1936: The Great Ziegfeld

(Originally published February 11, 2010)

When I first saw the length of this film, I groaned. More than three hours long. At first I thought this is quickly becoming a task I have to finish, like homework, instead of the enjoyable, intellectually stimulating hobby it was supposed to be. So, putting my nose to the grindstone, I met the task head-on. It took me about a week of little installments to finish The Great Ziegfeld, but when I reached the end today, I knew the film had duly deserved its Academy Award.

The Great Ziegfeld is a celebration of the stage and a man who made Broadway great. Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. began his career as an ambitious carnie, scouting out talent and stealing it out from under his competitors, particularly his friend Mr. Billings. At first Ziegfeld seems the slimy type, a classic womanizer and dishonest businessman. He is continuously broke. As soon as he makes any money, he spends it at casinos or on jewelry for the current woman. However as the film presses on, I grew to fall in love with him, his ambition, and his art. He marries, divorces, becomes a family man, and produces some of the most beautiful shows the American stage has ever seen. This was Broadway’s prime.

The film begins in the early 1900s when carnivals were the place for show business and it ends in the 1930s during the Great Depression. In between Ziegfeld produces shows that celebrate beauty, sequens, dancing, and singing: all the classic glitz and glamour of Broadway in the 1920s. Although the film scenes showing the Broadway shows tended to drag on, I found myself drawn in by all the beautiful women, mesmerizing dance routines, and the extravengant sets.

Sensing a way to improve his finances, Ziegfeld ironically invests in the stock market in the late 1920s. The specific year is not given, but my historical wheels were turning and suddenly I put two and two together. The 1920s were an amazing decade for extravegance, just the type of extravgance displayed in Ziegfeld’s shows. Then I watched him explain his plan with such excitement to his financial man, and a feeling of dread came over me. I thought, “Oh shoot. The stock market is going to crash.”

Though Ziegfeld is blessed with a beautiful wife and daughter, he slips into deep depression of his own after the crash. Even his old friend, financier, and competitor from the carnie days, Mr. Billings, is unable to cheer him up with the promise of a new show because he too is broke, even though he tries to hide it. Ziegfeld dies a broken man, but with these final words of encouragment, spoken by his faithful valet (another thing stolen out from under Mr. Billings), “People will remember you for creating some of the finest scenes ever seen on the stage.”


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