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Information in contemporary news items, the film's pressbook and the M-G-M Music Collection at the USC Cinema-Television Library relate the following: Universal Pictures purchased the rights to film the life story of showman Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr. (1869-1932) from actress Billie Burke, Ziegfeld's widow, in late 1933. By January 1934, pre-production had begun with William Anthony McGuire, who had been a protege of Ziegfeld's, acting as both screenwriter and producer. In June 1934, it was announced that Ziegfeld's eighteen-year-old daughter Patricia was helping McGuire to select showgirls and costumes for the picture. Some sources also indicate that Burke helped McGuire with the original story, however, this May have been as a consultant rather than a writer. Filming was set to begin under Edward Sutherland's direction in late January 1935, following several weeks of rehearsals on various dance numbers.
By mid-February 1935, after Universal had invested between $225,000 and $250,000 in the production, much of which went for elaborate sets, news items reported that McGuire was having "differences of opinion" with the studio over the film. Other news items noted that the big-budget picture was "too costly" for Universal which, at that time, was having severe financial problems and seeking outside sources of revenue. On 22 Feb, it was announced that Universal had entered into negotiations with M-G-M to take over The Great Ziegfeld project, and a tentative agreement was signed the next day. Several impediments were reported before the studios finalized the agreement on March 11, 1935. One problem involved the rights to the "Ziegfeld Follies" name when M-G-M considered producing annual "Follies" shows on Broadway, then turning them into films. The idea, as such, was apparently discarded before the deal with Universal was consummated, but M-G-M did produce two additional films using Ziegfeld's name, Ziegfeld Girl (1941) and Ziegfeld Follies (1946), the rights to which May have been secured in the 1935 negotiations.
Terms of the M-G-M/Universal agreement that have been confirmed in contemporary sources include the following: the production would move from Universal's San Fernando Valley lot to M-G-M's Culver City lot, as of March 13, 1935, at which time M-G-M would assume all additional production costs; M-G-M would pay $300,000 to Universal for costs incurred on the production to that date, plus a settlement for loss of revenue; McGuire's screenplay would be retained, but he would be replaced [by Hunt Stromberg] as producer in exchange for giving McGuire a writer-producer-director position on a future production; many "key" people from the Universal production would move to M-G-M; and, M-G-M would allow Universal to borrow William Powell (who initially had been loaned to Universal from M-G-M for the picture) for another film, following the completion of The Great Ziegfeld. Universal apparently insisted upon the Powell loan in order to satisfy their exhibitors, who had been promised that the studio would release a Powell picture. That picture became the financially successful 1936 comedy My Man Godfrey (see below), for which Powell was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor. The promised McGuire project became the 1937 musical Rosalie, which he wrote and produced, but which was directed by Robert Z. Leonard (see below).
Although early news items during the negotiations continued to include Sutherland's name as the director, on March 5, 1935 George Cukor was announced by M-G-M as the possible director. Robert Z. Leonard was named as the probable director from 18 March on. The "Harriet Hoctor Ballet" (also known as "A Circus Must Be Different in a Ziegfeld Show"), which was shot by photographer Merritt B. Gerstad, was in rehearsal for six weeks at Universal before the production was moved to M-G-M, and news items reported that it would be shot immediately at the new studio. Other Hollywood Reporter news items mentioned that the number would be shot, but used for another film. According to news items and the M-G-M Music Collection, the Hoctor Ballet started shooting on April 8, 1935 and continued for several days. Principal photography did not begin on the film's non-musical segments until 23 September 1935.
Various news items reported the following casting information: Jack Benny, who had recently come to M-G-M, was considered for a role in the picture; Walter Catlett, who had appeared in the "Follies" on Broadway was signed for a role, but did not appear in the released film. "Follies" stars Leon Errol and Gilda Gray, who are both included in CBCS, did not appear in the film. Information in the M-G-M Music Collection confirms that musical numbers were shot featuring the respective performers. A dance featuring Ann Pennington was shot on September 16, 1935, according to a Hollywood Reporter news item, but Pennington's number was also cut from the film. Margaret Perry and Jean Chatburn tested for the role of "Billie Burke," which was not assigned to Myrna Loy until early Oct. Chatburn was later cast in the role of "Mary Lou" (also called "Sally Manners" in the film). Rosina Lawrence was tested for the role of Broadway star "Marilyn Miller," and is included in the CBCS in the role, but she does not appear in the released film. The character played by Chatburn appears to be based on Miller, as in the film, the character "Sally Manners" stars in the musical Sally, which was Miller's most famous role. Miller died on April 7, 1936, the day before the film's New York premiere. The reason why her characterization was altered for the film has not been determined, but a review of the film in Liberty quipped, "It's not true that Marilyn Miller died of a broken heart at not getting lead [sic] in this."
Ray Bolger, who is listed in the onscreen credits as "Ray Bolger" actually tested for the role of "Follies" star Jack Donohue, according to a Hollywood Reporter news item, and Reginald Owen, who plays Ziegfeld's agent "Samson" in the film, had earlier been cast in the role of Ziegfeld's butler. Actor Buddy Doyle is credited with portraying "Eddie Cantor" in the screen credits and in the program. Within the film, however, he is called "Buddy." The Variety review notes that Doyle was Eddie Cantor's "Follies" understudy for many years. Doyle, whose real name was Benjamin Taubenhaus, died in 1939; this May have been his only film. According to Liberty, A. A. Trimble, who portrays "Will Rogers" in the film, was actually a Cleveland map salesman who frequently impersonated Rogers "at Rotarian lunches." Rogers died in August 1935, several weeks before production began on The Great Ziegfeld.
The "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody" number, part of the "Ziegfeld Follies" sequence of the picture, is one of the most famous musical numbers ever filmed. The so-called "Wedding Cake" set took several weeks to rehearse and shoot, featured 180 performers and required 4,300 yards of silk rayon for the curtains, according to the film's pressbook. The number cost $220,000 to produce or, according to Liberty, "$40,000 more than the entire Follies would have set back Ziggie himself in the grand days." The number, which was filmed by photographer Ray June, was, according to modern sources, shot in one continuous "take." Several reviews singled the number out as a high point of the film and indicated that audiences at the premiere burst into applause after its completion. Actress Virginia Bruce, who portrayed the fictitious "Follies" star "Audrey Dane" in the film, is the woman seated at the pinnacle of the set. The actor who appears as the singer in the number, Stanley Morner, did not actually sing the song. Morner, who later changed his name to Dennis Morgan, was an accomplished singer, but the song had previously been recorded by Allan Jones, another M-G-M contract player, and the studio apparently decided not to re-record the number. No located contemporary publicity or reviews note the dubbing and the Variety review praised Morner's "tenoring...in fine style and excellent camera advantage. It again suggests him as another surprise Metro discovery." The review also indicated that the role seemed to be a composite of "Follies" entertainers John Steel and Irving Fisher.
Reviews and modern sources have indicated that there are many anachronisms in the film, especially in the placement of musical numbers from the various "Follies." Several "Follies" stars are fictionalized or placed in time frames that were not historically accurate, and dancer Ray Bolger, who portrays himself in the film, was actually never in a "Follies" show.
M-G-M studio records record the cost of the production at $2,183,000, although various contemporary news items and feature articles estimated the cost as between $1,500,000 and $2,000,000 or, as Frank S. Nugent wrote in his New York Times review, "about $500,000 an hour." Modern sources correctly state that the picture cost more than any M-G-M production since the 1925 silent spectacle, Ben-Hur (which studio records indicate cost $3,967,000 to produce). The film's premiere was held at the Carthay Circle Theatre in Los Angeles which, according to Los Angeles Times, had recently been redecorated.
The film brought in $4,673,000 world-wide, according to studio records. In addition, it won three Academy Awards, for Best Picture, Best Actress (Luise Rainer, her first of two back-to-back awards), and Best Dance Direction (Seymour Felix for "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody"). The film was also nominated for Best Direction (Robert Z. Leonard), Best Art Direction (Cedric Gibbons, Merrill Pye and John Harkrider) Best Film Editing (William S. Gray) and Best Original Story (William Anthony McGuire). Some modern sources have speculated that the reason Powell was nominated for Best Actor for My Man Godfrey instead of The Great Ziegfeld was that the final scene of the latter film was considered too "maudlin" or "melodramatic" and therefore left a bad final impression of the overall performance. Powell did win the Screen Actor's Guild award for Best Actor, tying with C. Aubrey Smith for Little Lord Fauntleroy, and Rainer won their Best Actress award. The picture was named one of the "Ten Best" of the year by Film Daily and New York Times, and was one of the top twenty-five box office hits of 1936. A news item in Motion Picture Herald on April 18, 1936 noted that "the Ziegfeld family" was seeking an injunction against M-G-M for using the Ziegfeld name in the title, however, the suit was apparently settled out of court and, as noted above, the studio made two additional films using the name. In Ziegfeld Follies, which was a compendium of various musical numbers and comic sketches, Powell reprised his role, appearing as a celestial Ziegfeld planning another "Follies." Walter Pidgeon appeared as Ziegfeld in the 1968 William Wyler directed film Funny Girl (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1961-70; F6.1727), a biographical film on the life of "Follies" star Fanny Brice, and Paul Shenar portrayed the showman in the 1978 television movie Ziegfeld: The Man and His Women, directed by Buzz Kulik and co-starring Samantha Eggar.