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And The WInner  Is - a dive into the story behind every film to win Best Picture
  • L Alan Reitano



The ninth film to take home the Best Picture statuette was The Great Ziegfeld.

The movie was a product of MGM, but had started when Billie Burke, the wife of the late Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, presented the idea to Universal. The studio put a couple hundred grand into development but soon realized they couldn’t afford to do the film justice - and sold it to Louis B. Mayer at MGM.

The Great Ziegfeld was produced by Hunt Stromberg, and had a budget of $2.18 million, and returned $4.67 million at the box office. Lifetime earnings from the film are reported to be over $40 million. Robert Z. Leonard directed the film. Though not in the top tier of MGM directors, Leonard was a capable director, and helmed several big budget MGM productions.

The film was nominated for seven Academy Awards®, winning three – Best Picture, Best Actress for Luise Rainer, and Best Dance direction – for Seymour Felix.

The Great Ziegfeld was one of 14 films to pair William Powell and Myrna Loy.


William Powell

William Powell had been loaned to Universal to make the film, but when the rights were sold to MGM – he made My Man Godfrey for Universal instead. Powell is probably most famous for his role as Nick Charles in the wildly popular Dashiell Hammett series The Thin Man.

After a successful career on Broadway, Powell turned to Hollywood. He received three Academy Award nods, for Life with Father, The Thin Man, and My Man Godfrey. In Godfrey – Powell starred with his ex-wife Carole Lombard. Their chemistry is palpable, especially considering that they had only recently been divorced. They were reportedly still seeing each other - and rumors of a re-marriage were rampant.

Powell was later engaged to marry Jean Harlow, until her death in 1937. The two had grown up blocks apart in Kansas City, but never met until they both went to California.


Myrna Loy

Myrna Loy plays Ziegfeld's wife - Billie Burke - in the three-hour film, but doesn’t make an entrance until after the two-hour mark. Loy was born and raised in Montana, and trained as a dancer. Her father died during the 1918 flu pandemic. She focused on acting after making a few silent films. Early on she was type cast as the exotic character, femme fatale, or vamp. It was her role as Nora Charles in The Thin Man that made her a star. The onscreen chemistry with William Powell was so real, many people thought they were actually married in real life. Loy also starred with William Powell in The Best Years Of Our Lives, which also won Best Picture in 1946. Myrna Loy was never nominated for a competitive Academy Award®. She did receive a Lifetime Achievement Oscar® for her work, including charitable activities for the Red Cross and UNESCO.

She died during surgery for an undisclosed illness in 1993.


Luise Rainer

William Powell’s other co-star in The Great Ziegfeld is Luise Rainer, playing the role of Anna Held, Ziegfeld’s common law first wife.

Rainer was of German, British and American descent, and was the first person to win two Oscars®. She was also the first to win back-to-back Best Actress awards for The Great Ziegfeld and The Good Earth in 1936 -’37 respectively. The only other actress to achieve the feat is Katherine Hepburn – in 1967-‘68. Rainer quickly tired of movies and returned to Europe. She was married at the time to playwright Clifford Odets, who she said wanted her to be his “little wife,” and a big actress at the same time. She and Odets were never happy. Rainer once said the acting she did on screen was nothing compared to the acting she did at home.

Rainer, died in London, just days short of her 105th birthday, and was the longest living Oscar® winner at the time.

Her dramatic telephone scene in The Great Ziegfeld was based on a scene from a play by Jean Cocteau, called The Human Voice. It’s likely what earned her the Oscar®, and the nickname the Viennese Teardrop.


Reginald Owen – plays the book keeper Sampson in the film. Owen is most recognizable today for his performance as Ebenezer Scrooge in MGM’s 1938 production of A Christmas Carol.” Owen was the first to play Dr. Watson in the film Sherlock Holmes (1932.) He then played the detective Holmes himself in A Study In Scarlett (1933) and finally Scrooge (1938) – making him possibly the only actor to ever play all three classic characters for Victorian British fiction.

He appeared in over a hundred films, including the role as Admiral Boom in Mary Poppins. His final role was as General Teagler in Bedknobs and Broomsticks.


Florenz Ziegfeld

The Great Ziegfeld was the first bio-pic to grab Best Picture honors, and some of that is due to the lives of the real characters.

According to his daughter Patricia - Florenz Ziegfeld, ran away from home when he was 17 and joined Buffalo Bill Cody’s wild west show in Wyoming - getting the equivalent of a master’s degree in entertainment promotion.

Sandow The Great

He next became a carnival side show barker at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, where he promoted strongman Zandow The Great. In the film, Zandow is portrayed as a witless hulk of a man – but in real life charming and intelligent.

Ziegfeld was struggling to put his show over until he came up with the idea of letting a woman touch Sandow’s muscles. She quickly fainted. Real or contrived, word got around and Sandow became the fair’s symbol of male sexuality, countering the female sexuality of Little Egypt, just across the midway.

Building on the success of Sandow - Ziegfeld went to Europe scouting talent. It was there that he met Anna Held.


Anna Held

Anna Held Was born in Poland to French and German parents. In 1881 anti-Semitic pogroms forced the family to flee Poland for Paris.

Held was performing in London when she met Ziegfeld, who brought her to New York as his wife. The press buzz was tremendous – including a story Ziegfeld had invented, that she’d had ribs removed to narrow her waist. When she premiered on Broadway – the critics were lukewarm – but the public loved her. Ziegfeld though, soon began an affair with Lillian Lorraine, and Held broke off their common-law marriage, but never gave up hope he would come back.

With her vivacious and risqué personality, Held was instrumental in the creation of The Ziegfeld Follies, a show inspired by The Folies Bergere in Paris.

During World War I - Anna Held raised money for the war effort, and toured the front lines performing for French soldiers.

She died in 1918 in New York.


The creation that Anna Held had helped create, The Ziegfeld Follies, was a smash.

The shows, featured hundreds of beautiful women, accompanied by music from Irving Berlin, George Gershwin and Jerome Kern. They also included comic and musical interludes from Nora Bayes, Fanny Brice, W.C. Fields, Will Rogers, Bert Williams and Eddie Cantor.


Eddie Cantor frequently and famously appeared in blackface in the Ziegfeld show, and in movies.

There’s no getting around the fact that black face performances, - which began in the 19th century, and were still appearing in entertainment well into the mid twentieth century - typically demean, stereotype, and dehumanize African-Americans.

The image of black face, as often portrayed, was one of lazy buffoons. The stereotype was so widely recognized that it became a recruiting tool for the KKK. A few black artists – including Bert Williams - appeared in black face. Williams used it as a more serious political commentary, and a more intelligent representation of his race.

And while nothing from today’s perspective justifies the use of black face, It was wrong then and it's wrong now. Ziegfeld can be credited with making the right choice on another racial front.


Bert Williams

Bert Williams was a legend, widely considered the funniest comedian in America. He appeared in the first all-black – produced and cast – show on Broadway – called In Dahomey.

Ziegfeld cast Williams in the Follies of 1910, making him the first African-American performer to appear in an otherwise all white show – at the height of Jim CrowmAmerica.

When much of the cast balked at performing with Williams, demanding he be fired – Ziegfeld replied –

“I can replace every one of you, except him (Williams).”

Bert Williams was a sensation. The Ziegfeld Follies made him a star, and led to an exclusive record contract with Columbia Records. Williams performed for the rest of his life, before collapsing on stage in Detroit. The audience thinking it was part of the sketch, kept laughing. Williams quipped as he was helped from the stage. “That’s a nice way to die. They were laughing as I made my last exit.”

He died a few days later at home in New York.


Billie Burke

Ziegfeld first laid eyes on Billie Burke at a New Years Eve party, when she descended a staircase on the arm of Somerset Maughm. Ziegfeld had gone to the party with his mistress Lillian Lorraine, but the couple got in a fight, and Lorraine stormed out. It was love at first sight. Ziegfeld and Burke married in 1914.

Burke had a successful career as a Broadway leading lady, before moving to Hollywood. Her film debut was the title role of a silent film called Peggy,(1915).

Despite success in film, Burke returned to Broadway.

The market collapse in 1929 wiped Ziegfeld out. He had built a $2.5 million theater bearing his name on Broadway, borrowing the money to open it from William Randolph Hearst.

The Ziegfeld Theater opened with Rio Rita, often considered the last of the light musical comedies, and was followed by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s Show Boat, the play that transformed musicals from Follies type showcases into plays with musical exposition. With Ziegfeld’s health and finances failing, Billie Burke returned to films, making her comeback in 1932’s A Bill Of Divorcement, directed by George Cukor. She’s best known today as Glinda the Good Witch in The Wizard of Oz. Fellow cast member from The Great Ziegfeld Frank Morgan – played the Wizard.

Burke’s final film was a western - Sergeant Rutledge – directed by John Ford.

It’s Burke we have to thank for The Great Ziegfeld. She shepherded the film through the writing stage, and early production, fighting tirelessly to protect the name of her husband. It’s one reason Ziegfeld's affairs aren’t more prevalent in the story. The censors at the Hays Office probably would have shot ‘em down anyway.

Burke died in LA in 1970. She and Ziegfeld had one daughter Patricia.


The Pretty Girl Is Like A Melody, set cost $220,000 alone – only $80,000 more than it cost Ziegfeld to produce Show Boat, on Broadway. The scene was shot in two long takes – and used 180 performers, and 4,300 yards of silk curtains.

Patricia Ryan – one of the Ziegfeld Girls in the film, would go on to become Pat Nixon – First Lady of The United States.

The Great Ziegfeld is a long film. The DVD version has the original Overture, Entr’acte and Exit Music, and comes in at three hours and five minutes.

Most modern viewers have likely never seen the entire film. The musical numbers account for about a third of the film, and were almost always cut for time when the movie aired on TV.

The Great Ziegfeld, is not the first MGM musical to win Best Picture, that award goes to The Broadway Melody, The Great Ziegfeld is though - the first MGM Best Picture that looks like an MGM musical. The production team clearly improved their technique after the earlier film.

Even at three hours – this one’s worth watching again – just for the spectacle if nothing else.

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