The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

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Released 16-Mar-2004

Cover Art

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Details At A Glance

General Extras
Category Musical Main Menu Audio
Featurette-Making Of-Ziegfeld On Film
Featurette-New York Hails The Great Ziegfeld - Vintage Newsreel
Rating Rated G
Year Of Production 1936
Running Time 177:54 (Case: 169)
RSDL / Flipper RSDL (84:57) Cast & Crew
Start Up Menu
Region Coding 2,4,5 Directed By Robert Z. Leonard

Warner Home Video
Starring William Powell
Myrna Loy
Luise Rainer
Frank Morgan
Fanny Brice
Virginia Bruce
Reginald Owen
Ray Bolger
Ernest Cossart
Joseph Cawthorn
Nat Pendleton
Harriet Hoctor
Jean Chatburn
Case Amaray-Transparent-Secure Clip
RPI $19.95 Music Walter Donaldson
William Axt
Hugo Friedhofer

Video Audio
Pan & Scan/Full Frame Full Frame English Dolby Digital 1.0 (192Kb/s)
Spanish Dolby Digital 1.0 (192Kb/s)
Widescreen Aspect Ratio None
16x9 Enhancement No
Video Format 576i (PAL)
Original Aspect Ratio 1.37:1 Miscellaneous
Jacket Pictures No
Subtitles English
English for the Hearing Impaired
Smoking Yes
Annoying Product Placement No
Action In or After Credits No

NOTE: The Profanity Filter is ON. Turn it off here.

Plot Synopsis

    This film won the Best Picture Academy Award for 1936. Actually, the award in those days was for "outstanding production", which makes slightly more sense when considering the win against the other nine films nominated, most of which stand up much better today. Having seen all ten films, I would probably put this one in, say, about 10th spot.

    This film purports to be the story of the American showman Florenz Ziegfeld Jr., who created the so-called Ziegfeld Follies and also produced a number of hit musicals, some written by Jerome Kern and George Gershwin amongst others. The Follies made stars of a number of performers, among them Fanny Brice, Eddie Cantor, W.C. Fields, Will Rogers and many others.

    The film was made under the uncredited supervision of Billie Burke (Ziegfeld's widow and an actress herself), and thus the portrait is entirely positive, glossing over Ziegfeld's womanising and his underhanded dealings. The film starts with Ziegfeld's early years running a show with the legendary strongman The Great Sandow, up until his death in 1932. A lot of dramatic licence is taken with events, with fictional characters (such as Jack Billings and Audrey Dane) and events occurring out of chronological sequence. Even so, most of the events depicted actually happened, though perhaps not quite in the way they are shown.

    The film is long but entertaining. There are many musical numbers, most notably "A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody", which, according to most histories (and repeated on the featurette extra) was filmed in one continuous take running nearly eight minutes. Perhaps they blinked during the obvious cut in the Pagliacci segment. I suspect most of these numbers bear no relation to what was seen on stage. They are mainly shot front-on in an attempt to give the audience the perspective of being at a Ziegfeld show, so they are not very cinematic. The "A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody" number is pretty tedious as a result, though it does have a dream-like quality.

    The biographical parts seem more like a run through of the facts of Ziegfeld's life, and don't really rise to any dramatic level. I did not feel that I knew anything more about Ziegfeld the man from watching this film. The film lags considerably towards the end.

    The film is smoothly directed by Robert Z. Leonard, who was a successful but undistinguished contract director at MGM. The lead role is played by William Powell, who does not give any depth or character to Ziegfeld, though one could argue that this was the fault of the script, not the actor. Billie Burke is played by his frequent co-star Myrna Loy. Virginia Bruce (a Follies girl herself) does far better in the fictional role of Audrey Dane, presumably based on the real life Lillian Lorraine, who was still living when the film was made and therefore able to sue. Frank Morgan gives the same performance he gave in every film he was in, as Ziegfeld's fictional rival Jack Billings.

    Several Ziegfeld stars appear as themselves, most notably Fanny Brice, who is a little too old for the role of "Fanny Brice", but gives some idea of what her vaudeville act was like. Someone named A. A. Trimble plays Will Rogers. He is an absolute dead ringer for Rogers, and at first I thought it was the real thing, though Rogers was dead by this time. Apparently Eddie Cantor refused to appear as himself because the script had him not returning the dying Ziegfeld's phone calls. I cannot say I blame him. His impersonator has all of the mannerisms but none of the charm.

    The stand-out performance in this film is by Luise Rainer as Anna Held. Rainer was a German actress whose nationality was changed to Austrian by the MGM publicity machine, and in this, her second American film, she is stunning as the flighty and emotional Held. She dominates every scene she is in and acts rings around the other stars. She deservedly won an Oscar for this role and would repeat the dose the following year for an even better performance in The Good Earth.

    In summary, this is not the best film ever to be acclaimed Best Film, but it is still reasonably entertaining despite its ponderous length. MGM have seen fit to include the Overture, Intermission and Entr'acte music on this disc, bringing the running time up to nearly three hours. Make sure you have a comfortable chair.

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Transfer Quality


    It is a pity that the film was not restored for this DVD release.

    The film is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.33:1 and is not 16x9 enhanced. The original aspect ratio was 1.37:1, so we are missing a small amount of picture here, but not enough to be of concern.

    The image is nice and sharp throughout, and shadow detail is good for a film of this vintage. It is in black and white, and while the film does not have deep blacks or bright whites, contrast levels are well judged.

    I did not notice any film to video artefacts apart from some telecine wobble during the opening credits.

    The major disappointment for me in this transfer was the level of film artefacts. There are scratches and debris throughout the entire length of the picture, and a couple of times I thought it was being filmed during a rainstorm, such as at 45:10 and 134:50. Even a simple wet-gating of the print during the telecine process might have removed a lot of these scratches. This is all the more irritating as you can see that the film looks pretty good under all of that detritus.

    Subtitles in fifteen languages are provided, with the English subtitles fairly accurate to the spoken word. English subtitles for the hearing impaired are also available. The subtitles are a little small, but still readable.

    The film is presented on an RSDL-formatted disc with the layer change occurring at 84:57 immediately after the Entr'acte during a fade to black. It is well placed and not disruptive.

Video Ratings Summary
Shadow Detail
Film-To-Video Artefacts
Film Artefacts


    The default audio track is an English Dolby Digital 1.0 mono affair, reflecting the original audio of the film. There is of course no surround encoding. An alternative Spanish language is provided.

    The sound is a little tinny but thankfully free of significant hiss and not too many crackles or pops to be heard. This is quite standard quality for a film of this vintage. I did not have any trouble with dialogue, which is easy on the ear, although the vocals on "A Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody" were quite recessed and indistinct. I suspect that this is in the source material.

    Music is by various composers, though only Walter Donaldson and Harold Adamson receive an on-screen credit. There are bits of Jerome Kern (from Show Boat), Dvorak, Puccini, Leoncavallo, Gershwin and so on sprinkled throughout. Despite the music, this is not really a musical, more of a comedy-drama with musical interludes.

Audio Ratings Summary
Audio Sync
Surround Channel Use


Main Menu Audio

    Music from the film is played over the main menu. For some reason, the menu is 16x9 enhanced.

Featurette - Ziegfeld On Film (13:24)

    An interesting featurette about the making of the film. It features specially recorded interviews with Ziegfeld's daughter, now in her late eighties, and another Ziegfeld who has written a biography of his ancestor. Mention is made of some of the real events shown in the film, how the film glosses over aspects of Ziegfeld's life and the surprise that it won the Oscar. There is also some candid interview footage made several years ago with Luise Rainer, who is still living at the time I write this.

New York Hails The Great Ziegfeld - Vintage Newsreel (4:04)

    This is a strange piece of film by modern standards of film premiere reporting, and obviously is raw footage that has not been edited down into a final form. After some footage of the outside of the theatre (the only audio being pops and crackles), there are a series of celebrities speaking their thoughts into a microphone in front of a camera. They seem unsure as to whether they are on film, as some speak to unseen people off camera. I am not sure who all of them are, but I believe the second speaker is MGM producer Sam Marx, who turned up as an interviewee on a lot of 70s and 80s programmes speaking about the old Hollywood. Also featured is a very young looking Ed Sullivan, and film comedy star Jack Oakie. The final pair is where the real interest in this newsreel is: one is unidentified, the other I did not recognise at first in his evening suit and hat. It turns out to be Harpo Marx, who speaks two words into the microphone. Actually, he just says one word twice. I do not recall ever hearing his voice before.

R4 vs R1

NOTE: To view non-R4 releases, your equipment needs to be multi-zone compatible and usually also NTSC compatible.

    The only difference between this and the Region 1 is the television format, so there is no reason not to prefer the Region 4.


    A long biography of the famous showman, this DVD would have been more recommendable had the film been restored. Perhaps we will have to wait for The Great Ziegfeld: Ultimate Edition for that.

    The video quality suffers from omnipresent film artefacts.

    The audio quality is good considering the age of the film.

    The extras are interesting and relevant but not substantial.

Ratings (out of 5)


© Philip Sawyer (Bio available.)
Monday, March 22, 2004
Review Equipment
DVDPioneer DV-S733A, using Component output
DisplaySony 86CM Trinitron Wega KVHR36M31. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum. This display device is 16x9 capable.
Audio DecoderBuilt in to DVD player, Dolby Digital, dts and DVD-Audio. Calibrated with Ultimate DVD Platinum.
AmplificationYamaha RX-V596 for surround channels; Yamaha AX-590 as power amp for mains
SpeakersMain: Tannoy Revolution R3; Centre: Richter Harlequin; Rear: Pioneer S-R9; Subwoofer: JBL SUB175

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