Hollywood's essential respect for the value of therapeutic fantasy was once summed up by a great director with the maxim, "Print the legend." Somewhere along the way, and in response to no conceivable public need, this attitude was changed to "Trash the legend." It hasn't exactly led us into a golden era of popular culture, and on Sunday night it leads to an especially unsavory little abomination called "Ziegfeld: The Man and His Women."
NBC sunk about a million bucks and three hours of prime time, starting at 8 o'clock on Channel 4, on Joanna Lee's pointlessly and witlessly revisionist script, which presents the renowned showman. Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. as a misogynistic schemer with a heart of purest publicity. In this version he appears to lack nearly every possible decent impulse.
As a tot, young Flo finds the Chicago Fire a delightful spectacle. As a husband, he order his showgirl wife to have an abortion so as to protect his "quarter-of-a-million dollar investment" in her. As a father by his third wife, he speaks to his homely daughter with the paternal intimacy of a corporate newsletter: "Of all the productions I've been responsible for, you are my proudest achievement," he tells the girl.
"Ziegfeld" represents the most reckless kind of debunking because it offers nothing as a substitute for the smashed idol. As a psychological or social study of its subject, it is even less sophisticated than MGM's 1939 musical spectacular, "The Great Ziegfeld," starring William Powell and Louise Rainer.
At least that film offered a dazzling succession of theatrical extravaganzas to disguise the slimness and dubious authenticity of its story. It may have been corny, but it's an easy pleasure to remember Powell as Ziegfeld exclaiming "More steps, we've got to have more steps," even to his dying breath.
Musical numbers in the new "Ziegfled" are cheap and listless and director Buzz Kulik knows nothing about shooting them. Stock shots of theater audiences rising in hysterical bravos are ludicrously incongruous. Any sane crowd would have stalked out in disgust.
Ziegfeld, or rather anti-Ziegfeld, is played by the wooden Paul Shenar, a living absence who "has studied EST," his studio bio says. Good for him. Others in the cast are entirely inadequate to the personages they play - Fanny Brice, Anna Held, Marilyn Miller, Billie Burke - although Valerie Perrine, as Lillian Lorraine, is at least so dreadful that she's funny. And she appears to be wearing Bert Lahr's old lion mane from "The Wizard of Oz."
Most bad television can be shrugged off, but this kind of thing represents such ruthless, destructive instincts that high dudgeon really is in order. Everybody associated with "Ziegfeld" should be ashamed. But won't be.