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Last time it was two Clark Gable films, this time around it’s the first two biopics to win Best Picture.  Weird how that worked out, huh?

The Great Ziegfeld (Best Picture, 1936)

In 1997, when TITANIC came out, I remember hearing a lot of complaints about its length.  It clocked in at 3 hours and 14 minutes.  The way it sounded, films over 3 hours in duration were practically unheard-of.

1936 winner THE GREAT ZIEGFELD is 3 hours and 5 minutes in duration.  Just sayin’.

I was surprised by how much I liked this film, actually.  It tells the story of the king of stage producers, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr., following him from the Chicago World’s Fair until his death in the early years of the Great Depression.  The story shows his stage successes, his two marriages to Anna Held and then Billie Burke (yes, the actress known for playing Glinda the Good Witch), and his perpetual lack of funds.

The truth of the matter here is it’s not the story that grips the audience.  Like Ziegfeld’s Follies, the film is the definition of “extravaganza.”  Between the extraordinary lineup of actors – William Powell, Myrna Loy, Frank Morgan, Luise Rainer, Fanny Brice, and Ray Bolger – and the remarkable visuals showing Ziegfeld’s shows, the viewer can’t help but stay glued to the screen, hoping for another dance number, another wisecrack, another amazing costume.  I’ve decided that if anyone ever invents time travel, I want to go back to early 20th-century Broadway to see a performance of the Follies.

Luise Rainer, who plays the emotionally erratic and volatile actress Anna Held, is the first woman ever to win two Best Actress Oscars in a row (1936, THE GREAT ZIEGFELD; 1937, THE GOOD EARTH).  She is also the oldest living Oscar winner at the grand old age of 102.  Furthermore, she left her acting career soon after the two awards, since subsequent roles were not strong enough to live up to the expectations of her performances.

I don’t have much critical to analyze or say about this film.  It’s a good one, and I recommend watching it.  Unlike TITANIC, its length gets broken up by an intermission.  If nothing else, it’s worth watching for the performances of two American vaudeville greats playing themselves – Fanny Brice, who gets to do a comic song and a more serious one which is one of her signatures (“My Man”), and Ray Bolger, doing a truly delightful soft-shoe performance which shows clearly why he was so right for the subsequent role of the Scarecrow in WIZARD OF OZ.

The Life of Emile Zola (Best Picture, 1937)

I’d like to start by saying that this is no way a bad film. The acting is good, the cinematography is good, the lighting and costumes and set dressing are all good.

It’s just kind of boring.

The film follows the life of French writer and muckraker Emile Zola, from the days before his first great success with a book about a prostitute called “Nana,” up till his death from carbon monoxide poisoning.  In particular, the film covers his involvement in the notorious Dreyfus Affair in 1890s France.  Intelligence agents intercepted a communication about confidential military documents, and military commanders decided to lay the blame on Captain Dreyfus, an Alsatian Jew.  Dreyfus persisted in declaring his innocence, despite spending several years incarcerated at a place off of South America called Devil’s Island.  Eventually, Dreyfus is cleared and the real traitor caught, to a large extent thanks to the efforts of Emile Zola.  Zola printed a famous letter in the papers, accusing the judiciary and military of consciously framing Dreyfus.  As a result, Zola goes on trial for criminal libel and after being found guilty flees to London, from where he continues to publish articles defending Dreyfus.  In the film, he returns to Paris once Dreyfus is cleared, and dies carbon monoxide poisoning resulting from a blocked chimney on the night before Dreyfus is publicly reinstated in the French Army.

The story is not one that especially interests me, but I can see the craft and the skill that went into creating this film.  Star Paul Muni was apparently known for the brilliance of his biographical representations, and Joseph Schildkraut (Dreyfus) won Best Supporting Actor for his portrayal of the disgraced soldier.  I would say that the strength of this film is in the screen charisma of its actors – even when the story is dry, it is hard to take one’s eyes off of Muni and Schildkraut.  I admire the way the story does not turn Zola into a crusading zealot or Dreyfus into a helpless victim.  Though it is clear that we are meant to side with Zola and Dreyfus, the film does a remarkably good job of humanizing those involved in the cover-up.  My primary complaint would probably be that it is never clear why the real culprit did what he did.

I’d say this one would greatly appeal to a certain segment of the audience, and I’d also have to say that I’m not in that segment.

Next up: You Can’t Take It With You (Best Picture, 1938) andGone With the Wind (Best Picture, 1939)