The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
Do you like long, slow musical numbers that involve almost nothing but looking at showgirls’ legs? No? Well, tough shit, because you’re in for a LOT of them. Get comfy.
The Great Ziegfeld is an interesting historical artifact; we all know that movies like to occasionally do self-congratulatory nostalgia pieces, reminding middle-aged audiences how cool movies were when they were teenagers. Thing is, in 1936, the era people were nostalgic for was before movies existed. Thus, we open at the legendary 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and get a whole bunch of turn-of-the-century hijinks as Florenz Ziegfeld puts on a long series of expensive shows on the theme of “Man, do I like chicks.”
The Ziegfeld numbers are by far the draggiest, most boring parts of the movie. In between we’ve got celebrity cameos (Yes, that’s Al Jolson, and yes, he’s in blackface, as was the style at the time.) and snappy patter, both of which are pretty entertaining. It's a peppily written film with a fun, just-short-of-raunchy sense of humor. Best of all, we’ve got William Powell as Ziegfeld and Myrna Loy as his wife. 90% of the entertainment value in this movie comes from watching those two play off each other, as fans of the Thin Man series are already aware.
Both Powell and Loy had that arched-eyebrow Bill Murray quality where they always seem to be a little bit too cool for the roles they’re playing, a kind of self-aware hipness that makes them fun to watch. In combination, they always seem to be having a subtextual conversation indicating that once they’re done shooting this scene, they’re going to go get drunk and fuck each other's brains out. Amazingly, the two apparently never actually became lovers, a missed opportunity for generations of pop culture voyeurs.
What did this beat?
Anthony Adverse, Dodsworth, Libeled Lady, Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Romeo and Juliet, San Francisco, The Story of Louis Pasteur, A Tale of Two Cities, and Three Smart Girls. Of these nominees, one is still considered a classic, and it ain't the winner. Those with cinephile friends may have heard “Oh my god, you’ve never seen Mr. Deeds Goes to Town?” but nobody still alive has ever heard “We have to watch The Great Ziegfeld, it’s amazing!”