This Oscar-winning biography of the Broadway producer presents his extravagant musical numbers and his ups and downs with women and money.
At the 1893 Chicago Fair Florenz Ziegfeld (William Powell) is barking for strong-man Sandow (Nat Pendleton) while Jack Billings (Frank Morgan) gets more people to see dancer Little Egypt until Ziegfeld realizes he can promote Sandow's muscles to the ladies. Ziegfeld decides to leave his father's musical conservatory and explains to little Mary Lou, who wants to marry him, that he loves all the girls. Ziegfeld goes to New York and tours the country with Sandow. He sees Billings on a ship to Europe and hires his valet Sidney (Ernest Cossart). Ziegfeld lost all his money at Monte Carlo and borrows $500 from Billings. In London Anna Held (Luise Rainer) sings "Won't You Come Play With Me?" She gets flowers from Ziegfeld, who offers to sell her. Ziegfeld presents her at Harold Square and is sued for his milk bill, because he provides her twenty gallons a day for bathing. Anna sings "It's Delightful to Be Married" and gets diamond jewelry from Ziegfeld on their first anniversary.
Ziegfeld calls on Billings for money to produce Follies "glorifying the American girl." Eddie Cantor performs "If You Knew Susie," and Ziegfeld encourages Will Rogers to talk more on stage. The bookkeeper Sampston (Reginald Owen) regularly worries about money. The costumer demands money; but Ziegfeld says the costumes are wrong and gets him to plead. "A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody" presents beautiful women, and Audrey Dane (Virginia Bruce) gets flowers and diamonds that Anna sees. The chorus performs "You Gotta Pull Strings." Then Ray Bolger (himself) sings "She's a Follies Girl" and tap dances. Couples sing "You," and twenty women get up and dance on their beds. "You Never Looked So Beautiful" presents Audrey, who speaks while drunk. Ziegfeld apologizes and then signs Sally Manners. Ziegfeld at first doesn't recognize Mary Lou grown up, but he adds her to his show.
Ziegfeld goes to see Fanny Brice (herself) at a burlesque theater. She thinks he is a salesman and gets a mink coat for $40. Ziegfeld hires her for his Follies and dresses her in second-hand clothes. Fanny sings "My Man." Ziegfeld does a show with a story and finds Audrey drunk in a dressing-room. Anna sees him kiss her and leaves him. Audrey calls on Ziegfeld, learns he is broke, and quits. Ziegfeld wires Billings, who sends money. Sally opens and is followed by a Cantor show.
Ziegfeld sees Billie Burke (Myrna Loy) with Billings and arranges to dance with her. She meets him secretly; he tells her he loves her, and they marry. Anna sees the news, cries, and calls Ziegfeld, pretending to be happy. Ziegfeld gives expensive Christmas presents to Billie and their daughter Patricia, who asks for a circus; so Ziegfeld does a circus show. His extravagant shows lose money, and his stars go to Hollywood. He says he will have four hits at once, and Billie offers her jewelry. Ziegfeld presents Rio Rita, Whoopee, The Three Musketeers, and Show Boat. Ziegfeld bought stocks on margin and learns of the crash. Billings lost too. The shows close, and Billings visits the ill Ziegfeld. Sidney says he left people the finest memories. In the final scene Ziegfeld asks for steps to get higher and dies.
Ziegfeld took men's natural desire to see shows with pretty women more respectable beginning in 1907 and prepared the way for the glamorous musicals of the 1930s, this film being one of the finest examples. Expensive theatricals of the 1920s were made available to more people with little money during the Depression through the movies.