Ziegfeld's Legacy on Film & TV
by John Kenrick
No Ziegfeld production was ever filmed in performance. However, Ziegfeld did make a film involving the Follies. Other movies attempted to invoke the great showman's legacy. Here are some hopelessly biased opinions, in chronological order.
Glorifying the American Girl (1929)
This early Paramount talkie was a hopeless failure, ruined in part by the limitations of primative sound film techniques. Although Ziegfeld is credited as producer, his actual involvement was limited and it shows. We get fascinating appearances by Eddie Cantor, Helen Morgan, New York's Mayor Jimmy Walker, Adolph Zukor and even Ziegfeld himself. However, the story of a small town girl (played by Mary Eaton) who comes to New York and rises to stardom in the Follies is so dull that it rates as celluloid Sominex. Even the Follies production numbers come across as feeble. Realizing they had a dud on their hands, the studio heads delayed releasing this one for months. It was panned when it came out in 1930, and is rarely shown today.
Marilyn Miller recreated her most popular stage performance in this early sound film. Originally filmed in Technicolor, only black and white prints survive with less than optimal picture quality. (A single surviving color scene gives us some idea of what we are missing.) This film gives a limited sense of Miller's stage presence. Although a limited actress and singer, she radiates star quality when she dances.
Ever mindful of publicity, Ziegfeld appeared in several newsreels and short subjects, either discussing the Follies or promoting one of his few films projects. Some of these little treasures have show up on TCM, AMC or PBS. Ziegfeld always appears stiff -- his "spontaneous remarks" are obviously scripted.
Broadway Melody (1929)
This was the first "all talking, all singing, all dancing" film, and the first sound film let alone musical to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. It is also one of the worst movies I have ever seen. The mother of all MGM musicals, it involves two sisters struggling in show biz who fall in love with the same guy. They all land in "Mr. Zanfield's" newest Broadway revue, but the clumsy numbers don't bear even a feint resemblance to anything Ziegfeld would have presented. Some fun is generated by a flaming gay costume designer who clashes with a bull dyke matron backstage and goes into ecstasies over a fur piece. This film may be a historic landmark, but most of it is also a crashing bore.
Eddie Cantor's stage vehicle made it to the big screen in "glorious Technicolor" with several of the original cast members intact, including Ethel Shutta (who would introduce "Broadway Baby" in Sondheim's Follies four decades later). Credited as the film's co-producer, a disappointed Ziegfeld soon realized he had no real power over the project. Overall, this is a clunky film and hard to watch today. Young choreographer Busby Berkley gave the dances some redeeming sense of style a mere hint of what he would do in years to come. It is interesting to see Cantor in what many considered his greatest stage role, but early sound film techniques once again make this a hard film to sit through today.
The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
One of the all-time great MGM musicals, this won well-deserved Academy Awards for Best Picture and Luise Rainer's heartbreaking performance as Anna Held. While Rainer is superb, the real Held was a sensible professional, not the tantrum-throwing emotional quagmire seen here. (Her famous telephone scene is still a knockout.) William Powell is magnificent in the title role, and his Thin Man co-star Myrna Loy is perfect as Billie Burke. "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody" is one of the most spectacular Hollywood ever filmed, so who cares that its massive turntable set and endless cast couldn't possibly fit on a real Broadway stage?
As with most screen bios, The Great Ziegfeld gets only a few basic facts straight, relying on creative fiction most of the way. The chorus numbers do give a sense of the extravagance Ziegfeld was noted for. For legal reasons, Lillian Lorraine and Marilyn Miller were represented by fictional characters. The befuddled producer played by Frank Morgan is a composite stand-in for Charles Dillingham, Jacob Shubert and several others. While Ray Bolger plays himself, he never worked asa stage hand and never appeared in a Ziegfeld production. Fanny Brice's rendition of "My Man" is pointlessly cut short, even though they found ample time for mere impersonators of other Ziegfeld stars to do their bits. Quibbles aside, this is still a very entertaining if overly long film.
Show Boat (1936)
Original cast members Charles Winninger (Captain Andy), Helen Morgan (Julie), Sammy White (Frank) and Queenie Smith (Ellie) star in the best screen version of Ziegfeld's greatest show. London and Ziegfeld revival star Paul Robeson is on hand as Joe to deliver a memorable "Old Man River." Irene Dunne is Magnolia, a role Ziegfeld cast her in for the national tour, so the great showman's tastes in casting and performance style are very much a part of this classic film. Both Kern and Hammerstein were on hand to keep things in tune, and director James Whale (best remembered for Frankenstein) did a smashing job bringing everything together. If you haven't seen this Show Boat, you haven't seen Show Boat.
Ziegfeld Girl (1941)
Judy Garland, Lana Turner and Hedy Lamarr play three girls whose loves are forever changed when they are cast in the Follies. The story is up to its sequined neck in clich's, but Garland's "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" and Busby Berkeley's dazzling "You Stepped Out of a Dream" sequence are pure MGM magic. Ziegfeld alumni Al Shean and Charles Winninger are featured, and Eve Arden's wisecracks help to keep one awake between songs.
The Ziegfeld Follies (1946)
Filmed mostly in 1944, it took two years to pound this collection of songs and skits into a workable format. William Powell once again portrays Ziegfeld, introducing this gala line-up of MGM stars from his office in heaven. (Did Louis B. Mayer really believe Ziegfeld didn't wind up elsewhere?) Some bits are forgettable, but others make for fun viewing. Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly offer a delicious song and dance duet, and Judy Garland has a blast in "The Interview." My favorites Fanny Brice terrorizing Hume Cronyn in a lottery ticket routine, and the hilarious Victor Moore begging an implacable Edward Arnold to "Just pay him the two dollars!"
Deep in My Heart (1954)
This screen bio of composer Sigmund Romberg starring Jose Ferrer is a mixed bag, but it includes an amusing dining room sequence where Ziegfeld played with continental flair by Paul Henreid helps Romberg pull one over on Jake Shubert. In an ironic bit of casting, Shubert is played by Walter Pidgeon, who later portrayed Ziegfeld in Funny Girl (see below).
Funny Girl (1969)
Walter Pidgeon was perfect as Ziegfeld, but this film misrepresents most of the facts about his professional involvement with Fanny Brice. She joined the Follies in 1910 when it was still a rooftop summer revue it did not move into The New Amsterdam until years later. Although Brice did sing "Second Hand Rose" in the Follies, it was not until many years after her debut. As staged in the film, "His Love Makes Me Beautiful" would never have fit on any Broadway stage, and the look of it is too 1960's for words. (Plastic everywhere?) Brice sang "My Man" dressed as a tattered street tramp not dripping with sequins like Babs.
A crucial point Fanny Brice was a cooperative professional who gave Ziegfeld no difficulties -- his ulcers (if any) were his own doing. The only "funny girl" with a deserved reputation for being difficult is Streisand herself. Don't get me wrong, this is a wonderful movie and Streisand is sensational its just doesn't give a vaguely accurate sense of what it meant to be a "Ziegfeld star."
Ziegfeld: The Man and His Women - TV (1978)
This TV movie is garbage ' little more than soft porn with none of the sex. If you ever see this thing listed as a late-night rerun, be sure to watch something more exciting like maybe a test pattern?
Crazy for You - TV (1999)
The flawless Paper Mill Playhouse revival of his wonderful 1992 Broadway hit was taped for PBS. Although the Hungarian-accented producer "Bella Zangler" bears no resemblance to Ziegfeld, his theater as seen in the set is an unmistakable replica of The Ziegfeld. And in the finale, the Zangler show girls are displayed in finery worthy of any Follies.