14 March 2012 | Steffi_P
"Needs more steps"
It's hard to think of today, what with the theatre being a highbrow and typically minimalist medium, but back in the days before movies became big business, stage productions often presented the public with phenomenal displays of grandeur. In the early years of the twentieth century, Florenz Ziegfeld was a theatrical showman who had Busby Berkely's worship of feminine beauty and Cecil B. DeMille's sense of scale. He was creating Hollywood-style extravagance back when Hollywood was just a patch of scrubland.
Fast-forward to 1936, a couple of years after Ziegfeld's death, and cinema still bears his mark. Musicals (which were still often based around stage performances) were often showcases for a variety of dancing and singing talents, usually building to a spectacular finale. The Great Ziegfeld is more than just a biopic, it is the culmination of this strand in cinema; the first epic musical. Here we see the 30's musical's shimmering sets and full-on dance routines on a scale never before seen on the screen. Robert Z. Leonard directs with his usual sweeping camera moves, often slowly pulling back to reveal the size of the production. But he also lets his camera get deeply involved in the more dramatic scenes.
Apart from the various song-and-dance people involved, the casting here is very much a Hollywood affair. William Powell was then the go-to man for such smart and witty types. He and Myrna Loy were well-known as a screen couple, from The Thin Man pictures amongst others. They both give adequate portrayals, but in truth these two need a smaller, more intimate production to shine in their own right. The performance that best fits the size of The Great Ziegfeld is that of Luise Rainer. Melodramatic, full of presence, she seems always on the verge of breaking down into some farcical display of ham acting, but never quite does so. It's not a realistic performance by any stretch, but it is beautiful in its theatricality.
Ziegfeld's influence would live on in musical cinema for many years after his death. The Great Ziegfeld was just the first in a series of pictures tipping their hat to the producer. Meanwhile, many of the stars made famous by Ziegfeld – Billie Burke, Eddie Cantor, Will Rogers, Ray Bolger – were finding fruitful careers on the silver screen. It was, after all, the way of the future. You see, it wasn't just the depression that finished Ziegfeld. Even if he had lived, cinema would have provided him with too much competition to continue with his follies, especially with the advent of sound. But this is beside the point. If The Great Ziegfeld shows anything, it is that the spirit of showmanship that he championed could live on, if not in one medium then in another.