In 1933 Universal bought the rights to the life story of the Broadway producer, Florenz Ziegfeld, from his wife, Billie Burke. Filming began at Universal in 1935. For various reasons, including the high cost of the production numbers, Universal wanted to get rid of the project since it was in severe financial trouble at the time. MGM agreed to finish the production of The Great Ziegfeld, and paid Universal for the amount that that studio had already shelled out on the picture, reportedly a quarter million dollars. MGM had loaned William Powell to Universal to star as Ziegfeld. As a replacement for that loan, Powell did My Man Godfrey at Universal.
Production began at MGM in April, 1935 and finished by December. The film was released in March, 1936. The musical number, “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody”, is, according to the American Film Institute catalog, one of the most famous musical numbers ever filmed. The “Wedding Cake” set featured in the number took several weeks to rehearse and shoot, featured 180 performers, and required 4,300 yards of rayon for the curtains. The number cost $220,000 to produce, which was, according to the magazine Liberty, “$40,000 more than the entire Follies would have set back Ziggie himself in the grand days.” It was shot in one continuous take by photographer Ray June. The film cost $2.1 million, more than any MGM production since the silent Ben Hur in 1925. It brought in $4.7 million worldwide.
The movie won three Oscars, for best picture, best actress for Luise Rainer, and best dance direction for Seymour Felix for “A Pretty Girl is Like a Melody”, and was nominated for best direction, best art direction, best film editing and best original story. Like many biopics of the era, especially ones depicting Broadway big shots, it has a number of historical inaccuracies. The pleasure Hollywood got from telling the story of a great showman, and featuring some of the songs he made popular, is evident in The Great Ziegfeld, and I hope you enjoy seeing it tonight.