Worst Best Picture: Is The Great Ziegfeld Better or Worse Than Crash?

the great ziegfeld

Alex Russell

In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1936 winner The Great Ziegfeld. Is it better than Crash?

Before we talk about the three-hour musical The Great Ziegfeld, I’d like you to revisit the most iconic scene in the film. It’s gone down in history as the most familiar scene in any musical (possibly any film) and thus this might not even be the first time you’re seeing it today. I speak of course of the eight-minute epic “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody,” and I’m totally kidding what the hell, y’all:

It’s tough to be respectful of something like this. It’s so grandiose and so much bigger than it needs to be, but then again, that’s the idea. This was one of the most expensive scenes ever filmed at the time (adjusted for inflation, the set alone for this one scene would run you 3.7 million dollars today) and it was supposed to be a monument to excess. It’s the big, showy center to The Great Ziegfeld, the sorta-biopic of a showman in the early 1900s. Movies were just starting to take the place of stage shows, but one man believed in the cause enough to want to put on a last great show and prove to the world that enormous groups of people singing and dancing in sync were more interesting than any “plot” or “story” that you could show through a dumb ol’ movie.

The movie is mostly fine, but there’s huge chunks like this that could be cut. It’s a musical, but there’s also a twisting love story and lots of setup to each song, all of which contributes to the 177-minute run time. It’s disastrously long at three hours, and it must have felt long even at the time. Most movie theaters had only been air conditioned for a few years in 1936, so maybe people just liked a chance to cool off. That’s the only explanation for the sixth 10-minute song or the third repetitive “twist” in the fortunes of the main characters. Maybe you could stomach it all just to not be outside.

The characters are mostly interchangeable to the point that describing them doesn’t matter. Ziegfeld is brash and confident and the movie follows his successes and failures as he tries to develop the perfect performance. Modern eyes won’t recognize it when he “does,” however, since his greatest accomplishments are to “glorify the American girl.” The result, his “glorified Ziegfeld girl” is totally undefinable. It appears to be a woman that has hair of any color (but not skin of any color, it’s 1936), looks any way, has no personality that matters, and sings and dances. If there’s a point, I missed it entirely. Everyone acts like he’s doing some great work, but everything seems the same as everything else.

There’s really no draw here. It’s deeply, deeply boring, maybe beyond the abilities of anything else on the list. It would feel long at half the length, and there’s nothing to really sink your teeth into. The characters are all essentially the same (aside from Ziegfeld, who is zany enough to be interesting) and every scene feels like you just watched it. His fortunes fail and he’s forced to take drastic measures… again and again.

I’ll accept that I can’t really offer up a critical view of this movie’s place in musical history. There’s something to be said for a hugely expensive musical that set the standard for how big and how flashy you could be — the other early, early musical winner The Broadway Melody feels almost cheap by comparison — but that’s hard to be impressed by, now. The spectacle is still there, but without anything behind it the whole production feels hollow.

The Best Part: I actually like the first 20 minutes or so. Ziegfeld and his great nemesis have to find the perfect act to steal each other’s crowd away, and Ziegfeld decides to go with “The World’s Strongest Man, Sandow!” Both Sandow and Ziegfeld are real people, and this is the only part of the movie where everything feels cohesive and well-paced. It’s an interesting little bit of 30s film, but I think everything goes to hell after that.

The Worst Part: All of this music has fallen by the wayside. Some of the songs are in the “Great American Songbook” of sorts, but there’s nothing in here you’ll recognize. Even The Broadway Melody, another weird, dated musical from the early Oscar days has a few songs that feel somewhat familiar. A musical without songs to enjoy is a really tough sell, and that’s why it feels 27 hours long.

Is It Better or Worse than Crash? Where is the comparison between a musical from 1936 that feels dated and a drama from 2004 that feels dated? It’s right there. Both of these movies feel ridiculous and they’re both two hours too long (Crash is 112 minutes the joke is that Crash shouldn’t exist).

Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a SlaveThe Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The GodfatherCasablancaGrand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days  | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway  Melody | The Sound of Music | On the Waterfront | Unforgiven | Million Dollar Baby | My Fair Lady | HamletBraveheart | Oliver! | The English Patient | Lawrence of Arabia | Cimarron | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest | All Quiet on the Western Front | The Great Ziegfeld

Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at readingatrecess@gmail.com or on Twitter at @alexbad.

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