The Best Picture Winners: The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

| September 25, 2017

Oscar’s 90th birthday is just around the corner and to celebrate, every other day from now through March 4th, I will be taking a look at each and every film selected for his top award – the good, the bad and the sometimes not-so deserving.

If you talk to me about bad movies long enough, I will eventually arrive at The Great Ziegfeld.  I’m not sure what singular ingredient gets my blood up, I can only say that I have seen this movie twice in my lifetime and both times it succeeds at giving me a headache.

Others have regaled this movie for its sumptuous photography and it’s scale – this is a big movie!  But, for me, this movie is a mess, big or small.  It bats back and forth between all musical numbers great and small, none of which are the least bit interesting (the low point being a profane black-faced performance of “If you know Suzy”- YUCK!)  Most of the time, we get musical production numbers that are only impressive in their scale, the most famous being a massive presentation in which hundreds of brides and grooms pose around a gigantic wedding cake.  Honestly, I don’t know what it’s about.  What does it have to do with anything?

Wrapped around those musical bits is the rise and personal struggle of Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld (William Powell) who makes himself into a master showman while treating the women in his life  like old shoes.  It’s always nice to see Powell – the most relaxed and charming leading man that ever graced Hollywood – but his performance here is strangely muted.  He’s suppose to play a heel, a man who charms, marries and then drops his wives when he finds a better PYT to fit the bill.  But, if you really want the best of Powell try The Thin Man or My Man Godfrey.  Why waste time with this man who is essentially a rat?

One of the women in Ziegfeld’s wake is singer/actress Anna Held, played by Luise Rainer – “The Viennese Teardrop”.  She would win the year’s Best Actress prize, a victory that was based on a scene in which she talks to her former common law husband (Ziegfeld) on the phone and withers emotionally as she wishes him congratulations on his new marriage.  It is a good scene but she’s gone from the screen for most of the movie and the impact that her performance once had has long since blown away.

There isn’t much I can say about The Great Ziegfeld.  It’s a lumbering dinosaur, an oversized movie with an underwhelming impact.  Its got everything.  Its got music.  It is beautifully shot.  Its got stars: William Powell, Myrna Loy, Luise Rainer, Frank “Wizard of Oz” Morgan, Reginald Owen, Ray Bolger and at least one fantastic (though brief) performance by Fanny Brice.  But aside from that, the movie – at three hours! – runs past me without making a single impact and surfaces the idea in my brain that this is the most wrong-headed selection for the Academy’s Best Picture.


Mutiny on the Bounty (1935)
It Happened One Night (1934)
Cavalcade (1932-33)
The Grand Hotel (1931-32)
Cimarron (1930-31)
All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30)
The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
Wings (1927-28)

About the Author:

Jerry Roberts is a film critic and operator of two websites, Armchair Cinema and Armchair Oscars.