Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Great Ziegfeld! (and Rosemary's Baby)

I recently had the pleasure of watching one of the odder double features of recent times: The Great Ziegfeld followed by Rosemary's Baby.

I was going to try to come up with a clever way to link them, but - nope. I got nothing. Rosemary's Baby I hadn't seen since I was a teenager. Polanski's film is still great. Incredibly creepy and upsetting - in some ways almost proto-feminist (to be honest, one may need a modern context to view it that way, but that's a discussion for another day). Weirdly, my mother knew Ira Levin a little (who penned the novel on which the film is based), as he was married to her yoga instructor in the '70s (groovy). I've been thinking lots about moving lately - the Cabinet Headquarters are lovely, but really only big enough for one outsized ego, not two. So, seeing that apartment in The Dakota in Rosemary's Baby made me salivate. Devil worshipers? Whatever. As long as it doesn't have bedbugs I'd move right in.

The Great Ziegfeld is a giant, over-bloated, long, white washed, gaudy, greatly fictionalized, extravaganza. In other words, it's true to its subject without being particularly "true" in the more traditional sense of the word. The 1936 film was made under the watchful eye of Flo Ziegfeld's widow, Billie Burke, and her fingerprints are visible all over it. I found the earliest scenes in the film to be the most enjoyable, with Flo pitching Sandow, The Strongest Man Alive, to the rubes at the World Columbian Exhibition and conning singer Anna Held into signing with him and all the attendant publicity shenanigans when she does. Ziegfeld is played by William Powell, one of the charmingest SOBs who ever lived. I found most of the musical numbers to be a bit static and interminable, and they definitely looked like they were taking place in 1936, rather than the teens or the twenties.

The Ziegfeld Follies premiered the summer of 1907, and Flo's glorifying of the American girl was an immediate hit. We see the opening night of Flo's storied musical revue, and all the famous Follies stars are there: Will Rogers! Bert Williams! Ray Bolger (who delightfully plays himself)! Of course, in real life, they all joined his show much, much later, and weren't all necessarily there at the same time. Also glossed over was Flo's common law marriage with Held, they lived together as a couple, but never actually wed, a fairly large scandal at the time. The temperamental Held is played in the film by Austrian actress Luise Rainer, who won an Oscar for the role (she was to win her second, for The Good Earth, the subsequent year). Powell plays Flo as a charming womanizer, cheating on Held with a chorus girl turned star - fictionalized in the film, but clearly supposed to be early Follies diva, Lillian Lorraine. Then he meets lovely musical comedy star Billie Burke, the love of his life and all other women fall by the wayside. Or so the Burke sanctioned version goes. In actuality, his affairs didn't cease, and he had that incredibly sexy posthumous Varga painting of Olive Thomas on his office wall for the rest of his life.

If there's one thing I would really have liked to see more of in the film was, unsurprisingly, the Follies themselves. Too much time was taken up with Flo's boring financial difficulties, and not enough was spent on good old fashioned show biz. One delightful exception were the scenes in which Fanny Brice plays herself. But the shows, and the legendary Ziegfeld girls stay firmly in the background.

Luise Rainer is, remarkably, still alive. There was a short TCM documentary included on the DVD and it contains a recent interview with her and she is still sharp as a tack. I looked her up and she had a pretty remarkable life. She started acting (like the Skala sisters and Hedy Lamarr) with the Max Reinhardt Company where she became a major German stage star, in 1935 she was scouted by Hollywood and came to the United States where her second film was The Great Ziegfeld. After winning her two Oscars, her acting career more or less tanked, likely because of a combination of bad advice from then husband Clifford Odets and too high expectations after her back to back Oscar wins. She was a nutty intellectual in Hollywood and everyone thought she had lost her mind when she left California because - as she put it - the well had dried up. Soon after, she played a great part in getting Bertolt Brecht out of Hitler's Germany, and to thank her, wrote the role of Grusha Vashnadze in Caucasian Chalk Circle for her - though she never played it as they had a big falling out. She acted sporadically on stage and in films for the rest of her life. Fellini wrote a role for her in La Dolce Vita, but she quit before filming started. One of her most recent roles was, bizarrely, on The Love Boat in 1983.

Luise Rainer will turn 101 on Tuesday.

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