Watched The Great Ziegfeld last night. The movie, produced in 1935-36, was an homage to the recently departed impresario. (He had died barely three years earlier.) It was also a lifeline for his indebted widow, Billie Burke, who sold the rights to his story. One thing Ziegfeld was great at: spending money.
Watching Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. (as played by William Powell) lavish diamonds on the wrist, neck, and ears of Billie Burke (as played by Myrna Loy), I couldn’t help thinking of the hundreds of dirt-poor South Africans who mined those diamonds just so Ziggy could satisfy his “sense of beauty.” The sense of imbalance was shocking.
Ziegfeld carried 1920s excess to excessive lengths–all built on the back of rising stock values, purchased increasingly on margin. Ziggy joined in the Wild Party. When the crash came in 1929, the Great Ziegfeld became just another bankrupted businessman. His health declined with his finances.
In the movie’s final scene, Powell’s Ziegfeld sits in his lounge chair, dressed in silk robe and slippers. His friendly competitor, Billings (played by Frank Morgan, soon of the Wizard in The Wizard of Oz fame), comforts him and the two reminisce on good times–ones that we, as movie viewers, shared with them earlier in the film. We can’t help but feel nostalgic right along with them.
What we can’t feel is a sense of tragedy. Ziegfeld brought about his own demise through a kind of willed myopia. And yet…there is something admirable about a man who, both in life and on the screen, did not cut corners to achieve his artistic vision (even if the aesthetic leaves us less than fully moved today). “He brought beauty into the entertainment world….” said the real Will Rogers at Ziegfeld’s actual death. For the performers, Rogers continued, he gave them a badge. It said: “I worked for Ziegfeld.”
- Brideson, Cynthia, and Brideson, Sara. Ziegfeld and His Follies: A Biography of Broadway’s Greatest Producer. Lexington: University of Kentucky Press, 2015.
- “The Great Ziegfeld,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Great_Ziegfeld.
- Images: Wikimedia Commons.