I love it when movies impress me. I love it when I catch myself leaning in closer to a screen or making comments alone in the dark. In the digital age, though, this hardly ever happens. It's not real, and I know it. Incredible images or sequences of film are only the product of talented nerds working at a computer. So often it is in the movies of decades gone that I find astonishment.
The Great Ziegfeld is not really a great movie. But it has incredible parts that make it worth seeing. It is a loving and flamboyant tribute to one of America's greatest stage producers to ever live, done with a brilliant combination of stage craft and screen spectacle.
The movie is about the life and career of Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr, best known for his "Follies", spectacular shows meant to glorify the beauty of the American woman. As a biographical movie it is okay, but we are only ever given one date, and it often jumps periods of years without making mention of it. I'm not even sure if it takes much trouble in dwelling on fact, but that isn't really what the movie is about. It is about his legend as known to the American people of the thirties.
What stands out are the extravagant stage productions inserted into the film, many of which would be a showstopper in another picture. But the crown jewel of these is "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody." (See the clip here, pardon the poor quality.) Its ten minutes or so won the film a Dance Direction Oscar (too bad they don't give those out anymore) and it is entirely deserved. It was my "wow" moment: not because I found a quaint little thing, now done easily but crudely pioneered here, but because the technical and the artistic were so effectively blended. This is why we go to movies, why we see images printed on film and projected onto the silver screen. There is nothing, not advanced digital imaging techniques or cheap 3D thrills, that can replace this kind of artistry. But I am afraid this may be a thing of the past.
So, it isn't a great movie, but it does great things. It's too long and its narrative arc doesn't make much sense. But it is a fine example of a craft I don't think we have any more, and reminds us why we watch movies at all.
The Great Ziegfeld features William Powell, Luise Rainer, Myrna Loy, and the guy who plays Oz, and is not rated.
by Chase Harrison