The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

180 or 170 mins | Musical, Biography | 4 September 1936

Director:

Robert Z. Leonard

Producer:

Hunt Stromberg

Cinematographer:

Oliver T. Marsh

Editor:

William S. Gray

Production Designer:

Cedric Gibbons

Production Company:

Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp.
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HISTORY

       Information in contemporary news items, the film's pressbook and the M-G-M Music Collection at the USC Cinema-Television Library relate the following: Universal Pictures purchased the rights to film the life story of showman Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. (1869-1932) from actress Billie Burke, Ziegfeld's widow, in late 1933. By Jan 1934, pre-production had begun with William Anthony McGuire, who had been a protege of Ziegfeld's, acting as both screenwriter and producer. In Jun 1934, it was announced that Ziegfeld's eighteen-year-old daughter Patricia was helping McGuire to select showgirls and costumes for the picture. Some sources also indicate that Burke helped McGuire with the original story, however, this may have been as a consultant rather than a writer. Filming was set to begin under Edward Sutherland's direction in late Jan 1935, following several weeks of rehearsals on various dance numbers.

       By mid-Feb 1935, after Universal had invested between $225,000 and $250,000 in the production, much of which went for elaborate sets, news items reported that McGuire was having "differences of opinion" with the studio over the film. Other news items noted that the big-budget picture was "too costly" for Universal which, at that time, was having severe financial problems and seeking outside sources of revenue. On 22 Feb, it was announced that Universal had entered into negotiations with M-G-M to take over The Great Ziegfeld project, and a tentative agreement was signed the next day. Several impediments were reported before the studios finalized the agreement on 11 Mar 1935. One problem involved the rights to the "Ziegfeld Follies" name when M-G-M considered producing annual "Follies" shows on Broadway, then turning them into films. The idea, ... More Less

       Information in contemporary news items, the film's pressbook and the M-G-M Music Collection at the USC Cinema-Television Library relate the following: Universal Pictures purchased the rights to film the life story of showman Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. (1869-1932) from actress Billie Burke, Ziegfeld's widow, in late 1933. By Jan 1934, pre-production had begun with William Anthony McGuire, who had been a protege of Ziegfeld's, acting as both screenwriter and producer. In Jun 1934, it was announced that Ziegfeld's eighteen-year-old daughter Patricia was helping McGuire to select showgirls and costumes for the picture. Some sources also indicate that Burke helped McGuire with the original story, however, this may have been as a consultant rather than a writer. Filming was set to begin under Edward Sutherland's direction in late Jan 1935, following several weeks of rehearsals on various dance numbers.

       By mid-Feb 1935, after Universal had invested between $225,000 and $250,000 in the production, much of which went for elaborate sets, news items reported that McGuire was having "differences of opinion" with the studio over the film. Other news items noted that the big-budget picture was "too costly" for Universal which, at that time, was having severe financial problems and seeking outside sources of revenue. On 22 Feb, it was announced that Universal had entered into negotiations with M-G-M to take over The Great Ziegfeld project, and a tentative agreement was signed the next day. Several impediments were reported before the studios finalized the agreement on 11 Mar 1935. One problem involved the rights to the "Ziegfeld Follies" name when M-G-M considered producing annual "Follies" shows on Broadway, then turning them into films. The idea, as such, was apparently discarded before the deal with Universal was consummated, but M-G-M did produce two additional films using Ziegfeld's name, Ziegfeld Girl (1941) and Ziegfeld Follies (1946), the rights to which may have been secured in the 1935 negotiations.

       Terms of the M-G-M/Universal agreement that have been confirmed in contemporary sources include the following: the production would move from Universal's San Fernando Valley lot to M-G-M's Culver City lot, as of 13 Mar 1935, at which time M-G-M would assume all additional production costs; M-G-M would pay $300,000 to Universal for costs incurred on the production to that date, plus a settlement for loss of revenue; McGuire's screenplay would be retained, but he would be replaced [by Hunt Stromberg] as producer in exchange for giving McGuire a writer-producer-director position on a future production; many "key" people from the Universal production would move to M-G-M; and, M-G-M would allow Universal to borrow William Powell (who initially had been loaned to Universal from M-G-M for the picture) for another film, following the completion of The Great Ziegfeld . Universal apparently insisted upon the Powell loan in order to satisfy their exhibitors, who had been promised that the studio would release a Powell picture. That picture became the financially successful 1936 comedy My Man Godfrey (see entry), for which Powell was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor. The promised McGuire project became the 1937 musical Rosalie , which he wrote and produced, but which was directed by Robert Z. Leonard (see entry).

       Although early news items during the negotiations continued to include Sutherland's name as the director, on 5 Mar 1935 George Cukor was announced by M-G-M as the possible director. Robert Z. Leonard was named as the probable director from 18 Mar on. The "Harriet Hoctor Ballet" (also known as "A Circus Must Be Different in a Ziegfeld Show"), which was shot by photographer Merritt B. Gerstad, was in rehearsal for six weeks at Universal before the production was moved to M-G-M, and news items reported that it would be shot immediately at the new studio. Other HR news items mentioned that the number would be shot, but used for another film. According to news items and the M-G-M Music Collection, the Hoctor Ballet started shooting on 8 Apr 1935 and continued for several days. Principal photography did not begin on the film's non-musical segments until 23 Sep 1935.

       Various news items reported the following casting information: Jack Benny, who had recently come to M-G-M, was considered for a role in the picture; Walter Catlett, who had appeared in the "Follies" on Broadway was signed for a role, but did not appear in the released film. "Follies" stars Leon Errol and Gilda Gray, who are both included in CBCS, did not appear in the film. Information in the M-G-M Music Collection confirms that musical numbers were shot featuring the respective performers. A dance featuring Ann Pennington was shot on 16 Sep 1935, according to a HR news item, but Pennington's number was also cut from the film. Margaret Perry and Jean Chatburn tested for the role of "Billie Burke," which was not assigned to Myrna Loy until early Oct. Chatburn was later cast in the role of "Mary Lou" (as an adult). Rosina Lawrence was tested for the role of Broadway star "Marilyn Miller," and is included in the CBCS in the role. The character name was changed "Sally Manners." The character appears to be based on Miller, as in the film, the character "Sally Manners" stars in the musical Sally , which was Miller's most famous role. Miller died on 7 Apr 1936, the day before the film's New York premiere. The reason why her characterization was altered for the film has not been determined, but a review of the film in Liberty quipped, "It's not true that Marilyn Miller died of a broken heart at not getting lead [sic] in this."

       Ray Bolger, who is listed in the onscreen credits as "Ray Bolger" actually tested for the role of "Follies" star Jack Donohue, according to a HR news item, and Reginald Owen, who plays Ziegfeld's agent "Samson" in the film, had earlier been cast in the role of Ziegfeld's butler. Actor Buddy Doyle is credited with portraying "Eddie Cantor" in the screen credits and in the program. Within the film, however, he is called "Buddy." The Var review notes that Doyle was Eddie Cantor's "Follies" understudy for many years. Doyle, whose real name was Benjamin Taubenhaus, died in 1939; this may have been his only film. According to Liberty , A. A. Trimble, who portrays "Will Rogers" in the film, was actually a Cleveland map salesman who frequently impersonated Rogers "at Rotarian lunches." Rogers died in Aug 1935, several weeks before production began on The Great Ziegfeld.

       The "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody" number, part of the "Ziegfeld Follies" sequence of the picture, is one of the most famous musical numbers ever filmed. The so-called "Wedding Cake" set took several weeks to rehearse and shoot, featured 180 performers and required 4,300 yards of silk rayon for the curtains, according to the film's pressbook. The number cost $220,000 to produce or, according to Liberty , "$40,000 more than the entire Follies would have set back Ziggie himself in the grand days." The number, which was filmed by photographer Ray June, was, according to modern sources, shot in one continuous "take." Several reviews singled the number out as a high point of the film and indicated that audiences at the premiere burst into applause after its completion. Actress Virginia Bruce, who portrayed the fictitious "Follies" star "Audrey Dane" in the film, is the woman seated at the pinnacle of the set. The actor who appears as the singer in the number, Stanley Morner, did not actually sing the song. Morner, who later changed his name to Dennis Morgan, was an accomplished singer, but the song had previously been recorded by Allan Jones, another M-G-M contract player, and the studio apparently decided not to re-record the number. No located contemporary publicity or reviews note the dubbing and the Var review praised Morner's "tenoring...in fine style and excellent camera advantage. It again suggests him as another surprise Metro discovery." The review also indicated that the role seemed to be a composite of "Follies" entertainers John Steel and Irving Fisher.

       Reviews and modern sources have indicated that there are many anachronisms in the film, especially in the placement of musical numbers from the various "Follies." Several "Follies" stars are fictionalized or placed in time frames that were not historically accurate, and dancer Ray Bolger, who portrays himself in the film, was actually never in a "Follies" show.

       M-G-M studio records record the cost of the production at $2,183,000, although various contemporary news items and feature articles estimated the cost as between $1,500,000 and $2,000,000 or, as Frank S. Nugent wrote in his NYT review, "about $500,000 an hour." Modern sources correctly state that the picture cost more than any M-G-M production since the 1925 silent spectacle, Ben-Hur (which studio records indicate cost $3,967,000 to produce). The film's premiere was held at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles which, according to LAT , had recently been redecorated.

       The film brought in $4,673,000 world-wide, according to studio records. In addition, it won three Academy Awards, for Best Picture, Best Actress (Luise Rainer, her first of two back-to-back awards), and Best Dance Direction (Seymour Felix for "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody"). The film was also nominated for Best Direction (Robert Z. Leonard), Best Art Direction (Cedric Gibbons, Merrill Pye and John Harkrider) Best Film Editing (William S. Gray) and Best Original Story (William Anthony McGuire). Some modern sources have speculated that the reason Powell was nominated for Best Actor for My Man Godfrey instead of The Great Ziegfeld was that the final scene of the latter film was considered too "maudlin" or "melodramatic" and therefore left a bad final impression of the overall performance. Powell did win the Screen Actor's Guild award for Best Actor, tying with C. Aubrey Smith for Little Lord Fauntleroy , and Rainer won their Best Actress award. The picture was named one of the "Ten Best" of the year by FD and NYT , and was one of the top twenty-five box office hits of 1936. A news item in MPH on 18 Apr 1936 noted that "the Ziegfeld family" was seeking an injunction against M-G-M for using the Ziegfeld name in the title, however, the suit was apparently settled out of court and, as noted above, the studio made two additional films using the name. In Ziegfeld Follies , which was a compendium of various musical numbers and comic sketches, Powell reprised his role, appearing as a celestial Ziegfeld planning another "Follies." Walter Pidgeon appeared as Ziegfeld in the 1968 William Wyler directed film Funny Girl (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1961-70 ; F6.1727), a biographical film on the life of "Follies" star Fanny Brice, and Paul Shenar portrayed the showman in the 1978 television movie Ziegfeld: The Man and His Women , directed by Buzz Kulik and co-starring Samantha Eggar. More Less

BIBLIOGRAPHIC SOURCES
SOURCE
DATE
PAGE
Daily Variety
29 Jun 34
p. 7.
Daily Variety
22 Feb 35
p. 1.
Daily Variety
23 Feb 35
p. 3.
Daily Variety
21 Mar 35
p. 2.
Daily Variety
25 Mar 35
p. 2.
Daily Variety
6 Nov 35
p. 4.
Daily Variety
22 Nov 35
p. 7.
Daily Variety
23 Nov 35
p. 2.
Daily Variety
9 Mar 36
p. 3.
Daily Variety
15 Jul 36
p. 2.
Film Daily
9 Apr 36
p. 10.
Hollywood Reporter
6 Jan 34
p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter
21 Jan 35
p. 1.
Hollywood Reporter
22 Feb 35
pp. 1-2.
Hollywood Reporter
25 Jan 35
p. 1.
Hollywood Reporter
26 Feb 35
pp. 1-2.
Hollywood Reporter
1 Mar 35
p. 1.
Hollywood Reporter
5 Mar 35
p. 1, 6
Hollywood Reporter
8 Mar 35
p. 1.
Hollywood Reporter
11 Mar 35
p. 7.
Hollywood Reporter
18 Mar 35
p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter
8 Apr 35
p. 9.
Hollywood Reporter
8 Aug 35
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
12 Aug 35
p. 3.
Hollywood Reporter
22 Aug 35
p. 2, 7
Hollywood Reporter
30 Aug 35
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
13 Sep 35
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
13 Sep 35
p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter
17 Sep 35
p. 1.
Hollywood Reporter
21 Sep 35
p. 1.
Hollywood Reporter
23 Sep 35
p. 14.
Hollywood Reporter
25 Sep 35
p. 11.
Hollywood Reporter
27 Sep 35
p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter
5 Oct 35
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
15 Oct 35
p. 9.
Hollywood Reporter
6 Nov 35
p. 4.
Hollywood Reporter
22 Nov 35
p. 7.
Hollywood Reporter
23 Nov 35
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
2 Dec 35
p. 6.
Hollywood Reporter
6 Dec 35
p. 10.
Hollywood Reporter
14 Jan 36
p. 2.
Hollywood Reporter
23 Mar 36
pp. 1-2.
Liberty
30-May-36
---
Los Angeles Times
23 Mar 36
Sec. I, p. 9.
Motion Picture Daily
20 Mar 36
p. 10.
Motion Picture Herald
4 Apr 36
pp. 1-2.
Motion Picture Herald
9 Apr 36
p. 14.
Motion Picture Herald
10 Apr 36
p. 8.
Motion Picture Herald
18 Apr 36
p. 76.
Motion Picture Herald
6 Jun 36
p. 101.
New York Times
9 Apr 36
p. 21.
New York Times
5 Mar 37
p. 17.
Variety
15 Apr 36
p. 16.
CAST
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
James P. Burtis
Lawrence Wheat
+
PRODUCTION CREDITS
NAME
PARENT COMPANY
PRODUCTION TEXT
A Robert Z. Leonard Production
NAME
CREDITED AS
CREDIT
DIRECTORS
Asst dir
Asst dir
PRODUCERS
Assoc prod
PHOTOGRAPHY
Ziegfeld roof numbers [photog]
Ziegfeld roof numbers [photog]
Melody number [photog]
Hoctor ballet [photog]
Spec photog, dance seq
ART DIRECTORS
Art dir
Art dir assoc
Art dir assoc
Art dir assoc
FILM EDITOR
Film ed
COSTUMES
Gowns and fashion parades
Mr. Powell's clothes designed and executed by
Wigs, make-up and hair goods
SOUND
Rec dir
DANCE
Dances and ensembles staged by
PRODUCTION MISC
Auditor
Press agent
STAND INS
Singing voice double for Stanley Morner in "A Pret
Mr. Powell's stand-in
SOURCES
LITERARY
Suggested by romances and incidents in the life of America's greatest showman, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.
SONGS
"A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody" and "Yiddle on Your Fiddle," music and lyrics by Irving Berlin
"You," "You Never Looked So Beautiful," "You Gotta Pull Strings," "It's the Girl (She's a Follies Girl)," music by Walter Donaldson, lyrics by Harold Adamson
"Makin' Whoopee!" music by Walter Donaldson, lyrics by Gus Kahn
+
SONGS
"A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody" and "Yiddle on Your Fiddle," music and lyrics by Irving Berlin
"You," "You Never Looked So Beautiful," "You Gotta Pull Strings," "It's the Girl (She's a Follies Girl)," music by Walter Donaldson, lyrics by Harold Adamson
"Makin' Whoopee!" music by Walter Donaldson, lyrics by Gus Kahn
"Look for the Silver Lining," music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by B. G. DeSylva
"Ol' Man River," music by Jerome Kern, lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II
"Rio Rita" and "Someone Loves You After All," music by Harry Tierney, lyrics by Joseph McCarthy
"March of the Musketeers," music by Rudolf Friml, lyrics by P. G. Wodehouse and Clifford Grey
"Tulip Time," music by Dave Stamper, lyrics by Gene Buck
"It's Delightful to Be Married," music by V. Scotto, lyrics by Anna Held
"After the Ball," music and lyrics by Charles K. Harris
"I Wish You'd Come and Play with Me," music by Alfred Plumpton, lyrics by G. P. Hawtrey
"If You Knew Susie (Like I Know Susie)," music and lyrics by B. G. DeSylva and Joseph Meyer
"Shine on Harvest Moon," music by Nora Bayes and Jack Norworth, lyrics by Jack Norworth
"By the Beautiful Sea," music by Harry Carroll, lyrics by Harold R. Atteridge
""My Man ( Mon homme )," music by Maurice Yvain, French lyrics by A. Willemetz and Jacques Charles, English adaptation by Channing Pollack
"Harriet Hoctor Ballet," music by Con Conrad, lyrics by Herb Magidson
with special music by Walter Donaldson and lyrics by Harold Adamson.
+
DETAILS
Release Date:
4 September 1936
Premiere Information:
Los Angeles premiere: 22 March 1936
New York opening:
Production Date:
8 April--mid April
23 September--5 December 1936
Copyright Claimant:
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp.
Copyright Date:
19 April 1936
Copyright Number:
LP6367
Physical Properties:
Sound
Western Electric Sound System
Black and White
Duration(in mins):
180 or 170
Length(in feet):
16,292
Length(in reels):
20
Country:
United States
Language:
English
PCA No:
2000
SYNOPSIS

Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., the son of a prominent Chicago music professor, has been reared to culture and taste, but prefers working in show business to a music conservatory. After successfully promoting a strongman named Sandow on a national tour, Flo sails for Europe after a stunt to have Sandow fight a ferocious lion backfires when the lion falls asleep on stage. On the boat to Europe, Flo runs into his old friend and rival Jack Billings, who doesn't want Flo to know that he is going to London to sign a new star, French singer Anna Held. After having lost all his money in Monte Carlo, Flo decides to go to London himself and soon learns about Anna. With money that Billings gives him to leave for home, Flo buys orchids for Anna and charms her into signing a contract with him, even though he admits that he is broke. At first Anna, who has fallen in love with Flo, is not the sensation that he had predicted, but after a publicity stunt in which it is reported that Anna bathes everyday in milk to keep her complexion lovely, she becomes one of the biggest stars on Broadway. After Anna and Flo marry, he continues to look for new and bigger ideas for shows, hurting the high-strung Anna, who only needs him to make her happy. His next show is a smash hit, the first of the Ziegfeld Follies , featuring hundreds of beautiful women whom Flo, an admirer of female beauty, calls his "Glorified Girls." One of the girls, Audrey Dane, is an opportunistic young woman in whom Flo takes a personal ... +


Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., the son of a prominent Chicago music professor, has been reared to culture and taste, but prefers working in show business to a music conservatory. After successfully promoting a strongman named Sandow on a national tour, Flo sails for Europe after a stunt to have Sandow fight a ferocious lion backfires when the lion falls asleep on stage. On the boat to Europe, Flo runs into his old friend and rival Jack Billings, who doesn't want Flo to know that he is going to London to sign a new star, French singer Anna Held. After having lost all his money in Monte Carlo, Flo decides to go to London himself and soon learns about Anna. With money that Billings gives him to leave for home, Flo buys orchids for Anna and charms her into signing a contract with him, even though he admits that he is broke. At first Anna, who has fallen in love with Flo, is not the sensation that he had predicted, but after a publicity stunt in which it is reported that Anna bathes everyday in milk to keep her complexion lovely, she becomes one of the biggest stars on Broadway. After Anna and Flo marry, he continues to look for new and bigger ideas for shows, hurting the high-strung Anna, who only needs him to make her happy. His next show is a smash hit, the first of the Ziegfeld Follies , featuring hundreds of beautiful women whom Flo, an admirer of female beauty, calls his "Glorified Girls." One of the girls, Audrey Dane, is an opportunistic young woman in whom Flo takes a personal interest. Her drinking keeps her from being a big success on Broadway and soon alienates Flo, but not before Anna sees Audrey kissing him. Though Flo loves Anna and tries to explain, she leaves him and files for divorce. Sobered after the breakup of his marriage, Flo loses interest in women until he sees Broadway star Billie Burke at a party and is immediately attracted to her. Her producer doesn't want her to see Flo, but they court secretly and are soon married. The day after they marry, a heart-broken and ill Anna telephones Flo to congratulate him. Though she feigns cheerfulness on the phone, later she admits to her maid that she only divorced Flo because she thought it would make him come back to her. Several years later, after repeated Broadway successes, Flo is very happy with Billie and their little daughter Patricia, but his extravagances, both on stage and in his personal life, bring him constant financial problems. Although he has been broke before, he begins to despair when he overhears some men in a barbershop say he will never have another hit. To prove them wrong, he vows to have four hits running simultaneously on Broadway, and with Billie's encouragement, and an advance from Billings, he is able to produce four successful shows in the same season. His financial worries appear to be over, until the stock market crashes in 1929. Although he had never invested in the market previously, concern for financial security made him buy stock on margin and he is wiped out, as is Billings. Now old and ill, Flo looks forward to starting new shows with his old stars, while Billie is forced to go back to the stage to support them. After a visit from Billings, who pretends to have money and encourages Flo to plan a new show, Flo dies, dreaming of bigger sets and higher stairs for production numbers in a new show. +

Legend
Viewed by AFI
Partially Viewed
Offscreen Credit
Name Occurs Before Title
AFI Life Achievement Award

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The American Film Institute is grateful to Sir Paul Getty KBE and the Sir Paul Getty KBE Estate for their dedication to the art of the moving image and their support for the AFI Catalog of Feature Films and without whose support AFI would not have been able to achieve this historical landmark in this epic scholarly endeavor.