Ahh, the 1940s. Such a great time to be working in the movie musical business. Especially if you worked with feathers or sequins. Ziegfeld Follies has oodles of both. In fact, it’s fun just to watch this movie for the costumes. Who doesn’t get a kick out of Fred Astaire wearing red Chinese pyjamas with white pom poms, Lucille Ball with an enormous tuft of pink feathers sticking out of her head or chorus girls with butterfly bustles?
No? Just me?
It’s safe to say that ZF is a hit and miss affair. It falls into one of the most illustrious and oddest musical sub-genres – the musical revue. Around the time of the advent of talking pictures, most studios churned at least one out to show off the talents of their stable of performers. They quickly learnt that the revue format doesn’t work half as well on screen as it does on the stage. ZF was a splashy and ambitious attempt by MGM at the height of their powers to try revive that tradition.
Perhaps the most stunning feature of ZF is its use of colour – not surprising with Vincente Minnelli directing most segments. The opening musical number is a riot of pink and white (And feathers. And sequins. And hula hoops.), and is one of the highlights of the film. Fred Astaire sings, Cyd Charisse dances, Virginia O’Brien sings an hilarious parody of the number (while sitting on the most unnervingly fake horse I’ve ever seen), and Lucille Ball whips a bunch of catwoman chorus girls into submission. It’s camp, it’s fabulous and it’s a great start to the film.
(Well, really, the film starts with a bunch of creepy puppets re-enacting the history of the Ziegfeld Follies on Broadway. It’s rather disturbing. Then there’s William Powell, playing Florenz Ziegfeld in heaven, tossing up the idea of putting on another show. But he’s dead, of course, so he decides he’ll just have to get Fred Astaire to put it together for him. This makes no sense at all, but we’re in musical revue land now, where the logic is even more convoluted than regular musical land. We’ve just got to roll with it from here on in.)
Following that, in no particular order, is a segment featuring Esther Williams floating around in the water for a while, an extract from La Traviata with the chorus almost collapsing under the weight of their outrageous dresses, and a comedy skit featuring Keenan Wynn trying and failing to place a call through an operator. Listen carefully to the voices he talks to, and you might just hear Audrey Totter and Peter Lawford making their uncredited appearances.
The comedy skits are what really drag this film down. Maybe it’s the fact they haven’t dated well, or maybe they just weren’t funny in the first place. I recommend that you keep the fast forward button handy. Apart from the telephone sketch, keep an eye out for Victor Moore in “Pay The Two Dollars”, Fanny Brice fretting over a lottery ticket, and Red Skelton with his famous gin skit. Of these, I find the Victor Moore sketch the funniest. The appearance of Fanny Brice is a nice link to the original Follies on Broadway, and fans of Red Skelton will adore how he progressively gets drunker and drunker throughout his segment.
Returning to the musical segments, make sure you catch the two dances with Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer, “This Heart of Mine” and “Limehouse Blues.” The first is probably the best, with Fred playing a jewel thief taking the rich Lucille for a ride. It could have become a classic number if it had just let Fred and Lucille dance by themselves, but someone thought it was a good idea to involve a chorus dancer or twelve. On moving platforms. With sparkly tree branches for decoration. At least Lucille’s costume is pretty, which is more than can be said for “Limehouse Blues.” Both she and Fred are subjected to playing Chinese characters, with makeup that makes poor Freddy look like ET, and red pyjamas that make one giggle and recoil in horror simulataneously.
That said, I love “Limehouse Blues.” Its mini storyline and dream ballet device make it a precursor to later MGM ballets in “Yolanda and the Thief” and “An American in Paris”, so if you’re interested in the development of ballet in musicals, it’s definitely worth your while to watch this one. The ballet here takes place on a huge soundstage decked out to resemble a Chinese painting. There is a gorgeous sequence before the whole set is revealed to us where Fred chases Lucille’s fan through the dark – a wonderfully beautiful and surreal image. A choreographic high point would be the fan dancing, where Fred and Lucille move across the set opening and closing their fans around each other. And if you ever wanted to see Fred Astaire do a cartwheel, this number is for you.
Apart from Fred Astaire, other great MGM performers of the period make an appearance. Lene Horne is at her best in “Love”, overcoming the tacky set, costumes and narrative introduction to the number. It’s definitely a must see, as is Judy Garland’s Interview segment. You don’t want to miss the hand-clapping chorus boys or Judy’s “rap.” It’s a little odd, and most people either hate it or love it, but Judy looks absolutely beautiful and it’s a completely unique musical number.
Then, of course, there’s “The Babbit and the Bromide”, famous for being the only time Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire danced together at the height of their careers (they did perform a few token steps together in That’s Entertainment II in the 70s). The number favours Fred, adapted as it is from the same number he performed with his sister Adele in the 1920s. Still, both dancers get to show off their skills in a challenge dance that also lightly sends up their supposed rivalry. This number should be required viewing for any musical fan. Let me stress that again – even if you have no desire to see this movie at all, you still must watch this number. You absolutely must.
The finale features a few of the usual Minnelli touches we’ve come to expect – beautiful girls lounging around in stylised positions and a stunning use of colour in the sets and costumes. But then there’s THE BUBBLES. When people say Ziegfeld Follies is over the top and overblown, all they have to do is refer to the BUBBLES to prove their point. What we see in the film is Cyd Charisse dancing thourgh a mountain of bubbles, while more bubbles almost engulf the camera. It’s bubble-rama. It’s bubble-icious. It’s bubble-tastic. What we don’t get to see is the attempted dance between Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer in the bubbles. They came so close to being suffocated by bubbles while shooting that they couldn’t complete the number. Poor Cyd as it is almost loses her way through them. Nevertheless, it’s absolutely stunning. It’s almost a pity to end the finale with Kathryn Grayson warbling out a song about beauty while a sign lights up the title of the film behind her. Because, really, it just can’t compare to the bubbles.
Up until now, most of us have only been able to see Ziegfeld Follies on faded video copies, meaning the full brilliance of the colour has been missing. Hopefully, the upcoming DVD release will rectify this. If you’re a fan of the MGM musicals, it’s definitely worth your while to take a look at Ziegfeld Follies, if only to marvel at the heavyweight star power. Oh yes, and the sequins. And the feathers.