The Great Ziegfeld ★★★

The greatest three star film there ever was.

The Great Ziegfeld has grand problems, namely being overlong, lacking in substance and dramatic structure, and failing to convince and land the jokes as well as it might like. Not to mention, the story beats are too familiar to set the overall story apart. In effect, the evolution of cinematic standards has been unkind. But it does succeed as a grand spectacle, with one sequence from 75-100 minutes (particularly the 'Wedding Cake' take) that will yank you into the clouds as effectively as Disney ever could. In fact, I'm surprised this doesn't get more rotation as a silly season re-run staple in the background to help drone out those bloated afternoons and leave you lightly dazed and amused whilst checking the cricket scores and perusing an abundance of leftovers. You walk out of the room to get a coffee without giving a crap, as you'll return without missing a beat, and on a scene by scene basis you'll be entertained sufficiently.

The Oscar contextual reputational criticisms over the years of it effectively being three hours of leggy dance numbers are largely hogwash. The central characters and plotting could be a little more compelling, but the star-power on show is infectious, the direction is lavish and the spectacle verges on the amazing. Powell is perfect, whilst Rainer demonstrates her ability to pickpocket Oscars from unsuspecting Academy voters, regardless. I also detect some self-aware comment in a lot of the exchanges (paraphrasing: I want more story, this is getting boring, and now for the finale, etc.), which somewhat justifies the structural choices and acknowledges the artifice awareness central to the ethos and spirit of the production. I think this gamesmanship respects the memory of Mr. Ziegfeld as presented here. The film-long competitive bond between Ziegfeld and Billings (the only entirely successful relationship depicted) that keeps on giving also engagingly anchors the film. The Great Ziegfeld was said at the time to be the longest American talkie to date, and whilst this length hampers the film's memory and popularity, I think it does work for the film as a lasting, final statement on musical extravagance on film, with MGM crashing the established musical orthodoxy spectacularly, and a great deal of material here is highly worthy of preservation.

The Great Ziegfeld is a little too light in its loafers to support a three hour run time, but it passes muster as a Best Picture, particularly in the context of the era. If you can in someway appreciate achieving but oft loathed brethren like Gigi, Cavalcade, Going My Way, etc., then you may find something worth loving here. It's towards the back of the peleton, but far from the worst. They just don't make them like this anymore, and would struggle to with the required justice if they tried. If you ever have to spend three hours watching a Broadway prestige bio of this ilk, it might as well be The Great Ziegfeld, which retains its magical capacities in abundance. I wouldn't be against seeing it again.

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