It is a Biopic about Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. (Powell), Broadway's most famous producer of his day. From humble beginnings as a carnival barker managing a strongman, Ziegfeld reaches the heights of success, producing hit show after hit show and staging the famous Ziegfeld Follies. It is also a showcase for numbers from his most famous shows. Rainer stars as Anna Held, Ziegfeld's first wife, a French singer whom Ziegfeld manages to sign in what is a big step forward for his career. Loy is Ziegfeld's second wife, stage and film performer Billie Burke (the Real Life Burke played a succession of ditzy society wives, but is best remembered as Glinda in The Wizard of Oz). And speaking of The Wizard of Oz, Frank Morgan plays Billings, one of Ziegfeld's producer rivals.
It was a huge success, winning the Academy Awards for Best Picture and Best Actress for Rainer. The next year Rainer won again for The Good Earth, making her the first person ever to win back-to-back acting Oscars and one of only five to this day (the others being Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Jason Robards,and Tom Hanks). Oddly, not long after picking up her second golden statue her career tanked and by 1938 she was out of Hollywood.
The Great Ziegfeld features examples of the following tropes:
- Adaptational Modesty: The actual Ziegfeld Follies included nudity and risqué situations; The Hays Code prevented this from being shown on screen.
- The Alcoholic: Audrey Dane, who is drunk onstage and backstage, and whose indiscretions ruin both her career and Ziegfeld's first marriage.
- Autobiographical Role: Ballerina Harriet Hoctor, and comedienne Fanny Brice, both veterans of the Ziegfeld Follies, appear as themselves.
- Blackface: One of the acts in the Ziegfeld Follies show, apparently Eddie Cantor.
- Call-Forward: Ziegfeld suggests that Will Rogers expand his act beyond rope tricks, by including jokes and commentary on current events. Rogers, of course, became very famous by doing exactly that.
- The Casanova: Ziegfeld is an incorrigible womanizer.Ziegfeld: I love all the girls.
- Character Title: The Great Ziegfeld.
- Costume Porn: Both on and off his stage shows. The incredible expense of the costumes Ziegfeld commissions is a bit of a Running Gag.
- Downer Ending: Ziegfeld is ruined by the stock market crash of 1929, and dies broke, unable to put on another show. (In Real Life, this movie came about after Billie Burke sold the rights to Ziegfeld's life story in an effort to pay off his debts.)
- Famous Last Words: The page quote; his Real Life last words were a bit different. (He apparently really was imagining directing a stage production, but really said "Curtain! Fast music! Lights! Ready for the last finale! — Great! The show looks good, the show looks good!")
- Friendly Rivalry: Between Ziegfeld and his rival producer, Mr. Billings. They are constantly trying to one-up each other, with Ziegfeld usually winning. Billings has a great respect for Ziegfeld, though, and always helps him finance another show whenever he goes broke.
- Inspired by...: "Suggested by romances and incidents in the life of America's greatest showman, Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr."
- Large Ham: Latter-day viewers may wonder how Luise Rainer won an Oscar for all that overacting.
- The Oner: "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody", from the first Ziegfeld Follies show, features a rotating stage. The number unfolds over two long takes, one of the complete rotation of the first level of the set, and the second climbing the stairs to the top. Coming in at almost exactly the film's halfway point, it's also The Centerpiece Spectacular.
- Oscar Bait: It's a nearly three-hour, splashy biopic of a showbiz impresario, with lots of musical numbers.
- Pretty in Mink:
- Ziegfeld's first wife wears an ermine muff, hat, and trimmed jacket. His second wife is given a chinchilla cape for Christmas.
- Ziegfield gifts a $2,700 mink coat to a singer he's trying to hire away from a burlesque show. Thinking he's just a salesman trying to use a famous name to sell her a knockoff, she buys the coat for $40, then briefly panics when she realizes it's real, thinking she's just bought stolen goods. Ziegfeld then returns the $40 and invites her to his office.
- Running Gag: Ziegfeld is constantly stealing business, girlfriends, secretaries, and clients from Billings. Later in the film Billings is shown with a dour, plain secretary, presumably one that Ziegfeld won't try and steal away.
- Sex Sells: Early in the movie Ziegfeld is having trouble getting customers to see the Sandow the Strongman act. He realizes that rather than centering the act around Sandow lifting things, he should emphasize Sandow's physique. Ziegfeld invites the middle-aged ladies at the circus to feel Sandow's muscles. It works.
- She Is All Grown Up: Mary Lou, the feisty little girl who is studying piano at Ziegfeld's father's house, pops up several years later as an attractive young woman looking for a job as a dancer in his show. Ziegfeld completely fails to recognize her. Her obvious sexual attraction for him is a little weird.
- Worst News Judgment Ever: "ANNA HELD LEAVES ZIEGFELD" is a big-type banner headline in a New York newspaper.