In 1936, when the film was new, MGM sold The Great Ziegfeld as the longest talkie ever made, and at 176 minutes (185 in the roadshow version), I certainly can't dispute that. This of course makes the film my nemesis. Further cementing that antagonism: this was the first biopic to win the Best Picture Oscar,* the shabbiest genre of Oscarbait given its first validating moment in the sun.

Granting all of this, I don't have any particularly strong dislike for The Great Ziegfeld, though its length and its most biopic-ish elements are among its most extreme problems. It does, in fairness, have strengths to balance those out. The film was fabulously expensive: so expensive that Universal, in the midst of pre-production, realised that it didn't have the financial means to actually complete the project, and thus sold it off to MGM, including a number of completed sets. For its investment, MGM actually managed to turn a profit, though not nearly as big of one as the impressive box-office receipts might lead you to believe. Better yet, the studio cemented its reputation as the poshest and plushest of all the Hollywood majors of the 1930s, which isn't too far off of calling it the poshest and plushest movie-producing organisation in the history of the medium. It also inaugurated MGM's reputation as a place to go for the most gorgeously appointed A-tier musicals, which would in due course result in several of the defining masterpieces of the musical genre

It could, to be clear, do all of these things without necessarily being good, and it in fact is not necessarily good. What it is, no question, is lavish: the money is visible. So visible, in fact, that one gets the feeling that word had come down on high to director Robert Z. Leonard, a dependable studio hack of a steady hand and reliable skill, that he had better not fail to include all of it, whether or not that was for the good of the story, or the characters, or the viewer's posterior.

The film tells a fanciful version of the story of Florenz, Ziegfeld Jr. (William Powell), one of the most legendary showmen in American theater history. His career spanned everything from vaudeville to the premiere of the groundbreaking musical Show Boat, but he was, and is, most associated with his namesake Ziegfeld Follies, an Americanised take on the Folies Bergère, in which songs and comedy bits and short dramatic sketches alternate, while gorgeous women by the dozen wore insanely elaborate costumes and basically just stood there. Ziegfeld was a true believer in art and beauty, and a hellaciously bad businessman, and spent much of his career in debt or scrounging for backing; at the time of his death in 1932, he happened to be at a low financial ebb, leading his widow, MGM contract player Billie Burke, to sell his life story as a way of paying the bills.

If I learned anything about Flo Ziegfeld from The Great Ziegfeld, it is this: just because somebody was a medium-defining legend without whose existence it's difficult to judge what American popular culture might have looked like, that doesn't mean he was interesting. The script that William Anthony McGuire carved out of the stuff of Ziegfeld's life might be long as all hell, but surprisingly little happens in it. First, Flo made his name in the business promoting strongman Eugen Sandow (Nat Pendleton), first at the 1893 Chicago World's Fair, and then across the country; then, looking to class things up, he promoted French singer Anna Held (Luise Rainer) in New York. Then he married her, and started whipping up increasingly fancy, ridiculous Broadway spectacles, attempting to make a star out of the alcoholic Audrey Dane (Virginia Bruce). His attention to Audrey proved a bit too close and friendly for Anna, who left him; he then married Billie (Myrna Loy - reports differ on whether the real Burke was never asked, or if she was never asked and didn't want it anyway). His shows got bigger and bigger until the depression hit, at which point he scrambled to keep something together until he died in a hotel right across Broadway from the theater that bore his name. Through it all, his best frenemy is fellow impresario Billings (Frank Morgan), who was a better businessman and less inspired creative genius, and who routinely funded him in part to chortle at his failures.

Some of this is true, some of this isn't, all of it is pretty shapeless and boring. 39 years of history pass with almost no indication of where we are beyond a gradual whitening of Powell's hair; scenes float in and out without any real connection to other scenes, just to show us some new aspect of Flo's show, or to present the sixth or ninth or fifteenth repetition of the same exact scene where Flo asks Billings for money with a garrulous smile and Billings laughs the same smug, boisterous laugh as he agrees to. Powell loved the role and loved his performance, claiming this was the first time he had a real complex, psychologically real figure to act, and this is fucking insane: Flo, like everybody else, basically exists to make declarative statements about The Theater and then patter fast. The worst writing, by far, centers on Anna Held, who oscillates between "I love him!"/"I loathe him!"/"I think nothing of him!" on the order of eight times per scene, implying a tougher, more roguish Flo than the script provides, or than Powell is inclined to perform. It doesn't help that Rainer's performance is the worst, as well (she was the recipient of a demented Best Actress Oscar that seems mostly based in MGM's desire to promote their new import), all full of leering eye-rolls that are a mortifying caricature of a wildly theatrical Frenchwoman, to go with the exhausting, wheezing French accent that the German Rainer is coughing up, with no obvious belief that her performance needs any other elements. Given how many of her scenes are built around "haha, she can't talk English right", this is not, alas, an inexplicable choice (compounding the badness: Held was a German-born Jew, as was Rainer; she grew up in France, but one has to wonder if that was enough to give her a voice that sounds like the parody of Maurice Chevailier that Rainer is trotting out).

It's an actor-proof movie, though, so let's cut Rainer some slack. Carrying the entire story on his back, Powell moves through smoothly, playing Flo as the latest in a long line of slightly disreputable charmers; it's a straightforward and simple performance (for top-tier Powell, check out his other 1936 release, the one that earned him an Oscar nomination, My Man Godfrey), but it keeps the movie on track. Sadly, he and frequent co-star Loy can't get at any of their sparkling Thin Man chemistry - Loy is fairly flat and perfunctory here, in fact, though at least she spares us the mortification of trying to copy Burke's characteristic flutey voice - and really, the only other person who has much onscreen personality at all is Morgan, impeccably cast as a self-amused, slightly creepy, slightly awful asshole. Fanny Brice, playing herself, carefully manages the Fanny Brice Brand, allowing no hint of depth to penetrate her shtick; Virginia Bruce hits her one note of seeming giddily sozzled, and doesn't bother supplying an inner life to her character (a veiled version of one Ziegfeld's many mistresses, Marilyn Miller; he of course has none in the movie). But the script forestalls any of these people from having depth; they are the props fleshing out this vision of the New York theater world.

That makes the first and last of the film's three hours pretty staid and tedious; but the middle hour, now there's where we're cooking. If the point of all this isn't to make Flo seem remotely interesting as human being, then it could only be to show us the spectacle he loved to stage so much, and this is something The Great Ziegfeld provides at great length starting around the 70-minute mark and never really ending, though it starts to dry up a lot once Loy shows up at the 135-minute mark. The film does make the mistake of putting its most ludicrously elaborate number, "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody", first, so we spend the rest of the movie getting a lot of candidates for first runner-up. But Jesus, "Pretty Girl" is insane, pilling hundreds of people onto a 70-foot tall rotating platform with a spiral staircase around it, and slowly craning up to create the dizzying sense that we're wander around an endless circle. It's not actually doing anything: we're basically just watching people standing still and smiling into the camera (the sequence won the film's third Oscar, for Best Dance Direction - second of three years that award was offered - despite the fact that nobody is as-such dancing. Or moving at all). So if you wanted to call it boring, I won't say you're wrong. But fuck me, is it big: the kind of dumbass big-for-big's-sake production that cost a tremendous percentage of the overall budget, and could exist nowhere but in the delirious world of high-budget Hollywood filmmaking. It is garish, even gaudy. But it's also staggering.

"Staggering" is what the film wants to be, and for that middle hour, it is exactly that. We are watching the sheer enormous scale of what MGM can put in front of our eyes, dutifully staged by Leonard to maximise how much of the frame is filled with luxurious stuff. It's not the most sophisticated application of the studio's lavish resources, to be sure, and it's buried in a singularly dull and slow-moving narrative. But as someone who adores '30s Hollywood cinema for its hypertrophic excesses as much as for anything else, well, The Great Ziegfeld is just about as excessive as it gets, and it has a kind of mystifying appeal just on those grounds, even if it's only on those grounds.

*The previous year's winner, Mutiny on the Bounty, is based on a true story and features real-life people as characters, but I hardly think we can call it a "biopic" just for those reasons.