Sunday, December 11, 2016

ZIEGFELD FOLLIES (MGM 1946) Warner Home Video

What can one say about Ziegfeld Follies (1946), MGM's elephantine footnote to producer Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.s glorification of the 'American girl'? Directed by Lemuel Ayers, Roy Del Ruth, Robert Lewis, Vincente Minnelli, Merrill Pye, George Sidney and Charles Walters, it remains a film so stiflingly top heavy and incongruously plagued by super kitsch, and, so regrettably bloated with one extravagantly ‘ugly’ number toppling into the next, that as an entertainment for the ages, Ziegfeld Follies ultimately emerges as more the tired worm from its artistic cocoon than the anticipated butterfly the studio was hoping for, extolling some forgotten age of opulence in the American theatre with too much talent and not enough class.  MGM, purveyors of the most lavish musical entertainments were determined to outdo not only themselves, but also the master showman and his follies on which this claptrap is more directly based. They ought to have left well enough alone, having resurrected Ziegfeld twice before (in 1936's sumptuous The Great Ziegfeld, then again with 1941's intriguingly flawed Ziegfeld Girl). On this outing it seems too many creative 'cooks' were stirring the broth; the net result being Ziegfeld Follies holds the dubious distinction of having the most production numbers ever shot for a single movie eventually to wind up on the cutting room floor. 
It seems everyone from Fred Astaire to Arthur Freed had a great idea for a musical vignette in this film. Astaire, in fact, was to appear in a number entitled 'If Swing Goes, I Go Too' for which numerous still photographs exist and continue to be circulated. Regrettably, the number, although filmed at a considerable expense, does not survive today. Neither does Avon Long's rendition of Liza sung to a mute Lena Horne, shot against a paper mache riverboat backdrop. And then there is the never completed reunion between Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland entitled 'I Love You Just As Much in Technicolor as I Did in Black and White'. This ought to have been an homage to their 'hey kids! Let's put on a show!' days from the early 1940s. Jimmy Durante's 'Start Off Each Day with A Song', as well as a reprise of Fanny Brice's 'Baby Snooks' routine from Vaudeville were apparently also photographed, although no evidence exists to prove the claim. At the last possible moment, Vincente Minnelli's desire to shoot a lavish soap bubble finale, where all of the stars appearing in Ziegfeld Follies sail to and fro in large gondolas, had to be scrapped when it was discovered the bubble machine and its 10,000 gallons of liquid produced noxious gases, causing chorus girls and camera men alike to swoon. 
In most film reviews, Ziegfeld Follies is often referenced as "an embarrassment of riches". Yet in retrospect, more seems to be 'lacking in this 'cornucopia of' pseudo-classic moments. To be certain, Ziegfeld Follies does have its highlights, but these are sandwiched between interminable bouts of boring comedy and several musical sequences more garish and gaudy than glossy.  MGM's chieftain, Louis B. Mayer had perceived Ziegfeld Follies as a film to celebrate the studio's 20th anniversary. In a very public way, Ziegfeld Follies was also an attempt to re-establish the supremacy of Mayer's regal movie kingdom, resplendent with 'more stars than there are in heaven' yet since having suffered the slings and arrows of a slowly shifting public allegiance to the sort of ultra-glamour Mayer preferred to invest in. By 1946, MGM was hardly the studio it had once been. In fact, if only to consider its yearly output from the standpoint of revenue and awards, MGM had already lost its’ ‘blue book’ status as the brightest studio in Hollywood, though it would remain the biggest for some time yet to follow.  Regrettably, as a plot-less celebration of MGM’s star system, Ziegfeld Follies outwardly reflects the inner malaise enveloping the studio: a leaden and laborious exercise in mismanaged funds and wasted talent. With such formidable stars on tap as Judy Garland, Red Skelton, Esther Williams and Kathryn Grayson – to name but a handful – it is rather difficult to miss the mark of integrity entirely. Yet, on the whole, Ziegfeld Follies is less of a big time entertainment and very much more the tired old chestnut one wishes would simply fade into obscurity. 
The film opens with William Powell reprising his role as Ziegfeld; this time looking down on MGM from his heavenly rest with admiration; one old master tipping his hat to another. Utilizing the studio’s formidable array of talent, Flo envisions an opening number in the vein of his earliest follies, hosted by Fred Astaire (who wound up getting the lion's share of musical numbers in the finished film).  "Here's To The Beautiful Ladies" is meant as homage to Ziegfeld's glorification of the American girl. There are plenty to go around- and around - on a bizarre pink carousel featuring live pink horses. The girls, in all their pink plumage, coo and smile politely for the camera, reaching for gold and satin velvet rings from a dispenser as Astaire emerges on the arm of Cyd Charisse – then being groomed for her balletic abilities - yet given precious little to do apart from a momentary kick or two on point. From here, the sequence degenerates into a grotesque twaddle of lavishness run amuck. Lucille Ball emerges from a cloud of black and red smoke, taming a chorus of slinky cat women with a whip as they pretend to claw at her lavishly sequined pink gown. As though realizing all of this nonsense is more crass than class, the opening number gives way to an utter lampoon of itself; 'Here's To Those Wonderful Men' sung with deadpan perfection by Virginia O'Brien. A choice sampling of the lyrics, “Bring me those wonderful men. Bring me an elegant guy. A solider. A sailor. A Gable or Taylor. A short or a tall one. I just wanna call one. A dark or a light one. I just wanna sight one. Someone to relax with…and pay income tax with…and though he’s from Hunger, I’m not getting’ younger.”
From this inauspicious beginning, we dive head first into an Esther Williams’ water ballet. Originally, this sequence was to have been preceded by the song 'We Will Meet Again in Honolulu'. Instead, what survives is an inexplicably truncated and rather undernourished sequence that begins and ends in the middle, Williams already submersed and swimming through a congested underwater jungle of multicolored plastic plankton. The ballet ought to have been exciting. Instead, it unravels rather quickly into a sort of pedestrian outtake from some other aquacade entirely. Perhaps most disappointing of all are the film's comedy sequences interpolated with the songs and other musical oddities - a claptrap of Vaudeville routines set against cardboard backdrops. The first of these immediately follows the water ballet. Victor Moore's 'Pay the Two Dollars' tells the tale of a man fined for expectorating on the subway. His lawyer (Edward Arnold) refuses to pay the modest fine resulting in Moore narrowly escaping a capital death sentence for inadvertently spreading a contagious disease. Asked to quantify the expenses for his defense, the attorney lists his mother, wife and daughter on the list of rebuttal opinions…why? Because, everybody has one! Released from prison with his reputation as a solid citizen in tatters, Moore forgets himself and spits on the subway again, thereby starting the whole process all over again. 
Ziegfeld Follies now moves into its most garish vignette; the James Melton/Marian Bell operatic aria from Traviata. The costumes are some of the ugliest conceived for film: men dressed in 18th century tuxedoes with angular waist coats, green lapels and frilly ruffled shirts, women sporting black and beige ball gowns with an embroidered insect pattern. Even the camera seems unsure of where to divert its attentions, pulling back and forth from high overhead shots looking directly down as if to suggest a Busby Berkley-esque moment, then pulling back in extreme long shot, dwarfing the paired dancers against a deadening backdrop of white semi-transparent curtains cut to suggest the arcs of a cathedral. Melton and Bell are in very fine voice; but their melodious pairing is obfuscated by the obscene clumsiness of its staging and the grotesquely oversized costuming that makes each of them look like children, masquerading in mummy and daddy’s discarded party clothes after the ball.
Red Skelton polishes off his old routine 'When Television Comes/Guzzler's Gin Program'; the most static of the comedy sequences; Skelton, photographed dead center against an uninspiring backdrop as a radio announcer, forced to drink gin as part of his on air promos. He thereafter becomes increasingly intoxicated from the libation. Ziegfeld Follies’ midway point is also its most intuitively realized dramatic/musical sequence: 'This Heart of Mine' - sung by Fred Astaire as a jewel thief who seduces a princess (played by Lucille Bremer) at a lavish ball as a prelude to stealing her jewels. Unable to rid himself of a growing affection for his intended victim, the thief prematurely attempts to bid the princess farewell, but is chagrined when she willingly offers him her necklace and earrings at their parting, having already realized the purpose of his seduction. The thief accepts her offer; then, suddenly realizes he would prefer to have the girl instead. They reunite in a passionate embrace and leave the ball together. In a movie touched by so many epic misfires, ‘This Heart of Mine’ easily becomes the first, if not in fact the most exquisite and memorable highlight in Ziegfeld Follies, not only because it manages to tap into the Astaire mystique cultivated as the bon vivant sophisticate of so many RKO movie musicals opposite Ginger Rogers, but also because, unlike the many other sequences in this film, to appear as truncated music box selections plucked from a catalog of outtakes, it endeavors to tell an entire narrative in miniature, as well as establish an on screen persona for Lucille Bremer, as the austere princess, whose Metro career would alas be all too brief and otherwise forgettable.
'This Heart of Mine' is superb pantomime set against the film's most absurdly luxuriant backdrops. A blood red ballroom with white chandeliers gives way to a gray marbled terrace set against piercing blue skies where Astaire and Bremer are accompanied in their pas deux by two dozen dancers elegantly attired in lurid shades of purple, yellow and black. Ziegfeld Follies sinks back into the mire of forgettable tripe with its next sequence; the lugubrious comedy skit, 'Sweepstakes Ticket'; an idiotic, often violent parody between an impoverished husband and wife played by Fanny Brice and Hume Cronyn. He has won the lottery but cannot seem to remember where he has hidden the winning ticket. She becomes increasingly hysterical and vicious after learning her husband traded it to their landlord (William Frawley) for a stay on their rent; the landlord now refusing to give it back, although as yet unsuspecting he holds the promise of millions in his hand. Things pick up with Judy Garland's scathing lampoon of Greer Garson in 'The Great Lady Gives an Interview'. Garson had originally been tapped by producer, Arthur Freed to poke fun at her own film persona. She declined and after the Judy/Mickey reunion number was scrapped from Ziegfeld Follies program, Freed approached Judy to perform this number in its place. Garland is magnificent as the overly flamboyant star stricken with self-importance - her flashing eyes wooing the gentlemen of the press as she dramatically emotes the virtues of Madame Crematon; the inventor of the safety pin.
Perhaps in awe of the rushes on ‘This Heart of Mine’, Astaire and Bremer return in Limehouse Blues; a curious pas deux inspired by Gertrude Lawrence's Broken Blossoms and incorporating redressed sets from MGM's The Picture of Dorian Gray. Astaire is a Chinese coolie who follows Bremer's ‘working girl’ into the red light district of London where she is seen courting a wealthy Anglo patron and admiring an ornate Chinese fan in one of the shop windows. A robbery ensues and Astaire is accidentally shot by the police. As he lay dying on the pavement, his character envisions a French chinoiserie paradise where he and Bremer frolic and dance. With its radically shifting palette of colors and starburst light patterns, Limehouse Blues steadily unravels into a unattractive physical manifestation of the coolie’s obsession with the prostitute, eventually stilled by the specter of death fast approaching and the rejection of his gift of the fan, damaged in the robbery and callously discarded by the whore who favors the her wealthy Anglo client because she is hardly the altruistic and put-upon creature as imagined in the coolie’s daydreams. In addition to staging this atmospheric nightmare, Vincente Minnelli also supervised its art direction; dotting the landscape with gunmetal palms, burnt orange feathers and hot red plaster and clay statuary sprayed with silver and rubbed in gold. Unfortunately, for Astaire and Bremer, the set becomes so busy that at times it is difficult to appreciate their dance as pure performance.
The last comedy vignette in Ziegfeld Follies, 'Number Please' is also its most careworn. Keenan Wynn plays a man unable to connect with a New York telephone extension, despite the fact virtually everyone else who uses the same pay phone is capable of calling the most obscure locations on earth and be immediately put in touch with friends in far off Brazil, South Africa, Russia and Transylvania.  Ziegfeld Follies concludes with two very different musical offerings. The first, The Babbitt and the Bromide, is the only time Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly danced on film together (save 1976's 'reunion' in That's Entertainment Part II) The jovial lyric follows the lives of two men who outwardly pretend to be friends, but secretly view one another as rivals. Their first cute meet in youth is followed by another at middle age, and finally their last after death, as a pair of angels still out to prove who is the better dancer in front of St. Peter's gate. The Babbitt and the Bromide is a chance for fans of both Kelly and Astaire to do a comparative analysis of their exceedingly different dancing styles; Kelly’s robust athleticism matched by Astaire’s peerless fluidity in motion; their feet tapping in perfect unison; their body language from the ankles up, anything but a carbon copy of the other’s grace and perfectionism. The spectacle of seeing both #1 dancers in the world dueling it out on the dance floor is a reminder of the greater lost opportunity; MGM, never co-starring Kelly and Astaire in a feature-length movie.
Ziegfeld Follies concludes on a decidedly sour note with Vincente Minnelli's inherited, and thoroughly ill-fated bubble ballet; set to a truly joyless song - There's Beauty Everywhere, warbled by Kathryn Grayson on a revolving platform set against a rather apocalyptic backdrop of brewing storm clouds. Nothing about this sequence seems to fit; Grayson, hair parted down the middle, wearing a rather unflattering pink taffeta gown; her ebony tresses blowing in an artificial wind. From here, the song dissolves to a very brief portion of the half-executed bubble ballet. Cyd Charisse is briefly glimpsed flitting through mountains of glittery soap before the camera dissolves to a Salvador Dali-inspired backdrop populated by statuesque beauties moving with stilted mannerisms; Minnelli's boom maneuvering the camera amongst these ruins. As we come to the last of these lovelies posed with all the frigidity of a department store mannequin, the camera follows a long extension of translucent material from her scarf to a pedestal where we are reunited with Kathryn Grayson, concluding the song as a large canopy of lights spells out the film's title against a curtained backdrop. 
After so many stellar examples of elevating the musical/comedy to a fine art, Ziegfeld Follies came as a peculiar offering from both Freed and MGM to say the least. Its professionalism is beyond reproach. All of the stars are giving it everything they have. Freed would have hoped for the elusive spark of magic to ignite this regal kindling into a four alarm blaze of spellbinding glamour. Yet somehow, even the megawatt star power is never quite enough: the entire enterprise steadily sinking deeper under the weight of its fantastic artifice. The film drags with interminable and paralytic lethargy. At some point we suddenly realize Ziegfeld Follies is ceaselessly blessed with too much of a good thing; the stars not necessarily in competition to outdo one another, but also, doing nothing to actually stand out in relief from the elephantine and occasionally recycled production values, given a fresh coat of paint but precious little else to recommend them. In the end, one feels strangely sick, as though having gorged on too many sweets at the pastry table of a profligately appointed banquet where all the edibles have already begun to slightly turn from having been set out too long under the hot klieg lights.  
Ziegfeld Follies does not enthrall as much as it repeatedly begs the inquiry as to how and why so much effort could be exerted on such a banal concoction of oddities and outtakes. The motif in conducting a follies for the screen is flawed because part of the spectacle of seeing any show of shows live is to be pleasantly surprised by the repeated quick changes and curtain calls; the cavalcade unfurling as though by magic before our very eyes. In a medium where a simple cut can justify a passage of time from barely a few moments to a decade’s worth of years, one anticipates such rapid changes; the spontaneity of the cavalcade diffused into the mere over-layering of claptrap upon hyperbole, the merriment in song and the frivolity of farce. Instead of complementing each other, the concoction is ever in danger of being swamped by its own magnificence.  In the final analysis, Ziegfeld Follies is the weakest of MGM’s tributes to Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. despite its robust palette and star power on which it repeated draws – then drains of inspiration; all of it coming to not long before the houselights have come up.

Warner Home Video’s DVD transfer is simply not up to par. Though certain segments of Ziegfeld Follies exhibit a rather crisp image with refined colors, many of the vignettes seem to suffer from a muddier than anticipated Technicolor color palette that has been very inconsistently rendered. The ‘Traviata’ sequence, as example, is notorious for its unstable flesh tones – shifting from hazy orange to dull pasty pink; compounded by some annoying built-in flicker that threatens to dull the black and white costuming into dirty grey/beige derivatives. Age-related artefacts are apparent throughout. Film grain is negligible but quite often registers as digital grit. The audio has been remixed to 5.1 stereo from the original isolated mono stems. Extras include the aptly titled featurette ‘An Embarrassment of Riches’ as well as audio outtakes of three surviving musical numbers. Aside: the original laserdisc release of Ziegfeld Follies included an extensive archive of audio only supplements. It is rather disappointing to see these have not been ported over to the DVD. Overall, Ziegfeld Follies is flat and uninspiring. Connoisseurs of such kitsch will be delighted. The rest of us can likely find moments to cherish too. But moments alone do not a great – or even good – movie make. Regrets.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


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