. Speaking in a high, Billie Burke-like voice with a quirky laugh, she plays an essential role in creating the film’s zany quality.

Alice Brady as the mother.

In addition to its status as one of the great screwball comedies of all time, this movie is notable for the unique offscreen relationship of Lombard and Powell. After making Man of the World together, Lombard and Powell were married in early 1931. Their marriage didn’t last long, they were divorced after 2 years, but they remained good friends and worked together wonderfully. In fact, William Powell refused to do the film unless Carole Lombard was cast as Irene–he felt her perfect for the role. Their chemistry is evident in My Man Godfrey, and though they had divorced 3 years earlier, the friendship that they held offscreen is felt by the audience.

There exists a series of outtakes from the set of My Man Godfrey that show the fun atmosphere on the set, and also demonstrate Carole Lombard’s famous love of cursing. It was said that she loved to shock people with her ability to let out strings of 4-letter words, inconsistent with her angelic face and outwardly soft appearance. I am including these outtakes below.

See you next time!

Summer Under the Stars Blogathon: “Libeled Lady” (1936)

For my first installment to the Summer Under the Stars blogathon, I have the pleasure of reviewing a truly delightful comedy by the name of Libeled Lady. The 5th of the 14 movies movies that teamed William Powell and Myrna Loy, the two possessed all the wit and charm in this movie that they are so widely known for. Add to that the talents of Spencer Tracy and Jean Harlow, and you have yourself a real peach of a movie.

The story deals with a wealthy woman, Connie Allenbury (Myrna Loy) suing for libel after a newspaper article accuses her of breaking up a marriage. In order to counter the suit, the newspaper company hatches an elaborate scheme to make the story true–hiring a notorious ladies’ man by the name of Bill Chandler (William Powell) to woo her and eventually be caught alone with her when his wife walks in. The plan is complicated when the two actually fall in love.

The situation with the wife is a prominent and amusing supporting story. Played by the lovely Jean Harlow, the character of Gladys is the long-suffering fiancé of Warren Haggerty, the managing editor of the newspaper being sued for libel. When the idea is developed and it comes to light that Bill Chandler is not actually married, Warren volunteers Gladys to be the pretend wife for the scheme. Some of the funniest scenes are those in which William Powell and Jean Harlow pretend to be a devoted married couple when there are people around, and as soon as they leave, they are at each other’s throats. William Powell and Jean Harlow were very well matched onscreen, and their good friendship turned to romance in real life. The two became engaged in 1935, and dated for 2 years, despite Powell’s doubts about marrying another blonde movie star after his divorce from Carole Lombard a few years earlier. When Jean Harlow fell ill on the set of Saratoga, it was William Powell who left the set of his own movie in order to take her home. I think had Jean Harlow lived longer, she and William Powell would have become as beloved a screen pairing as Powell and Myrna Loy. However, it is hard to speculate about this, as Jean Harlow died during the filming of Saratoga at the peak of her career in 1937. She was only 26.

One of my favorite scenes is one in which Bill Chandler, pretending to be an expert fisherman in order to get on the good side of Connie’s fisherman father, actually finds himself having to go fishing. Watch what happens:

This is a truly hilarious movie, and if you haven’t seen it yet, you’ll be in for a treat.

Stay tuned for more posts during the month of August dedicated to TCM’s Summer Under the Stars programming!