Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Fans consider Ziegfeld Follies to be the high water mark of the popularity of the MGM musical, a production marked by a total confidence in its grandiose excesses. It's a revue film patterned on the plot-less Ziegfeld formula of stage variety, comedy and spectacle, and is ostensibly dedicated to the legacy of the great Broadway showman previously honored in MGM's The Great Ziegfeld. But it's really a valentine from MGM to itself, honoring its "All the Stars There Are in Heaven" mantra while plugging the seemingly endless musical talent pool available to the reigning king of musicals, Arthur Freed.
The movie begins with a pompous trip through the hereafter, crusing past heavenly temples dedicated to Shakespeare and P.T. Barnum, to finally settle on one monument with the name Ziegfeld. There we find an angelic Flo Ziegfeld drinking champagne and in a sentimental mood. Only MGM would be attracted to the idea that big entertainers receive special treatment in Heaven. The movie's real message is "We've got it all."
Ziegfeld Follies does offer a lot, even though it ends up as something of a distended and disorganized mess. Filmed two years earlier, it began at three hours and had to be cut down; even at just under two hours (with an added orchestral overture) it now sags heavily in the middle. A true revue in the Ziegfeld tradition is a difficult thing to pull off -- the show has to start big, grow with each unrelated act or segment and finish with the biggest topper of all.
Vincente Minnelli is the supervising director and the whole show is suffused with his lush art direction ideas; the movie has many subtle technical achievements that may go unnoticed. The complicated color schemes and special effects in some scenes had to be the result of endless testing.
The show has plenty of good material, each announced with title card as might be done on a vaudeville stage. The Technicolor lensing is dazzling and probably sufficient in itself to impress many viewers, along with the endless main title procession of star names. In the end, the non-narrative format is what keeps Ziegfeld Follies from aging well. Without a story to follow we lurch from one skit or song to the next and the enterprise becomes tiresome a lot sooner than it should.
At least a third of Ziegfeld Follies is terrific, keeper material. Fred Astaire's Limehouse Blues is a dance retelling of Broken Blossoms in Chinatown that reaches for artsy tragedy and succeeds. Several of the big numbers in other parts of this show sport grandiose stage constructions that are meant to impress but often just come off as the epitome of bad taste; here in the Limehouse ballet is a startling purple and green surreal landscape that actually creates a useful mood for the broken-hearted Tai Long's romantic dream of Moy Ling (Lucille Bremer).
Almost as good is Judy Garland's Interview with the great star musical number. She's as impressive as ever but the number seems overworked and hyper, trying too hard to yield its few jokes. As stagecraft blocking and dance work though, it's nothing to sneeze at. And Garland does a terrific job saving the last master shot take when a lock of her hair keeps falling into her face. She has to flip her head and finally reposition the hair manually, and almost does it invisibly -- all the while keeping up with the intense choreography and singing to playback.
Lena Horne sings Love in a typical torch song number given a more elaborate presentation than usual. She does lean up against a wall or two to sing, but the moving camera seems more in synch with her emotions. The color design is also beautifully modulated for Lena's skin tones ... she looks terrific, not merely exotic.
Astaire's other number with Lucille Bremer is a Raffles replay that visually reminds us of his Let's Face the Music and Dance in an earlier RKO picture. It starts off well with a monocled Astaire doing some good pantomime as an opportunistic jewel thief whose criminal mission is sidetracked by Bremer's Princess. Although it's a matter of taste, for this reviewer the number breaks down in an ostentatious and rather ugly set with moving floors and women leaning against trees that look like white deer antlers. And after all the build-up, the payoff to the number's internal story isn't very satisfactory either.
Somewhere in the middle range are Ziegfeld Follies' big stage extravaganzas. The movie opens with a long number called "Here's to the Beautiful Girls," a complex pageant involving dozens of troublesome elements -- moving cameras, platforms, prancing women and horses -- that must have been a huge headache to coordinate. Several long takes incorporate Astaire's introduction, a meat parade of leggy models and finally an imperious Lucille Ball as an impossibly tall pink lady cracking the whip on a dozen creeping cat girls. It's elegant and technically refined, even if the whole thing is too much of a balancing act for anyone to be having fun. Like most of the 'big show' art direction in these revue shows, it's also artistically inert ... even the bizarre cat menagerie doesn't evoke much except surprise.
The same thing goes for the ending, a similar pageant broken up by ballet choreography in the middle of huge floating mounds of soap bubbles. Cyd Charisse does her best to run through these things without breaking her neck. They somehow keep the bubbles from sticking to her, sparing us the sight of the beautiful Cyd reduced to a soapy Michilin Man. For a few moments we're entranced by the sheer crazy colors of the globs of bubbles, which make it look as though the dancers are trapped in a big lava lamp from the 1970s. But it eventually all seems empty and impersonal, a feeling not helped by trilling singer Kathryn Grayson, who has the personality of a cherubic porcelain doll.
These technically sophisticated numbers are all show and little art, and MGM seems to mount them as a way of proving to other studios that they have the biggest toy box in town. The Esther Williams water ballet is likewise just an empty showcase; what William's ever-smiling face is supposed to communicate has always eluded this reviewer. It's curious that the Archers team of Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger should be able to out-wow these visual numbers with the paltry resources available in their English studios - little more than colored lights and cut-out cloth scenery. Even though the Archers could be pretentious (The Tales of Hoffmann) they were always artistically ambitious and had something to say, as in The Red Shoes. They even carried over a musical-operatic aesthetic in their non-musical dramas, like the expressive Black Narcissus. Ziegfeld Follies ultimately works overtime to justify Louis B. Mayer's idea that he was king of the entertainment world.
Some of the other numbers now have dated terribly, or seem to be nostalgic remnants of ideas that may have felt forced in 1946. It's not often that we get to see Fanny Brice on film; MGM had already ruined her appearance in The Great Ziegfeld by chopping off the whole second half of her signature song My Man. Here she seems a grotesque clown that would only be understood by the people who remembered her on stage. Anyone born later than 1946 will need an explanation for her importance and individuality, as she certainly is nothing like Barbra Streisand.
The La Traviata opera scene is legit but reeks of the Mayer idea of culture; it doesn't belong in this stack, that's for sure. And especially not next to the comic sketches starring Brice, Keenan Wynn, Edward Arnold and Victor Moore, and finally Red Skelton. None seems particularly funny any more, although Skelton's fans are going to love his over-the-top clowning.
That leaves the 'historic' pairing of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly to ponder. While wondering what the title The Babbitt and the Bromide refers to, we get a congenial rivalry, or a spoof of a rivalry, that's not a whole lot of fun. The two extraordinarily talented dancers kick each other and pull off other tricks, which only encourages the thought that because the real men in the same field and are often compared, they don't like each other. The number seems to be the result of an edict to put them together, as P.T. Barnum would combine star headliners to create a bigger glow. It doesn't happen.
Hume Cronyn, William Frawley, Peter Lawford, Grady Sutton and Ray Teal either have noted parts or can be spotted along the way; I've never been able to find favorite Carol Haney, but she's said to be in there somewhere.
Ziegfeld Follies is a musical favorite for many but it's a tough sell to new audiences. It's almost better to sample the acts one at a time, skipping ahead (Heresy!) when individual segments wear out their welcome.
Warner DVD's disc of Ziegfeld Follies is a fine transfer of this gaudy entertainment. The bright colors can't quite grab the full power of a theatrical screening in Technicolor, but they come close. The audio is presented in a choice of original mono and remixed stereo.
The featurette docu concentrates on the film's shaky path to the screen. Proposed years before, it took forever to nail down exactly what acts would appear (interestingly, Ziegfeld's original stage show is represented by stop-motion animation puppets as part of the prologue). The craziest news is that, after previews, over an hour of completely finished numbers would never be seen again. We're not told if they were simply junked, or were lost in MGM's periodic vault fires in New Jersey.
Movie-specific extras continue with a trailer and audio-only outtakes for three songs. Warners has also stacked two cartoons (The Hick Chick and Solid Serenade) and a "Crime Does Not Pay" short subject called The Luckiest Guy in the World. This rather notorious short makes no sense in the series because it's a strange fantasy with the idiotic message that even if a crime is successful, the guilty will be repaid by Bad Karma. It's well made but ridiculously silly, as we all know that in the real world, "The Bad Sleep Well".
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Ziegfeld Follies rates:
Sound: Excellent Remixed Dolby Surround Stereo and original mono English audio
Supplements: New featurette Ziegfeld Follies: An Embarrassment of Riches, MGM Crime Does Not Pay short The Luckiest Guy in the World; 2 MGM cartoons: The Hick Chick and Solid Serenade, Audio-only bonus: outtake songs "If Swing Goes, I Go Too," "There's Beauty Everywhere" and "We Will Meet Again in Honolulu"; Ziegfeld movies trailer gallery
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: April 20, 2006
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson