I knew going into The Great Ziegfeld that it was going to be my first real marathon-level watch of this odyssey, clocking in at around three hours. I settled myself down, readying myself for an extravagant, opulent production, with budget galore and production value to warrant such a running time. Well, I got all that… for about twenty minutes in the middle portion of the film. The rest was a fairly simple biopic, and it actually disappointed me that the film wasn’t overly hedonistic with the money invested into it. I didn’t have much knowledge of the man known as Ziegfeld before this film, and knowing what I do about Hollywood biopics of the era (and today’s era, to be honest), I don’t think I have a good enough knowledge of the man now. What’s more, the only real reason I looked forward to this film, to see if it really was worth a three-hour running time, ended up being another failed proposition.
William Powell is Florence Ziegfeld, Jr., a wannabe showman promoting various low-key acts, including a strongman named Sandow, with whom he overcomes his barker rival Billings through savvy business marketing. His business relationships grow, even as his personal bank account doesn’t, and he somehow manages to put together enough contacts and reputation to put forth his own show, the Ziegfeld Follies; all the while, he juggles the affections of various women, all of which, along with his growing debts amid his constant frittering of his money, threaten to chip away at the man from the inside. There’s a bit more to the film than that, but that seemed to be the main issue with The Great Ziegfeld; there was always more to everything, and it didn’t seem like it was really worth all that the film offered us. The film started with an overture, and for the first time I was slightly irked by this, as since it’s a film and there is no live band covering the music while people get to their seats the whole purpose of having an overture felt cheapened and false, but I guess the film wanted to indulge itself with everything it possibly could, because holy cow do the musical numbers in the middle portion of this film scream Hollywood indulgence. It was actually a little incongruous, since the rest of the film was fairly rudimentary and basic in construction, but the Ziegfeld Follies numbers themselves must’ve amounted to a good half of the film’s budget, and considering the film was one of MGM’s most expensive at the time, that says a hell of a lot. The Follies themselves aside, however, this is a pretty standard biopic, which made me wonder why it was so universally lauded upon its initial release. Sure, it’s long, but I’ve always been of the opinion that just because a film is long, that it doesn’t automatically make it better, which is evidently something Hollywood and those who reviewed it back in the day didn’t learn until well after this film was past its heyday. William Powell is standard Powell, which is always enjoyable, but it’s the relatively new discovery of Luise Rainer who steals the show, particularly in one scene which was absolutely the reason she ended up winning Best Actress.
I gave this an extra point pretty much for the sheer volume of effort put into the three-hour running time, and that I think is exactly the reason this doesn’t work as well as it really thinks it does; the film thinks that by including everything it possibly can, that it will make up for its own shortcomings, not understanding that including absolutely everything is in itself a shortcoming as well, and there’s really no better example of this I can come up with right now than The Great Ziegfeld. It’s enjoyable, sure, but it’s ultimately not worth the running time, even with the ridiculously overproduced Follies numbers in the middle portion. Did this deserve a nomination for Best Picture? I guess I can’t really fault the Academy for giving it one. Should it have won Best Picture? No, not really. If you can withstand the running time, this might be a nice watch, but you really need to cut out a healthy section of time for yourself to get through it, and you may not be all that glad that you did.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10