WB Top 100: The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

During the 2017 holiday season, I got a great deal on the Best of Warner Bros. 100 Film Collection. Diane and I haven’t seen most of these movies, but we are committed to watching one a week and writing a short review.


“The Great Ziegfeld” is yet another long-winded biopic and musical from the ‘30s. In it, we follow the many rises and falls of Florenz Ziegfeld Jr, a Broadway producer best known for the Ziegfeld Follies: elaborately choreographed and staged Broadway products that had elements of Vaudeville. But this is not a modern-style biopic that seeks to teach you about the life of someone you may or may not know. “The Great Ziegfeld” is more a celebration in which you will learn nothing but you will be entertained.

Though a biopic, “The Great Ziegfeld” does little to humanize its subject. Rather than being portrayed as a flawed human, Ziegfeld is shown as an impossible charmer and dreamer. Modern films tend to gloss over the worst of a person to celebrate their best, but anytime “The Great Ziegfeld” comes close to a human moment (with one or two exceptions), time skips ahead or cuts away to one of Ziegfeld’s productions. Outside of his inability to save any money he earns or his chronic indebtedness, this film did nothing to explain Ziegfeld the man.

Ziegfeld - 2.png
My favorite character was Frank Morgan as Billings. He and Ziegfeld had a delightful rivalry throughout the film. His scenes were often the ones that got the most laughs from me.

And that’s a shame. For all intents and purposes, Florenz Ziegfeld Jr was an interesting person. The rights to this movie were sold by his wife to help pay his debts, and it was released only four years after he passed away at age 65. While my research hasn’t painted Ziegfeld as a particularly terrible person, he did seem to be a constant philanderer with the women he hired, and though the movie alludes to his indiscretions, it ultimately turns a blind eye by looking away every time.

One of my favorite things about several of the movies we’ve watched thus far is their willingness to cover large spans of time. “The Great Ziegfeld” is no exception. However, I do wish this were a modern movie, if only so I could learn more of the history of his life and career. Since the film spans nearly 30 years of his life, it comes off as the cliff notes version. Even the shows he helped produced are under explained despite their elaborate portrayal.

Ziegfeld - 3
Imagine something like this shot in HD and color. ALL THE SPARKLES!

If anything does hold up for this movie, then its lavish portrayal of the Ziegfeld Follies that defined so much of the man’s career. According to Wikipedia, the movie’s budget was $2.183 million (with a $4.5 million plus box office) and it shows. From the film’s opening to all of its stage productions, “The Great Ziegfeld” remains a great spectacle. The “Wedding Cake” sequence in particular is phenomenal, over the top, and absolutely insane by any time’s standards. If you have never seen it, then you absolutely must whether you like this kind of thing or not.

There were a couple of instances of blackface which obviously do not hold up. The longer of the two featured an actor performing a song called “If You Knew Susie”. The scene stood out to Diane and I not because of the blackface itself but because we couldn’t figure out why it was used. There was nothing racist or racial about the performance or the actor’s dancing. We were both laughing in how silly and pointless it felt.

Beyond its glossing over the facts or its elaborate productions, “The Great Ziegfeld” suffers from its length. Neither Diane nor I ever felt bored because of the visuals, humor, or acting, but this movie could’ve been half as long and still be twice as fun. At 177 minutes, complete with an intermission, it is just too much movie to say so little, especially when some of its key players were the actual performers involved in the real Ziegfeld’s productions.

Ziegfeld - 4
William Powell did okay as the charming Ziegfeld, but he didn’t have a lot of material to work with.

“The Great Ziegfeld” is an enigma. We both enjoyed it, though I’d hesitate to put it at the top of the list for its many flaws. Still, I’d hate to tell anyone not to watch it, as the movie is both entertaining and funny. Also, despite its length, it left me wanting so much more. I’d love to see a remake of this movie with a more true-to-life story and depiction of the subject while replicating its spectacular recreations of what were likely some of the most beautiful, coordinated, and weirdest things ever set on a stage.

For other reviews, make sure to check out the Warner Brother’s Top 100 Film’s page.


Posted in:

%d bloggers like this: