Oscar: Best Actress–Rainer, Luise in The Great Ziegfeld (1936)

In 1936, MGM was represented in the Oscars race with “The Great Ziegfeld,” which became the second Oscar-winning musical, after “Broadway Melody” (1928-9), and the fourth MGM film to win the Best Picture Oscar, following the all-star melodrama “Grand Hotel” (1932) and the epic adventure, “Mutiny on the Bounty” (1935).
As directed by Robert Z. Leonard, “The Great Ziegfeld” is an overlong (170 minutes) and overblown but ultimately mediocre as a musical movie and as a biopic of the legendary showman.
Fictionalizing the showman’s life, scribe William Anthony McGuire, probably under pressures from his supervisors, whitewashed the narrative, structuring it as a routine rags-to-riches saga, from the times that Flo was a sideshow barker to his becoming Broadway’s most extraordinary impresario, with four simultaneous hits. 
The dialogue, based on William Antony McGuire’s original screenplay, is pedestrian and cliche-ridden.  Take Ziegfeld’s line, which concludes the picture: “I’ve got to have more steps. I need more steps. I’ve got to get higher, higher!”
William Powell, who embodied the Broadway producer, was not nominated for an Oscar, perhaps because the role was too shallow for him to leave any imprint. And neither was Myrna Loy, who played Florenz’s second wife, Billie Burke, the actress who was very much alive at the time. (Powell and Loy were very popular in the 1930s with their long-running movie series “The Thin Man,” which made Loy the top box-office star in the country in 1936.)
Inexplicably, Luise Rainer, a routine actress whom Louis B. Mayer liked, perhaps because of her European pedigree, won the Best Actress Award for playing Ziegfeld’s first, temperamental wife, Anna Held, a role that many considered to be supporting rather lead. (In 1936, the Academy distinguished for the first time between Oscar for lead and secondary roles). One of her few decent scenes has her calling Flo on the phone to congratulate him on his second marriage.
Along the way, there are minor pleasure to be had, though, like some entertaining production numbers, and an eye-popping cast that featured many of Ziegfeld’s real-life stars, such as Fanny Brice, even if her singing of “My Man” is strangely cut before it’s over, Ray Bolger, who would be more entertaining in “The Wizard of Oz,” and Gilda Gray, as well as actors that embodied real-life personages, such as Eddie Cantor and Will Rogers.
Oscar Alert
Oscar Nominations: 7
Picture, produced by Hunt Stromberg
Director: Robert Z. Leonard
Original Story: William Anthony McGuire
Actress: Luise Rainer
Interior Decoration: Cedric Gibbons, Eddie Imazu, Edwin B. Willis
Film Editing: William S. Gray
Dance Decoration: Seymour Felix
Oscar Awards: 3
Dance Direction
Oscar Context
“The Great Ziegfeld” competed for the Best Picture Oscar with nine other films: “Anthony Adverse,” “Dodsworth,” “Libeled Lady,” “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town,” “Romeo and Juliet,” “San Francisco,” “The Story of Louis Pasteur,” “A Tale of Two Cities,” and Three Smart Girls.”
The other most nominated film were William Wyler’s “Dodsworth,” with 7 citations, winning one, for Richard Day’s Interior Decoration, and “Anthony Adverse,” which won the largest number of awards (4) of it 7 nominations. Of all studios, MGM dominated the Oscar race, with five (half) of the Oscar-nominated films.
The winner of the Directing Oscar was Frank Capra for “Mr. Deeds Goes to Town.” Pierre Collings and Sheridan Gibney won the writing Oscar for “The Story of Louis Pasteur”; Richard Day the Art Direction for “Dodsworth”; and Ralph Dawson the Editing prize for “Anthony Adverse.”