Saturday, September 24, 2011
The Cinematic Florenz Ziegfeld
Nice pseudo rainy day in New York. Sipping my coffee, listening to Klea Blackhurst (if she doesn't jump start your day, you're dead!) and thinking about today's blog. This afternoon, I'm joining The Ziegfeld Society and The Paley Center for a rare showing of a 1978 tele-movie entitled Ziegfeld And His Women.
And it got me to thinking is there another historical figure that has been the subject of as many films as Ziegfeld? Do many people know very much about Ziegfeld beyond The Follies and the way he is depicted in film?
Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. (March 21, 1867 – July 22, 1932), (sometimes also called "Flo" Ziegfeld), was an American Broadway impresario, notable for his series of theatrical revues, The Ziegfeld Follies (1907–1931), inspired by the Folies Bergère of Paris.
He also produced the musical Show Boat.
Show Boat is a musical in two acts with music by Jerome Kern and book and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II.
It was originally produced in New York in 1927 and in London in 1928, and was based on the 1926 novel of the same name by Edna Ferber. The plot chronicles the lives of those living and working on the Cotton Blossom, a Mississippi River show boat, from 1880 to 1927. The show's dominant themes include racial prejudice and tragic, enduring love.
Ziegfeld was born in Chicago, Illinois, in 1867. (Some sources, including his obituary, give the year of birth as 1869.) His mother, Rosalie (née de Hez), who was born in Belgium, was the grand niece of General Count Étienne Maurice Gérard. His father, Florenz Ziegfeld, Sr., was a German immigrant whose father was the mayor of Jever in Friesland. Ziegfeld, Jr., was Christened in his mother's Catholic church (his father was Lutheran).
Ziegfeld, Jr.'s father ran the Chicago Musical College and later opened a nightclub, the Trocadero, to obtain business from the 1893 World's Fair.
To help his father's unsuccessful nightclub, Ziegfeld, Jr., hired and managed the strongman, Eugen Sandow.
How little the public realizes what a girl must go through before she finally appears before the spotlight that is thrown upon the stage.
I don't have a very quick sense of humor.
But it is only through constant, faithful endeavor by the girl herself that the goal eventually is reached.
Curtain! Fast music! Light! Ready for the last finale! Great! The show looks good, the show looks good!
Half of the great comedians I've had in my shows and that I paid a lot of money to and who made my customers shriek were not only not funny to me, but I couldn't understand why they were funny to anybody.
Ziegfeld was known as the "glorifier of the American girl".
The Ziegfeld Follies were elaborate theatrical productions that took place in New York from 1907 through 1931. Taking a cue from the Folies Bergères of Paris, Florenz Ziegfeld conceptualized the idea for his own lavish revues. The Ziegfield girls were chorus singers and the toast of Broadway.
Their always talked about, often risque costumes were designed by Erté, Lady Duff Gordon or Ali Ben Hagan.
One of my favorite historians is John Kenrick. Luckily for me and the purposes of this blog, he has written a lot about Ziegfeld over the years. With the utmost respect for John, most of this blog has been lifted from his site, Musicals 101.
No Ziegfeld production was ever filmed in performance. However, Ziegfeld did make a film involving the Follies. Other movies attempted to invoke the great showman's legacy.
Glorifying the American Girl (1929)
This early Paramount talkie was a hopeless failure, ruined in part by the limitations of primitive sound film techniques. Although Ziegfeld is credited as producer, his actual involvement was limited – and it shows. We get fascinating appearances by Eddie Cantor, Helen Morgan, New York's Mayor Jimmy Walker, Adolph Zukor and even Ziegfeld himself. However, the story of a small town girl (played by Mary Eaton) who comes to New York and rises to stardom in the Follies is so dull that it rates as celluloid Sominex. Even the Follies production numbers come across as feeble. Realizing they had a dud on their hands, the studio heads delayed releasing this one for months. It was panned when it came out in 1930, and is rarely shown today.
"A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody" opens the show with badly staged fashion show representing the March of Time from 1919 to 1928. We're tossed right into the main theme of Glorifying the American Girl (1928), that being the glorification of beauty.
Marilyn Miller recreated her most popular stage performance in this early sound film. Originally filmed in Technicolor, only black and white prints survive with less than optimal picture quality. (A single surviving color scene gives us some idea of what we are missing.) This film gives a limited sense of Miller's stage presence. Although a limited actress and singer, she radiates star quality when she dances.
Ever mindful of publicity, Ziegfeld appeared in several newsreels and short subjects, either discussing the Follies or promoting one of his few films projects. Some of these little treasures have show up on TCM, AMC or PBS. Ziegfeld always appears stiff -- his "spontaneous remarks" are obviously scripted.
Broadway Melody (1929)
This was the first "all talking, all singing, all dancing" film, and the first sound film – let alone musical – to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. The mother of all MGM musicals, it involves two sisters struggling in show biz who fall in love with the same guy. They all land in "Mr. Zanfield's" newest Broadway revue, but the clumsy numbers don't bear even a feint resemblance to anything Ziegfeld would have presented.
It is the task of several months and it is a fact that a girl, either while rehearsing or actually playing, may be training for some character or feature in some future production not yet definitely fixed even in my own mind.
Eddie Cantor's stage vehicle made it to the big screen in "glorious Technicolor" with several of the original cast members intact, including Ethel Shutta (who would introduce "Broadway Baby" in Sondheim's Follies four decades later).
Credited as the film's co-producer, a disappointed Ziegfeld soon realized he had no real power over the project.
Young choreographer Busby Berkley gave the dances some redeeming sense of style – a mere hint of what he would do in years to come. It is interesting to see Cantor in what many considered his greatest stage role.
Ziegfeld's stage spectaculars, known as the Ziegfeld Follies, began with Follies of 1907, which opened on July 7, 1907, and were produced annually until 1931. These extravaganzas, with elaborate costumes and sets, featured beauties chosen personally by Ziegfeld in production numbers choreographed to the works of prominent composers such as Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Jerome Kern. The Follies featured many performers who, though well-known from previous work in other theatrical genres, achieved unique financial success and publicity with Ziegfeld. Included among these are Nora Bayes, Fanny Brice, W. C. Fields, Eddie Cantor, Marilyn Miller, Will Rogers, Bert Williams and Ann Pennington.
The Great Ziegfeld (1936)
One of the all-time great MGM musicals, this won well-deserved Academy Awards for Best Picture and Luise Rainer's heartbreaking performance as Anna Held.
While Rainer is superb, the real Held was a sensible professional, not the tantrum-throwing emotional quagmire seen here.
(Her famous telephone scene is still a knockout.)
William Powell is magnificent in the title role, and his Thin Man co-star Myrna Loy is perfect as Billie Burke.
"A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody" is one of the most spectacular Hollywood ever filmed, so who cares that its massive turntable set and endless cast couldn't possibly fit on a real Broadway stage?
As with most screen bios, The Great Ziegfeld gets only a few basic facts straight, relying on creative fiction most of the way. The chorus numbers do give a sense of the extravagance Ziegfeld was noted for. For legal reasons, Lillian Lorraine and Marilyn Miller were represented by fictional characters. The befuddled producer played by Frank Morgan is a composite stand-in for Charles Dillingham, Jacob Shubert and several others. While Ray Bolger plays himself, he never worked asa stage hand and never appeared in a Ziegfeld production. Fanny Brice's rendition of "My Man" is pointlessly cut short, even though they found ample time for mere impersonators of other Ziegfeld stars to do their bits. Quibbles aside, this is still a very entertaining – if overly long – film.
Ziegfeld's promotion of the Polish-French Anna Held, including press releases about her milk baths, brought her fame.
Ziegfeld helped oversee her meteoric rise to national fame. It was Held who first suggested an American imitation of the Parisian Follies to Ziegfeld.
Her success in a series of his Broadway shows, especially The Parisian Model,was a major reason for his starting the "series of lavish revues in 1907", the Ziegfeld Follies.
Ziegfeld married Held in 1897, but she divorced him in 1913, according to her obituary in The New York Times dated August 13, 1918.
However, according to Eve Golden, Held and Ziegfeld had never actually married, but had an "informal" wedding in 1897, and they had lived together long enough to "qualify as legal man and wife". Held's divorce from Ziegfeld became final on January 9, 1913. Held had submitted testimony about Ziegfeld's relationship with another woman.
It is impossible to discuss Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.'s development as a showman without considering Anna Held's contribution to his life and career.
Ziegfeld got his taste in clothes, knowledge of stage presentation, and even the idea for his Follies from her.
She was one of the first celebrities to win transatlantic fame, and a leading musical stage star for more than two decades. It is no exaggeration to say that she was one of the most remarkable women of her time.
They all hope I will go broke and I wouldn't like to cause them displeasure.
The year after Held divorced Ziegfeld, he married actress Billie Burke,[who in 1939 would go on to play Glinda in The Wizard of Oz.
They had one child, Patricia Ziegfeld Stephenson (1916 — 2008).
The family lived on his estate in Hastings-on-Hudson, New York, and Palm Beach, Florida.
After Ziegfeld's death in 1932, Billie Burke,was consumed by the debt he left behind. In an effort to settle her money troubles she turned towards acting and authorizing the use of the name Ziegfeld Follies.
Let us hope that for many it does mean the end of trouble so far as earning a livelihood is concerned, that it means happy and comfortable home living honestly earned. But there are other troubles ahead for her, and plenty of hard work.
Show Boat (1936)
Original cast members Charles Winninger (Captain Andy), Helen Morgan (Julie), Sammy White (Frank) and Queenie Smith (Ellie) star in the best screen version of Ziegfeld's greatest show.
London and Ziegfeld revival star Paul Robeson is on hand as Joe to deliver a memorable "Old Man River."
Irene Dunne is Magnolia, a role Ziegfeld cast her in for the national tour, so the great showman's tastes in casting and performance style are very much a part of this classic film.
Both Kern and Hammerstein were on hand to keep things in tune, and director James Whale (best remembered for Frankenstein) did a smashing job bringing everything together.
If you haven't seen this Show Boat, you haven't seen Show Boat.
Ziegfeld Girl (1941)
Judy Garland, Lana Turner and Hedy Lamarr play three girls whose loves are forever changed when they are cast in the Follies.
Garland's "I'm Always Chasing Rainbows" and Busby Berkeley's dazzling "You Stepped Out of a Dream" sequence are pure MGM magic. Ziegfeld alumni Al Shean and Charles Winninger are also featured.
The Ziegfeld Follies (1946)
Ziegfeld Follies (MGM) is a 1945 Hollywood musical comedy film directed by Lemuel Ayers, Roy Del Ruth, Robert Lewis, Vincente Minnelli, Merrill Pye, George Sidney and Charles Waters. It stars many of MGM leading talents, including Fred Astaire, Lucille Ball, Lucille Bremer, Judy Garland, Kathryn Grayson, Lena Horne, Gene Kelly, James Melton, Victor Moore, William Powell, Red Skelton, and Esther Williams. It also featured Fanny Brice, the only cast member to have actually starred in the original Ziegfeld Follies.
Till the Clouds Roll By (1946)
A 1946 American musical film made by MGM.
The film is a fictionalized biography of composer Jerome Kern, who was originally involved with the production of the film, but died before it was completed.
SHOW BOAT (1951)
Show Boat was filmed three times. The first version, a part-talkie released in 1929 while the stage show was still playing, "is more closely based on the source novel than the stage play." It did keep one song from the stage musical, "Ol' Man River".
Nevertheless, Ziegfeld appeared in a sound prologue made to be shown before the actual film.
Deep in My Heart (1954)
Deep in My Heart is a 1954 MGM biographical musical film about the life of operetta composer Sigmund Romberg, who wrote the music for The Student Prince, The Desert Song, and The New Moon, among others.
Leonard Spigelgass adapted the film from Elliott Arnold's 1949 biography of the same name.
Roger Edens produced, Stanley Donen directed and Eugene Loring choreographed.
José Ferrer played Romberg, with support from soprano Helen Traubel as a fictional character and Merle Oberon as lyricist Dorothy Donnelly.
Not only may she unconsciously register a favorable impression with my associates and me, but she may also suggest something by her work that will lead to some new and novel feature in a forthcoming production.
Funny Girl (1969)
Ziegfeld: The Man and His Women - TV (1978)
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Mr. Ziegfeld and every entertainer and/or person depicted and/or mentioned in this blog, thank you all for the gifts you have given me over the years!
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