The 1936 Oscar for best picture went to the nearly three-hour The Great Ziegfeld, a musical biography of sorts about the American impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, most famous for his Broadway series the Ziegfeld Follies which sought “to glorify the American girl.” The film, produced by Hunt Stromberg and directed by Robert Z. Leonard (the team that four years later made Pride and Prejudice from Jane Austen, starring Greer Garson and Laurence Olivier), is unimportant as cinema. It reproduces several production numbers lavishly, Seymour Felix’s ensemble choreography is sprightly, accounting for another Oscar, and one of the lead performances (more about which later), a legendary one, accounts for still another Oscar. Apart from the fact that it describes in detail what a show producer actually does, the film generates little interest for its ostensible subject, Ziegfeld, whose rivalry with a fellow producer (played by Frank Morgan) supplies comic relief between musical numbers. On the other hand, one may argue that the film isn’t meant to be about Ziegfeld at all; rather, it can be viewed as an evocation of a period and a style in American theatrical entertainment history. For me at least, the film comes to be about all that it leaves out, about Ziegfeld and others, all to the detriment of the result, no matter how many Oscars it reeled in.
Florenz Ziegfeld was born in Chicago in 1869 and died in New York in 1932, four years before this film was made and released. His death ought to have made Ziegfeld a possible subject for an honest and inquiring film. It certainly doesn’t help when the subject is alive and even hovering about the set, as was the case with George M. Cohan during the making of his sanitized biography, Yankee Doodle Dandy (Michael Curtiz, 1942), where his several wives, for example, were consolidated into a single wife in a perfectly happy marriage and his personality, infamous for its arrogance, was lightened into a more agreeable cockiness. Similarly, setting aside issues of sexuality that probably wouldn’t have been allowed in even if the subject had been deceased, The Jolson Story (Alfred E. Green, 1946) offers a curiously bowdlerized version of Al Jolson’s life in America; the film (with Jolson himself dubbing them on the soundtrack) hits one popular tune after another but leaves out the song for which Jolson is most important, one he composed as well as sang, the unofficial anthem of the Depression, “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” What kind of a life of Jolson leaves this out, as well as the socialist film he made, Hallelujah! I’m a Bum (Lewis Milestone, 1933), in which his hoboing companion, his comrade and equal, is a black man? With Hitler disposed of and anti-Communist hysteria brewing in Hollywood, though, after the war Jolson shifted his allegiance to the American right, so certain facts about his not-so-distant past were forbidden entry into the harmless entertainment The Jolson Story was geared up to be. Even Martin Scorsese only partially succeeded with Raging Bull (1980) in keeping Jake LaMotta’s influence from moderating the realistic portrait he was aiming at.
But why should any of this matter in the case of Ziegfeld, who was dead by the time of The Great Ziegfeld? His widow, Billie Burke, was under contract to the studio, M-G-M, responsible for the film. As a result, the marriage between Burke and Ziegfeld is portrayed in the film as an unfailingly luminous and lovely thing, and the dialogue between the partners is excrutiatingly aimed at idealizing their pairing as heaven on earth. Moreover, for the sake of their daughter, Ziegfeld was idealized outside this marriage as well.
None of this disastrously plays to the film’s discredit, although it intermittently makes the film seem forced and flimsy. Worse, it seems to me, there is no mention, even in passing, that Ziegfeld is Jewish and therefore no attempt to weigh the import of this, thereby forsaking the theme of ethnic assimilation that might have endowed the film with greater depth and stature. At the time, Jewishness in American show business was a thing to conceal (unless you’re a comic or otherwise outsized personality, it often still is) since anti-Semitism was rampant and virulent in the everyday life of the nation. Indeed, at Warners, another Oscar-winning best picture (and a very good one), The Life of Emile Zola (1937), was about to be made under the studio’s prohibition that Alfred Dreyfus’s being Jewish could not be mentioned—and this, with more than half of the film given over to the Dreyfus affair that nearly undid France over two polarizing issues, French anti-Semitism and the reputation of the French military. Cunningly, the director, William Dieterle, slipped in a two-second-long visual disclosure of the pertinent fact, without which much of the historical film would have been incoherent and incomprehensible. Stars like William Charles Dukenfield and Muni Weisenfreund, a German emigrant, had changed their names to W. C. Fields and Paul Muni to be “marqueeable” and marketable, and one great actor was Julius Garfinkel—his real name—on Broadway one season and John Garfield in Hollywood the next. In New York City, Jewishness was not considered a liability, but the mass consumption of Hollywood stardom made it a liability nationwide. (Comical coda: Hollywood’s de-ethnicized film of the play Having Wonderful Time, 1938, replaced Garfield with Douglas Fairbanks, Jr., whose father, Douglas Fairbanks, if I’m not mistaken, also was Jewish.)
I do not regard the failure to disclose Florenz Ziegfeld’s ethnicity or religion in The Great Ziegfeld a condemnable act, only a lost opportunity. But the film’s deception deepens in another instance of Jewishness it fails to disclose, and I’m afraid this failure is unconscionable at a time when Germany was taking early steps in the direction of what would become the Holocaust. Anna Held, Ziegfeld’s first wife, was Jewish—in her case, tragically Jewish. Sitting on this fact opens the film up to a charge of moral cowardice—a charge never leveled because America was too trivially entertained by M-G-M’s big, tuneful, glitteringly costumed musical.
Let us recall who Anna Held was. For close to two decades ending with the First World War, this immigrant was among the most famous and adored theatrical performers in the United States. She had already been a star in Paris, singing sexy, naughty songs, when Ziegfeld saw her perform in the Follies Bergère in 1897; he married her and brought her to the States, making her a star in her new country (and, following his previous rocky stretch in the business, also establishing himself in the process) as the centerpiece of the show he devised and christened the Ziegfeld Follies after his wife’s former venue. Oddly, the film separates the shows that Ziegfeld did with Held from the Follies, partly to disguise the fact that Ziegfeld owed his career to this woman (a fact that might offend Burke), and partly to pursue a more general denigration of women (which ought to have offended Burke). Moreover, the film did nothing to illuminate a past that Held herself had suppressed in her lifetime. Although Held identified herself as Parisian, she had been born in Warsaw, Poland, to a French mother and a German Jewish father. They fled to France in 1881 at a time when Jews in Poland were being massacred in their homes and in the streets. Not yet in her teens, Held was traumatized by her memories of these sweeps of Polish towns and cities for the purpose of killing Jews for no other reason than that they were Jews, and professionally she kept her ethnic identity secret. In this context, it seems to me, the film’s failure to disclose this isn’t tantamount to honoring Held’s memory by keeping her secret but, rather, breaking faith with her memory by denying her the ethnic identification that, suppressed, motivated much of her personal life. The film paints a portrait of Held as perpetually insecure in her marriage; can one seriously suggest that these feelings of hers of marital vulnerability had nothing to do with her memory of the pogroms? Here, and in so many other of its aspects, the film can seem heartless for not divulging the character’s hidden terror, not to mention the folly of failing to use Held’s example to reflect on the new explosion of anti-Semitism in the Europe of the film’s own day.
The most celebrated aspect of The Great Ziegfeld is, of course, Luise Rainer’s performance as Anna Held. Rainer, who is Jewish, won both the Oscar and the best actress prize from the New York Film Critics Circle for a charming, ultimately heartbreaking portrait of a vain, deeply insecure, and captivating woman. When she walks in on Ziegfeld with one of his showgirls in his arms, she is delicately mournful and ironic delivering such good lines as “Flo, you should have at least closed the door . . . Poor Flo, you have such trouble with your ‘girls.’” (The author of the script is William Anthony Maguire.) When after divorcing Ziegfeld (in a misguided attempt to win him back) Held phones to congratulate him on his new marriage, Rainer is irresistibly sad (although, perhaps, a bit over the top). It’s a stunning performance, not at all undone by the fact that, to appease Burke, the condensing of the Ziegfeld-Held union hardly suggests a marriage that lasted sixteen years. There’s a tragic quality in Rainer’s eyes, a hauntedness that accommodates the truth about Held; it’s scarcely possible that, whatever the script’s omissions, the actress did not have this truth in mind when she constructed and performed her Held. The performance, then, is not in the least bit damaged by the omissions; but the film is.
I know: Why bring this “dark” material into a lighthearted musical entertainment? Because in the case of Anna Held, whom the film purports to portray, there was a darkness behind the gaiety, and this darkness alarmingly related to actual events in Europe at the time the film was made. By misrepresenting the past, The Great Ziegfeld failed to ring such alarms that in concert with other calls might have redirected a disastrous course of history.
William Powell plays Ziegfeld well, Reginald Owen is excellent as his accountant, Myrna Loy is a beauteous Billie Burke, and Ray Bolger and Fannie Brice appear as themselves. “Banjo Eyes” Eddie Cantor, under contract to another studio, had to be played by someone other than himself. Pity—although a larger pity is that Brice is heard singing only the opening of “My Man.” She had sung the complete song in a 1929 film that must no longer exist; how wonderful it would have been had she reprised the tune in a film that has lasted and is likely to go on lasting.
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