Immortalized, sort of, in Harry Medved and Randy (Lowell) Dreyfuss's The 50 Worst Films of All-Time, the big budget Technicolor musical hodgepodge The Goldwyn Follies (1938), like many of the films included in that book, actually isn't all that bad - there are far, far worse Hollywood musicals around - though the bare bones of a story holding it all together is awesomely idiotic.
Though overlong and at times pretentious and uncultured, usually at the same time, 1938 audiences still probably enjoyed most of it well enough, though the lack of A-list stars, more than the film's shortcomings, probably doomed this very expensive production at the box office. But it does have a lot of talent behind it: George and Ira Gershwin wrote most of the songs, Ben Hecht (among many others) wrote the sometimes funny script, it was photographed by the great cinematographer Gregg Toland (three years before he shot Citizen Kane). The MGM/Fox DVD, mastered at DeLuxe, is single-layered but looks gorgeous.
The nearly two-hour film, long by late-'30s standards, is basically a musical review. Top-billed Adolphe Menjou plays Oliver Merlin, the owner-executive producer at a big Hollywood studio (played by the Goldwyn Studios on Santa Monica Boulevard, in an aerial shot). His latest film, starring the difficult European star Olga Samara (ballet dancer Vera Zorina) is a huge flop, his second in a row. Shooting his latest Samara vehicle near Big Bear Lake, Merlin meets Hazel Dawes (Andrea Leeds of Stage Door), whose unpretentious common sense greatly impresses the studio boss for no good reason.
He takes to calling her "Miss Humanity" and hires her to be his consultant, relying on her advice for every major and many minor decisions. After work, she meets and falls in love with a short-order cook at a nearby a diner, an aspiring tenor named Danny (Kenny Baker). Meanwhile, the film also follows The Ritz Brothers (The Ritz Brothers), Edgar Bergen & Charlie McCarthy (Edgar Bergen & Edgar Bergen) and a bit actor named Michael (Phil Baker) and their efforts to break into pictures.
The film is a strange jumble of talent. It features the Metropolitan Opera, and excerpts from Verdi's La Traviata, but also Sid Kuller and Ray Golden's unforgettable "Here Pussy Pussy," (with the lyrics, "Here pussy, pussy, pussy, pussy, pussy, pussy, pussy, pussy, pussy, pussy, pussy, pussy, pussy, pussy, pussy, pussy...") performed with bug-eyed enthusiasm by the Ritz Brothers. Phil Baker worked primarily in Vaudeville while Edgar Bergen (& Charlie McCarthy) were big radio stars.
The astoundingly beautiful Vera Zorina plays a temperamental European star along the lines of Marlene Dietrich and Greta Garbo, the type that had suddenly gone out of fashion in the late-1930s and labeled as "box-office poison" by exhibitors. And yet Zorina also dominates the ballet sequences though the film presents her as such an untalented actress many won't realize the exquisite dancer and beautiful but empty-headed actress are one and the same. And if you think ballet can't be fun, just wait to you get a load of her during the "Water Nymph Ballet," appearing in an incredibly racy, gold bathing suit-type outfit that if it were not created for a high-brow ballet number would never have got past the Breen Office censors.
The big problem with The Goldwyn Follies is its idiot plot. After watching the film I felt like forming a "Hollywood Studio Head Anti-Defamation League" because, as depicted, Menjou's character is considerably less intelligent than Curly-Joe De Rita of the Three Stooges - on a bad day! He starts out producing dramas so awful the audience laughs at the big death scenes, then he hires a woman with no taste or intelligence or experience to tell him what to do. "Miss Humanity's" ideas about movie-making are supposed to be naively charming, so simple and obvious as to be ingenious - or, as Merlin gratingly says repeatedly, awestruck, "Amazing!" In one early scene she pouts until Merlin changes Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet so that everybody lives happily ever after. If not for his stupidity in implementing all her bad ideas, she'd come off as a bigger dolt than he does.
Ultimately, the inept, tasteless Merlin is condescending to Plain-Folks Hazel ("If you could just stay as simple as you are," he says, "You'd be invaluable!") and the result of all their efforts is highfaluting artiness dumbed-down for the folks in Peoria. Actually, it reminded me a lot of Walt Disney's Fantasia (1940). It strains with affected unaffectedness.
Still, the comedy scenes are pretty good: Bergen and his dummy perform prime material that sounds like it was rehashed from old radio scripts; Bobby Clark, one-half of the very popular comedy team of Clark & McCullough until his partner committed suicide shortly before this was made, is fun in the risqué role of a casting agent; and Baker's amusing as a hapless actor. The Ritz Brothers, the main specialty act, are frenetic and their musical numbers especially are pretty funny, if bemusing. The score, George Gershwin's last, offers several standards, including "Love Is Here to Stay."
The "class" numbers are imaginatively done, with the "Water Nymph Ballet" coming off best, especially in the middle of that sequence where wind machines are used well with the ballet dancers' costumes, much like the dance sequence between Gene Kelly and Debbie Reynolds on the empty soundstage in Singin' in the Rain (1952).
Video & Audio
Filmed in three-strip Technicolor, The Goldwyn Follies is a beauty, and an interesting early Technicolor production insofar as DP Gregg Toland seems to have gotten away with shooting the film in a less garish, less over-the-top stylization Technicolor supervisor Natalie Kalmus generally imposed on such films*. It's hardly as distinctive as Toland's best black & white work, but it's restrained in a way that would largely disappear from American color films of the 1940s. The transfer is near-flawless; the image is bright and beautiful, with nary a misaligned frame. The DVD is single-layered, but that seems to have had no ill-effect on the quality of the image. The Dolby Digital English mono audio is fine, and handles the opera sequences well. The disc is closed-captioned but has no Extra Features.
Though more a curiosity than a memorable musical, The Goldwyn Follies is an intriguing mixture of great if incongruous talent held together by a feeble story so hackneyed it becomes entertaining in its awfulness. But there are some genuine laughs, excellent production values and worthwhile musical numbers of all kinds. If you're a fan of classic movie musicals, this one is Recommended.
* I thought I had always heard and in read interviews with directors and cinematographers from that era that Kalmus's tastes ran toward the garish and less naturalistic, but reader Gene Schiller writes: "I think you have it backwards. Natalie Kalmus, from everything I've read, kept a very tight rein on Technicolor, discouraging bright or intense hues, which she felt would induce eye fatigue over the course of a full-length feature. It was probably Disney's Fantasia that broke the 'color' barrier - all the garish Technicolor extravaganzas date from this point. Otherwise, I enjoyed the review."
I did some additional checking, and it seems that Schiller is right, that my negative image of Kalmus's tastes were, at least in some respects, unjustified. I stand corrected.
Film historian Stuart Galbraith IV's latest book, Japanese Cinema, is due in stores this June, and on sale now.