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At the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, sideshow barker Flo Ziegfeld turns the tables on his more successful neighbor Billings, and steals his girlfriend to boot. This pattern is repeated throughout their lives, as Ziegfeld makes and loses many fortunes putting on ever bigger, more spectacular shows (sections of which appear in the film). French revue star Anna Held becomes his first wife, but it's not easy being married to the man who "glorified the American girl." Late in life, now married to Billie Burke, he seems to be all washed up, but... Written by
Rod Crawford <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Like some huge, lumbering, Paleozoic beast with a heart, nothing like this film has existed in a long time. And I doubt that there will be anything like it again. "The Great Ziegfeld" is a grandiose, three hour, B&W cinematic opus that chronicles the true story (more or less) of the professional life of legendary producer/showman "Flo" Ziegfeld, played convincingly by William Powell. It is an interesting, lovable film because it is so historically ... quaint.
Structurally, the narrative takes a chronological approach. However, except for the film's starting year of 1893 and the ending soon after the 1929 stock market crash, no dates are given, a shortsighted flaw in the screenplay. But during this roughly forty-year period we see Ziggy's ambition unfurl into a successful career of producing some of the most extravagant musical shows in history. And throughout, the theme remains the same: to "glorify the American girl", that is to say to glorify the early twentieth century stereotyped image of the American girl.
Despite his success as a showman, Ziggy was constantly plagued with financial problems, and embroiled in relations with women, the two most important being: the humorously indecisive Anna Held, and the lovely Billie Burke.
More interesting to me than the biography is the lavish, grandiose production numbers. In the most grandiose of all, Dennis Morgan sings "A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody", as the camera ascends a slowly revolving spiral staircase adorned with "Ziegfeld girls" in outlandish costumes. The set, resembling a wedding cake, is about as tall as it is wide, with the stage curtain rising to what seems like stratospheric heights.
The film's strengths are its humorous script, the dazzling sets, the glamorous costumes, the music, a cameo appearance by Fanny Brice, and a great tap dance routine by Ray Bolger. My main complaint is the film's length. Also, I find it curious that this big budget beast with its theme of wealth and beauty came out right in the middle of the Great Depression. MGM must have been on a colossal ego trip.
Overall, "The Great Ziegfeld" is fun, and definitely worth watching, especially as a time capsule to an entertainment era that is gone forever.
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