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Blu-Ray : Worth a Look
Ranking:
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Release Date: December 12th, 2023 Movie Release Year: 1936

The Great Ziegfeld - Warner Archive Collection

Overview -

One of the last Best Picture Oscar winners to get a U.S. Blu-ray release, The Great Ziegfeld pays tribute to one of America's most famous showmen and depicts his life and loves with a hefty slathering of MGM gloss. Lavish musical numbers and sumptuous sets and costumes distinguish this bloated, often lumbering biopic that stars William Powell as the titular impresario and features an Oscar-winning performance by Luise Rainer. A brand new 4K scan struck from preservation elements, remastered audio, and several vintage supplements distinguish Warner Archive's Blu-ray presentation of a dazzling but often inert classic. Worth a Look.

 This 1936 Best Picture Oscar® winner is every bit extravagant as its subject: theatrical empresario Florence Ziegfeld, Jr. Said Newsweek, "it carries on his tradition of superlatives: the most expensive actors, the best dancers, the most beautiful girls…" William Powell gives one of his most acclaimed performances as the legendary Ziegfeld. Joining him are other stars from the MGM constellation: Myrna Loy (Powell's partner in The Thin Man series), Luise Rainer (the portrayal of actress Anna Held that won her the first of two consecutive Oscars®), The Wizard of Oz's Frank Morgan and Ray Bolger, and, in a rare screen appearance, the legendary Ziegfeld star Fannie Brice. Of course, it wouldn't be Ziegfeld without a parade of tunes (more than 20!), Showgirls (more than 300!) and dazzling set pieces. Most spectacular of all is the massive "wedding cake" sequence said to Irving Berlin's "A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody". No applause was added to the soundtrack of this scene. Live audiences, provided plenty… and still do. Meticulously remastered and presented in its "Roadshow version", with original Overture, Entr'acte and Exit music, this new Blu-ray release from Warner Archive aptly can be described by paraphrasing one of the many original songs written for the film-It Never Looked So Beautiful Before!

Special Features and Technical Specs:

  • NEW 4K RESTORATION OF THE FILM FROM PRESERVATION ELEMENTS (2023)
  • Historical retrospective:
    • "Ziegfeld on Film"
    • Vintage Newsreel excerpt "New York hails 'The Great Ziegfeld'"
  • Classic Warner Bros. Cartoon: "TOY TOWN HALL"
  • Audio-only LEO IS ON THE AIR Radio promotional program
  • Original Theatrical Trailer
  • Optional English SDH subtitles for the main feature

OVERALL:
Worth a Look
Rating Breakdown
STORY
VIDEO
AUDIO
SPECIAL FEATURES
Tech Specs & Release Details
Technical Specs:
NEW 4K RESTORATION OF THE FILM FROM PRESERVATION ELEMENTS (2023)
Video Resolution/Codec:
1080p/AVC MPEG-4
Length:
183
Aspect Ratio(s):
1.37:1
Audio Formats:
English: DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 Mono
Subtitles/Captions:
Optional English SDH subtitles for the main feature
Special Features:
Original Theatrical Trailer
Release Date:
December 12th, 2023

Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take

Ranking:

In a year in which such classics as Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, San Francisco, and A Tale of Two Cities vied for the hotly contested Best Picture honor, it might seem odd that MGM's sumptuous musical biopic The Great Ziegfeld won the coveted statuette. Or maybe not. Historically, Oscar often favors style over substance, particularly in the Best Picture category, and 1936 was no exception. For sheer theatrical spectacle, glamor, and especially girth, The Great Ziegfeld remains unmatched among 1930s musicals, but the eye-popping costumes, lavishly decorated sets, and elephantine production numbers can't mask the pervasive vacuity that plagues this plodding, bloated film.

That's heavy criticism for a Best Picture winner, but The Great Ziegfeld digs its own grave as it squanders innumerable chances to captivate its audience. With its overture, entr'acte, and exit music restored, director Robert Z. Leonard's production runs just over three hours, which is at least an hour too long given the film's surprisingly wispy narrative. The life of extravagant showman Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., who devised the legendary Ziegfeld Follies Broadway revues of the 1910s and '20s, was not particularly interesting, but the film fails to exploit the bits that were. To fill the epic framework, scenes are stretched well beyond the limits of audience patience, with frivolous dialogue continually stalling the action.

The script by William Anthony McGuire, who wrote a far more cohesive and entertaining screenplay for MGM's follow-up film, Ziegfeld Girl, five years later, severely waters down any unsavory aspects of Ziegfeld's character, such as his obsessive womanizing. Yet before we judge McGuire too harshly, we must remember MGM allowed Ziegfeld’s widow, actress Billie Burke, best known for her iconic portrayal of Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz, a substantial amount of input regarding how her late husband would be depicted on screen. McGuire could only push the envelope so far and the result is a largely reverential portrait that requires a lot of reading between the lines to get a true picture of this monumental theatrical figure.

Although The Great Ziegfeld set the standard for all future MGM musicals, it plays more like a pompous biopic, with its smattering of songs offering welcome diversion from the drawn-out drama that largely comprises the film's interminable first half. More than 35 minutes transpire before the first musical number, during which time we witness the rise of Ziegfeld (William Powell) from carnival barker to a wily impresario who ping-pongs between success and failure with head-spinning regularity. On a trip to Europe, a penniless Ziegfeld discovers the temperamental, vain, yet radiant Parisian actress Anna Held (Luise Rainer) and charms her into allowing him to produce her American debut. They eventually marry (in real life they did not, as Held was already married, but that vital detail is omitted here), however, his affair with blonde, boisterous, and booze-hungry chorus girl Audrey Dane (Virginia Bruce) destroys their relationship.

Myrna Loy portrays Burke, and while she receives second billing, she doesn't appear until the film's third hour, far too late for the patented Powell-Loy chemistry to perk up the proceedings. And in this sober, ponderous movie, anyone expecting the snappy repartee of Nick and Nora Charles will be brutally disappointed. From all accounts, Ziegfeld and Burke enjoyed a happy, 18-year union, and no Hollywood screen team personified wedded bliss better than Powell and Loy.

Loy evokes the inimitable Burke without imitating her (no easy task) and the debonair Powell brings considerable charm, finesse, and a bit of grit to Ziegfeld. (He's especially good in the movie's more compelling second half.) Rainer, thanks largely to the most famous one-sided telephone scene in cinema history, won the first of back-to-back Best Actress Oscars for her flighty yet sensitive portrayal and Frank Morgan supplies welcome comic relief as Ziegfeld's lifelong rival, friend, and occasional business partner.

A few cameos by such accomplished talents as Ray Bolger, ballerina Harriet Hoctor, and Fannie Brice buoy the film, but the effects are fleeting at best. The rubbery Bolger performs a delightful tap number that showcases his trademark elasticity, but it's Brice who steals the show in an amusing and quite touching recreation of her Cinderella discovery by Ziegfeld in a bawdy Brooklyn music hall. Later, the film inexplicably - and unforgivably - cuts away from Brice in mid-verse while she sings her signature song, "My Man."

It's a shame The Great Ziegfeld concentrates so intently on stuffy biography, because the film really shines - and often dazzles - when the Follies-style production numbers unfold. Dance director Seymour Felix, who also won an Oscar, strives to emulate Busby Berkeley's synchronized choreography, but what the musical sequences lack in kaleidoscopic imagination, they make up for in opulence, the likes of which rarely have been equaled. "You Never Looked So Beautiful Before" spotlights some of the most outrageous costumes ever to grace the silver screen, but nothing can top the iconic treatment of Irving Berlin's "A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody." Featured in the inaugural That's Entertainment! film, the number transforms a seemingly endless staircase into a gargantuan wedding cake speckled with live mannequins, tuxedo-clad chorus boys, exotic dancers, even opera singers, all of whom somehow navigate the treachery of the continually revolving set. A masterwork of ingenuity and execution, "A Pretty Girl" epitomizes MGM gloss.

The Great Ziegfeld was one of the first "event" films of the talkie era (it even includes an intermission) and MGM poured money into it hand over fist. The studio sought prestige with a capital "P" and they got it. In addition to winning three Oscars, the movie was nominated for four more and was a huge box office success. Depression-era audiences desperate for escape flocked to see the scantily clad chorus girls, jewel-encrusted society women, and outlandish musical numbers, and though the lack of substance probably didn’t bother many of them, it hampers the film today. As a historical relic, The Great Ziegfeld recalls a bygone, gilded era, but, unfortunately, like the Follies itself, its beauty is only skin deep.

Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Great Ziegfeld arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Aduio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.

Video Review

Ranking:

A brand new HD master struck from a 4K scan of preservation elements yields a high-quality 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that greatly improves upon the 2004 DVD, which suffered from extensive print damage that significantly dulled the glitz and glamor that's such an essential component of the film. The Blu-ray source is clean as a whistle and Warner Archive keeps the grain structure intact, resulting in a very pleasing film-like image that faithfully honors the cinematography of Oliver T. Marsh, who was ably assisted by George Folsey, Karl Freund, Merritt B. Gerstad, and Ray June, all of whom photographed various musical sequences.

Rich blacks, bright and stable whites, and nicely varied grays produce a well-balanced picture that possesses a fair amount of depth. The details of the ornate sets and lavish costumes are crisp, excellent shadow delineation keeps crush at bay, and sharp close-ups highlight Powell's twinkling eyes and trademark mustache, Rainer's angular features, and Loy's button nose. Some scenes exhibit some softness and/or a bit of extra texture, but that's a minor quibble. Without a doubt, The Great Ziegfeld has never looked better, and fans of this extravagant biopic shouldn't hesitate to upgrade.

Audio Review

Ranking:

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies clear, well-modulated sound that really shines during the musical numbers. A wide dynamic scale embraces all the highs and lows of the lush orchestrations and varied vocal timbres, all of which sound rich and fill the room with ease. Dialogue is well prioritized and easy to comprehend, no distortion creeps into the mix, and though some faint surface noise can be heard during quiet moments, all the aural defects that plagued the 2004 DVD have been erased. The Great Ziegfeld is a relatively quiet film, but its musical numbers provide a much needed jolt, and this remastered track helps maximize their impact.

Special Features

Ranking:

In addition to porting over the two extras from the 2004 DVD, Warner Archive tacks on a couple of other noteworthy vintage supplements.

  • Featurette: "Ziegfeld on Film" (SD, 13 minutes) - This 2004 making-of piece offers background on Ziegfeld's childhood and the evolution of his famed Follies, which were originally envisioned as a throwaway summer replacement show. We also learn about the origins of The Great Ziegfeld and how the production was meticulously monitored by Ziegfeld's widow, actress Billie Burke, who made sure her late husband was presented in an accurate (and favorable) light. Still, Burke was reportedly displeased with the final product, although Ziegfeld's daughter Patricia believes the film properly represents her father's character and relationships with women. Highlighting the short film are feisty comments by 94-year-old actress Luise Rainer, who was heralded as the new Garbo when she arrived in Hollywood from Austria in the mid-1930s. In three years she made eight films and won unprecedented back-to-back Best Actress Oscars (for The Great Ziegfeld and The Good Earth), but rapidly became disillusioned with the superficiality of Tinseltown and abandoned her stardom. "I needed to leave to save myself," she declares, but her vital, articulate appearance in this entertaining featurette shows just what a crusty survivor she was. Rainer lived another 10 years, passing away in 2014 at the ripe old age of 104.

  • Vintage Newsreel Excerpt: The Great Ziegfeld Premiere (SD, 4 minutes) - This brief newsreel clip chronicling the film's New York premiere features off-the-cuff comments from Cliff Edwards, Kitty Carlisle, and a very young Ed Sullivan. Harpo Marx also appears, but, predictably, does not speak.

  • Vintage Cartoon: Toy Town Hall (HD, 7 minutes) - A little boy's toys come to life in this charming 1936 Looney Tunes cartoon that also spoofs such popular performers of the day as Bing Crosby, Eddie Cantor, and Rudy Vallee. The brilliant color is a sight to behold.

  • Vintage Radio Show: Leo Is on the Air (14 minutes) - This episode of the long-running MGM promotional series features songs and dramatic snippets from the film. Most notably, it allows us to hear Fannie Brice sing the chorus of her signature song, "My Man," which is not included in the film.

  • Theatrical Trailer (HD, 4 minutes) - In addition to touting the illustrious cast, the film's original preview includes testimonials from entertainment greats Ed Wynn and Jack Benny and hypes The Great Ziegfeld as the "sensation of the century."

Final Thoughts

It's tough to turn a cold shoulder to a Best Picture Oscar winner, but The Great Ziegfeld hasn't aged well. Its one-note story and interminable running time severely diminish its appeal, and though the film coasts along on the strength of its sumptuous (and deservedly acclaimed) musical numbers, there just aren't enough of them to keep even diehard classics fans interested and involved for three hours. Warner Archive's typically top-notch transfer struck from a 4K scan of preservation elements makes the movie's length easier to endure, while solid audio and engaging supplements add to the appeal of this long overdue release. The Great Ziegfeld may be an endurance test, but it's definitely Worth a Look.