Ziegfeld Follies (1946)
Ziegfeld Follies is a Technicolor explosion of MGM’s talent and stunningly over-the-top production values. Originally intended to premiere in 1944 as part of MGM’s 20th anniversary celebrations, production dragged on and it wasn’t released until 1946.
The movie takes the form of an old-fashioned revue of unconnected songs and sketches showcasing MGM’s stable of stars. The format makes a lot of sense–MGM had hundreds of songs and routines in its archives, and about as many actors and dancers under contract. A movie like this took advantage of the studio’s material and talent, and MGM hoped it would delight audiences by presenting dozens of their favorite stars in one movie.
Fun fact: famed pin-up artist George Petty was hired to paint the posters for this film. The women on the posters display the typical Petty style of extra-long legs and small heads.
Musical producer Arthur Freed oversaw the enormous project, and the film eventually included five directors (Vincente Minnelli got title credit), thirty writers, twenty credited actors and dozens of other players and dancers, as well as MGM’s huge staff of set and costume designers, composers, choreographers, music arrangers, and hundreds of other crew members working behind the scenes. It’s an exercise in opulence and pure spectacle, a showy display of what MGM could do.
The budget was astronomical for the time, coming in at over 3.2 million dollars. That was slightly more than double the average cost of an A-film at MGM. This was crazy-money; MGM already spent more on their films than the other studios, whose pictures generally came in at about $900,000 in the mid-1940s. A $3 million movie was practically unheard of at the time.
Significantly, since each sketch and musical number stands alone, the filmmakers were free to let their imaginations and skills soar to crazy heights without needing to sustain a vision across an entire movie. Each sequence is essentially its own short film, with budgets, themes, and a cohesive design to match.
Production on this movie stretched on for over a year, as one can imagine with so many stars, numbers, and logistics to plan and execute. Filming began in April 1944, and continued on and off through August, with more filming in December and January-February 1945. MGM boasted that it was the longest production schedule and biggest budget of any film in history, with early reports suggesting it might hit $4 million.
The film’s fourteen musical numbers and sketches are structured as Florenz Ziegfeld, Jr.’s ideal “Follies,” a dream-production the heaven-bound showman would put on if he could produce one more show with MGM’s full roster of stars at his disposal.
So, after a five-minute overture, the movie kicks into gear with a leisurely tour of heaven. We pass through a monument to Shakespeare and P.T. Barnum’s circus tent before we float by Florenz Ziegfeld’s theater. (We’ll get back to equating Ziegfeld with Shakespeare, don’t worry!)
Then the scene dissolves into MGM’s version of heaven, full of plush furniture and swirling rococo against a starry sky. We find Ziegfeld at the end of another “heavenly day,” writing in his journal and reminiscing about his glory days.
William Powell, who had previously played the legendary showman in The Great Ziegfeld (1936), reprises his role in this film, a fact that MGM was quick to remind the audience:
Ziegfeld takes the film audience into his memory (populated by puppets, apparently) for a look back at his first Follies in 1907. Ziegfeld remembers the great stars who performed in his shows, including Marilyn Miller and Will Rogers (pictured), and Fanny Brice and Eddie Cantor (shown as a puppet in blackface singing “If You Knew Suzy.” There are several scenes in this film that have aged very, very poorly.)
You can watch this scene here. Fun fact: Lou Bunin, famed puppeteer and stop-motion animation pioneer, created this scene.
Another fun fact: there was a whole other opening filmed for this movie that starred Leo the Lion instead of William Powell/Ziegfeld. That sequence had a puppet Leo introducing the movie and taking the audience back to the first Follies in 1907. You can watch the scrapped opening here.
Ziegfeld beams as he reminisces about those grand days and stars, and says confidently, “The world will never forget the Ziegfeld Follies.”
Wrong! Sorry, Mr. Ziegfeld, but unless a person is an old movie buff, adores the theater or music of a century ago, or has seen Funny Girl, he or she may never have encountered the Ziegfeld Follies. Indeed, of the three revolutionary artists/entertainers we encountered in heaven, I’d bet that Ziegfeld is the least remembered today. He certainly doesn’t even come close to Shakespeare. In fact, the Shakespeare/Barnum/Ziegfeld grouping is unintentionally comic today.
So despite the movie’s certainty that everyone would know instantly all about Ziegfeld and his Follies, here’s a quick recap. Florenz “Flo” Ziegfeld, Jr. was born in 1869 and put on his first Follies in 1907. He was inspired by the Folies Bergère of Paris, an institution that began the year he was born and continues today.
Like the Folies Bergère, Ziegfeld’s Follies was a vaudeville-type show of comic sketches, songs, and other specialty numbers like gymnasts or dancers, along with a bevy of scantily clad beauties!
Ziegfeld was known as the “glorifier of the American girl,” and becoming one of Ziegfeld’s showgirls was quite an achievement (see the film Ziegfeld Girl (1941) for more on that).
Appearing in a Ziegfeld revue was the height of the vaudeville and theater circuit, as we see so memorably in Easter Parade (1948) and other musicals set in the teens and 1920s.
Along with his revues, Ziegfeld also produced musicals, most famously Show Boat in 1927. He was a household name who stood for huge, gorgeous productions starring the top entertainers of the day.
You can watch a brief introduction to Ziegfeld from PBS’s Broadway: The American Musical here:
Ziegfeld died in 1932, but he was still such a famous figure that films like The Great Ziegfeld, Ziegfeld Girl, and Ziegfeld Follies took advantage of his notoriety and the kind of show business he represented. And although he may not be a household name today, audiences in 1946 would have known exactly who he was and what this film was drawing on.
After this trip back to the early Follies, we return to Ziegfeld in Heaven. He wanders to his balcony and thinks aloud, “Couldn’t there be a new Follies? What I would give to put on one more Follies!”
A crayon and paper magically appear, and he begins planning the first number in his dream show. Something pink, he decides, with “beautiful pink and white blue-eyed girls” and his old friend Fred Astaire! (Unsurprisingly, the only real diversity in this number is the women’s hair color.)
Astaire introduces the show with a sort of disclaimer for audiences who had grown accustomed to integrated musicals with a strong plot. He says that Ziegfeld never cared about stories, and the Follies never had stories. Instead, the Follies was a story of “an era,” and Ziegfeld was a specialist at “glorifying girls.” Hint: this is a pure revue of unrelated numbers, so don’t try to find a plot.
I’ll add my disclaimer on top of Astaire’s: this is an absurdly excessive, frothy, old-fashioned movie that can seem awfully strange today. We aren’t accustomed to the revue format, and some of these numbers can seem, well, pointless and incredibly dated. But you have to remember that this movie was intended as pure spectacle, a showcase of MGM’s talent, wealth, and glamour. It was designed to wow a 1940s audience, and some of it doesn’t hold up as well seventy years later.
If you don’t love musicals, this probably isn’t going to be your favorite. But try to think of it as an entry in the That’s Entertainment! series (1974, 1976, 1994) that strung together unrelated numbers from MGM’s archives. This is similar, except instead of a retrospective compiled decades later, Ziegfeld Follies was made at the height of the studio’s power, and contains the stars, songs, and sketches that MGM chose as its best.
Back to the film. After Astaire’s introduction, we cut to an over-the-top pink number called “Here’s to the Girls” packed with glittering, rosy ladies. It stars Fred Astaire, relative newcomer Cyd Charisse in a tutu, and Lucille Ball.
After this balletic confection, (which you can watch here), the camera pulls back to reveal a carousel straight out of a burlesque version of Candy Land. Various pink ladies sit astride white steeds held by women in short sparkling uniforms. The whole shimmering concoction rotates slowly around, the ostrich feathers in the women’s headdresses swaying luxuriously. (The feather budget for this number alone must have been astronomical.) The ladies reach for pretty rings and smile at the camera. Girls, glorified.
Fun fact: the horse Ball stands on is Silver, who had appeared in several westerns and was most famous for playing the Lone Ranger’s steed! The poor horse wore his own ostrich feather plume and matching shimmery tack. Life magazine published a picture of Silver from this number with the tagline “Silver is a sissy!” which made Silver’s trainer sue MGM for defamation of character! They settled out of court (Cohan 54-55).
After this Pepto-Bismol carousel section, Ball dismounts and begins an unexpected interlude as a wild animal tamer. The beasts she releases from a cage and flicks with her whip are women dressed in backless, cutout cat costumes with long pink claws and caps with cat ears. It’s amazingly, wonderfully weird.
The women appear out of thick orange smoke and do some sultry choreography while Ball struts around with her whip. Ball plays it all with a straight face, though everyone must have known how campy and just plain ridiculous this was.
Steven Cohan’s book, Incongruous Entertainment: Camp, Cultural Value, and the MGM Musical, uses a still from this number as its cover. Cohan devotes quite a bit of time to analyzing the campy elements in “Here’s to the Girls,” noting that the number can be read “straight” as pure spectacle adhering to heteronormative, mainstream values. But the MGM musical more generally, and this number in particular, is also knowingly playing with camp, winking at the audience so that those in the know would get the joke.
What does he mean by camp? (This is an academic book, so bear with me.) According to Cohan, “Camp can be defined as the ensemble of strategies used to enact a queer recognition of the incongruities arising from the cultural regulation of gender and sexuality. The flamboyance of camp when inflicted as style, taste, wit, parody, or drag may seem the antithesis of passing, but to be flamboyant was a fundamental component of the joke” (1). Basically, camp is a theatrical, exaggerated style and sensibility that transgresses the “mainstream” while appearing to remain within the “accepted” cultural, gendered, and sexual borders.
Although it wasn’t acceptable to be openly gay, there were of course gay men and women working in Hollywood in the studio era, and Cohan writes that infusing a number like “Here’s to the Girls” with camp was a way for gay personnel to add “incongruous” elements to otherwise “straight” entertainment. He writes, “In response to that era’s oppression and censorship of homosexuality, camp allowed for the ironic, self-reflective style of gay men passing as straight, who kept a ‘straight face’ so as not to let outsiders in on the joke, while simultaneously winking at the initiated in shared acknowledgement of it” (1).
He describes how, “‘Here’s to the Girls’ pushes Ziegfeld’s own imagery of Anglo-Saxon beauty past the point of excess, if that can be possible, juxtaposing straight and queer perspectives of the Follies’ idealized version of femininity in a dialectic visualization of female spectacle which elevates ‘the Girls’ to a camp apotheosis” (53). For example, once Astaire disappears: “The number is still all-female, but Ball’s interaction with the cat-women unexpectedly raises some queer intimations, to say the least” (57.)
Cohan’s book is predicated on the notion that “Reading the MGM musical through camp illuminates the continuities as well as discontinuities in what it represented as ‘wholesome’ entertainment during the studio era and what it represents now, well over half a century later, as ‘incongruous’ entertainment” (2).
You can take or leave this reading of the number, but I wanted to mention it because I think it is an interesting lens through which to view the film and the era in which it was produced.
Costume appreciation break. Ball’s dress is a dream in shimmering rosy pink lace and split-skirted, diamond-draped, 1940s magic. Her famous red hair practically leaps at you from the screen amidst all the pink. Helen Rose designed the costumes for this number.
After the cat dance, the camera cranes back to reveal the entire set. Cyd Charisse is back in her gorgeous tutu, the carousel is spinning, and Ball has her cat-women under control. That’s the way to start the Follies! You can watch it here.
Fun fact: Vincente Minnelli ended up with the director’s credit, but George Sidney was the original director of this film. He was in charge when this number was shot in April 1944, but he was replaced by Minnelli in May. Freed later said that Sidney requested his release from the movie because he wasn’t happy with the first month’s filming.
Besides the “Here’s to the Girls” number, Sidney also directed the Follies puppet sequence, Red Skelton‘s “When Television Comes,” and Edward Arnold‘s “Pay the Two Dollars.” All told, Minnelli directed about half of the numbers in the finished film.
Back to the movie! Even MGM seemed to know that the audience would need a palate cleanser after all of that campy glamour! So the next number features Virginia O’Brien with her typical comic monotone. She’s also in pink bedazzled lace and ostrich feathers, but the feathers keep getting in her face, and her horse is mechanical. She’s not exactly the epitome of gorgeous glamour, but she gets amusingly close.
O’Brien provides a counterpoint to the “Here’s to the Girls” number with a song called “Bring on those Wonderful Men.” The song mentions some of MGM’s stars specifically, such as Van Johnson, who in the mid-1940s was a huge favorite with the ladies.
O’Brien’s song is a welcome change after the sugary, so obvious-it’s-laughable female objectification of the previous number. Although they’re juxtaposed as one song glorifying women and the next one glorifying men, there is a huge difference in the two numbers: “Here’s to the Girls” actually put a lot of women on display, whereas here we only get O’Brien wistfully singing about men.
There is no carousel featuring gorgeous men, or male dancers cavorting in sexy costumes; it’s just one woman singing to the camera in her pretty pink dress. This was 1946, after all. Though let’s be real: we still don’t get that kind of male objectification in 2015 (Magic Mike is the exception that proves the rule.)
After O’Brien’s song, which was filmed and added to the movie after the first preview screening in November 1944, we move to the water. There was only one mermaid in Hollywood, so get ready for Esther Williams in “A Water Ballet.”
Fun fact: every number except “Here’s to the Girls” and “Bring on those Wonderful Men” gets a title card that appears before it begins. Title cards were a staple of vaudeville and the Follies, and it allows MGM to credit its stars and the personnel who worked on specific numbers.
Williams swims into view in the perfectly blue water before diving beneath the surface. She wears a white suit that provides a snowy canvas for the shifting light, and she has white flowers in the braids coiled around her head. This was Williams’ typical swimming hairstyle created with fake braids and a mixture of Vaseline and baby oil that kept every strand in place. (For more on the hair and makeup techniques that made Williams look glamorous even underwater, read my post here.)
Unlike some of her more elaborate water ballets in movies like Bathing Beauty or Million Dollar Mermaid, in this number Williams is the sole performer. She executes her flips, twirls, and pretty poses underwater, and makes it look as though she can stay there forever.
She swims out of the empty blue and into colorful sets of coral.
Fun fact: this scene was filmed in one of the tanks built for Williams on Soundstage 30. The tank used for this number was circular, measured 20 feet deep with a 60 foot diameter, and could hold 3,000 gallons. The tank was filled with six different underwater sets and one above-water during this “water ballet.” The coral, caves, shells, and seagrasses we see onscreen were made of plastic, cork, plaster, rubber, and linen, and couldn’t be left in the water for very long before dissolving or becoming discolored. (One would think that waterproof materials would be a prerequisite for an underwater sequence, but apparently not!)
The fragile sets meant that after Williams filmed each different set-up, the tank was drained so that the used set could be removed and the next one lowered into place. Filming underwater scenes was not an easy undertaking.
After cavorting amongst the coral, Williams rises from the deep and does some lovely surface paddling towards pastel water lilies for a final smiling pose.
You can watch the water ballet here. Fun fact: The New York Times critic Bosley Crowther wrote in his review of this film that “A water ballet with Esther Williams in a skin-tight bathing suit weaving through submarine foliage is soothing and sorcerous to see…”
When this number was filmed, Williams was still a relatively new star.
Her first big film was Bathing Beauty (1944), with Thrill of a Romance (1945) coming soon after. And although this film was released in 1946, most of the filming took place in 1944. Thus, this “Water Ballet” was likely filmed before Thrill of a Romance had been released. MGM had a lot of faith in their mermaid.
After Williams’ “sorcerous” turn in the pool, we transition to a comic number called “Number, Please,” starring Keenan Wynn. Like Virginia O’Brien’s number, this sketch was added after the first preview screening of the movie.
It’s basically Wynn trying to get a stubbornly horrible operator to connect him to the right person. She dials everyone else’s numbers correctly, (including bit player Grady Sutton‘s), but she can’t seem to get Wynn’s right. In my opinion, it’s not quite enough material to justify the eight minute running time…
Fun fact: this sequence was based on an old sketch that had appeared in the 1930 revue Three’s a Crowd on Broadway.
Another fun fact: Peter Lawford has a very brief and uncredited part as one of the voices on the telephone! You can hear him at 5:55:
Next up is an operatic interlude starring James Melton and Marion Bell. The song is “Libiamo,” a drinking song, from Verdi’s La Traviata. As is typical for this movie, the scene is over-the-top with elaborate sets, costumes, and staging.
Melton was a popular radio singer and also performed at the Metropolitan Opera House for most of the 1940s.
Marion Bell makes her appearance in a striking red gown that contrasts brilliantly with the dark green, black, and white motifs. Bell began singing on the radio when she was only eight years old, and she appeared in A Night at the Opera (1935) with the Marx Brothers. She originated the role of Fiona in Brigadoon on Broadway in 1947, and went on to a career in opera.
These costumes were designed by Irene Sharaff, and appear to be inspired by the insect world and a deck of cards. One woman even has huge butterfly wings attached to her skirt and headdress.
The staging of this number, particularly the deep archways from which Bell enters, reminds me of the fashion show in Lovely to Look At (1952), which Minnelli directed. There is a similar effect in Judy Garland‘s number in this film.
Eventually Moore is charged with murder and sentenced to death, but it all ends (sort of) well. It’s a stylized nightmare that’s supposed to be amusing. As I mentioned earlier, this is one of the numbers that George Sidney directed before leaving the film. Fun fact: like “Number, Please” this sketch dates back to vaudeville in the 1930s. It was originally performed in George White’s Scandals in 1931.
Lucille Bremer became a Radio City Rockette at age 16, and made her film debut in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) as Judy Garland’s older sister. She starred with Fred Astaire in Yolanda and the Thief (1945), one of Minnelli’s outlandish flops, and she dances with Astaire in two numbers in Ziegfeld Follies.
In the mid 1940’s, MGM was building Bremer up to be a star, which is probably why she is given such prominence in this film. (She also may have been in a relationship with Arthur Freed.) She is certainly a beautiful woman and a lovely dancer, but she lacks the brilliance, precision, and fire of dancers like Ginger Rogers and Cyd Charisse who partnered so brilliantly with Astaire.
Bremer never quite reached the level that MGM hoped she would, and after a part in Till the Clouds Roll By (1946), MGM stopped promoting her and she left Hollywood in 1948.
The number begins with beautifully dressed people in shades of yellow, black, and white, arriving at a fancy ball. Astaire, a jewel thief, sneaks in after stealing another man’s invitation, and proceeds to bewitch Bremer with his dance moves. They fall in love on the dance floor, the usual but always charming outcome of an Astaire dance.
As with everything in this movie, the sets and costumes are over-the-top and coordinated to an almost absurd degree. The scale of the set itself is enormous, it’s packed with hidden turntables and conveyer belts, and the “stone” walls of the ballroom actually slide open and shut.
The color design is impeccably managed, too. Later, gowns in shades from watermelon to grape join the first scheme of fiery tomato, lemon, black, white, and deep blue. Astaire and Bremer pop against the stone and blue background in their crisp black and white. And naturally Astaire’s sash coordinates perfectly with the cushion on that bench and the interior of the ballroom.
After some “normal” dancing, Astaire and Bremer show off their conveyer belt moves. Basically, she glides by in various poses while he leaps around. Definitely try this the next time you’re on a moving sidewalk at an airport.
Then they’re joined by dancers in glorious berry-colored gowns and sharp tuxedos. Sparkly leafless trees appear out of nowhere to make spindly patterns around the dancers as the music swells in a particularly lush arrangement. Oh, and the entire floor rotates like a giant turntable. Because why not. It’s gorgeous, silly, and so MGM.
Fun fact: if you look beyond Astaire and Bremer to the dancers posing with trees on the conveyer belt behind them, you can see a pretty major goof. One couple (the woman is on the far left in magenta), is late getting to their spot. The man is mostly hidden by the tree and appears to be re-positioning it, but you can see the woman hike up her strapless dress and walk to her place.
I can’t imagine that such a glaring error went unnoticed, but maybe the production just couldn’t afford the time or money it would take to reshoot it.
Anyway, after a whole bunch of dancing, the pair return to the garishly red ballroom. Astaire kisses the hesitant Bremer to distract her while he steals her diamond bracelet. He thinks he’s in the clear. But after Bremer puts on her spectacular fur coat with those exaggerated, Marie Antoinette-style-panniers, she hands him her necklace without a word and walks away.
You can watch it here. (The mistake is at 9:40.)
Costume appreciation break. So sparkly! And that coat!
Bremer was featured on the cover of Life in this costume:
After that enormous number, it’s back to a non-musical sketch called “A Sweepstakes Ticket.” The sequence stars Fanny Brice (whom Barbra Streisand played in 1968’s Funny Girl). This sketch had first been performed by Brice in Ziegfeld’s Follies of 1936. It is the only number in the movie that came out of a Ziegfeld show.
Basically, broke Brice and her husband find out that they have won a fortune in a sweepstakes. But they gave their landlord the ticket in exchange for a little extra time paying the rent. So Brice uses her feminine wiles (comically) to retrieve the valuable ticket.
Brice was in the Follies for ten years, and you can see why she was such a legend onstage. But it’s one of those numbers that drags on a little today.
You can watch the scene here:
Back to music! It’s Lena Horne performing “Love” by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane. Unfortunately, the filmmakers decided to stage the all-black number in a tropical slum. Horne reportedly objected to the setting, but her valid complaints weren’t enough to get the scene moved to a different locale.
It’s a great song and Horne is mesmerizing, as always, but it hasn’t worn well just because of the setting and the linking of black love with irrational, even violent emotion. The number begins with two women getting into a fight over a man, for example. It is certainly very different from the elegant love story danced by Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer just minutes previously.
And to bum everyone out even more, according to a biography of Horne, some theaters in Tennessee cut this number from the movie and covered up her name on the posters. This kind of racism was not that unusual at the time. For example, Horne lost out on the role of Julie in Show Boat (1951), because MGM was afraid to show Horne in a relationship with a white man onscreen, despite the fact that Julie and her husband’s “crime” of miscegenation is a major plot point.
After “Love,” the film continues its musical/non-musical pattern with a comic sketch by Red Skelton called “When Television Comes.” The clown does a fake TV commercial for Guzzlers’ Gin, but he keeps testing the product and gets drunker and drunker as he goes along.
If you like Skelton’s brand of comedy, you’ll enjoy this sketch. Fun fact: during filming, Skelton downed real booze! So his drunkenness wasn’t all an act! Apparently, towards the end of the shoot, a very inebriated Skelton made the assistant camera operator laugh so hard that he fell off the boom and rolled away in fits of giggles. Cinematographer George Folsey had to step in and finish the shot!
Another fun fact: Edna Skelton, Red’s wife, claimed to have come up with this sketch idea, but Skelton’s gag writer Harry Tugend begged to differ. Tugend sued, and the court sided with him.
Although we haven’t really recovered from “This Heart of Mine” yet, next up is another Minnelli-directed, Bremer-Astaire extravaganza called “Limehouse Blues: Dramatic Pantomime.” Get ready, this one is a doozy! Beyond the insane production and unending length, this number also features Astaire, Bremer, and other white actors, playing Chinese people in “yellowface.”
“Yellowface” was common in early and classical Hollywood. In a similar situation to what I mentioned with Lena Horne, some East Asian actors like Anna May Wong were passed over for Asian roles in favor of white actors who would don yellow face.
This “Limehouse Blues” number is a relic of that time. The film clearly wanted to take advantage of the atmosphere and imagery associated with the “Limehouse” district of east London that was home to the city’s Chinatown in the 19th and 20th centuries. Unfortunately, it does so in a way that is disturbing and offensive to modern viewers.
The plot concerns a poor but honest Chinese man (Astaire) who falls in love at first sight with a beautiful woman (Bremer), although she doesn’t notice him. He follows her and at one point almost intervenes to save her from a vaguely villainous man (possibly a pimp?).
He sees her admire a fan in a shop window, and he seems determined to buy it for her. But a gang of thugs attacks the shop. Astaire is shot in the chaos, and his world fades to black as he reaches for the fan…
Irene Sharaff designed the costumes for this number, too, and the crazy color and set design bears Minnelli’s mark. Robert Alton was the dance director, and he worked with Astaire to craft a more ballet-influenced routine than the more typical Astaire-style. They incorporated prop fans into the choreography, too.
Fun fact: a sunbeam spotlight is used throughout the dream sequence, and appears to be the same effect used during a water ballet in Duchess of Idaho (1950).
“Limehouse Blues” is the longest number in the film, coming in at a whopping thirteen minutes. It cost $200,000, and you can see the money in the large, elaborate sets and huge cast. The company rehearsed for eighteen days.
After the dream sequence, we return to Chinatown where Astaire’s character lays dying in the shop. His dream girl arrives to show the villainous man the fan she spotted earlier.
She doesn’t seem to notice Astaire’s prostrate form, and she drops the fan in disgust when she notices that it is torn and bloodstained. She leaves on the arm of the villain. Poor Astaire’s perfect woman wasn’t deserving of his adoration, after all.
Fun fact: the song “Limehouse Blues” dates back to 1922. Gertrude Lawrence, a star of the West End and Broadway, made the song famous when she performed it in Andre Charlot’s Revue of 1924, and it’s now a jazz standard.
After that ridiculousness, the film presents a comic number called “The Great Lady has an Interview.” Kay Thompson and Roger Edens, songwriters and the top arrangers at MGM, wrote the number for Greer Garson. It was originally intended as a spoof of Garson’s elegant, Serious Actress persona and her biographical roles such as Madame Curie in MGM’s 1943 biopic, but Garson and her husband did not find the parody amusing. So Judy Garland performed it, instead.
Fun fact: Kay Thompson led a fascinating life. She was a composer, singer, arranger, vocal coach, celebrated nightclub performer and actress (Funny Face (1957)). But she is most famous today as the author of the Eloise children’s books!
When Ziegfeld Follies was made, Thompson was the vocal coach for Judy Garland, Lena Horne, Frank Sinatra, and other huge stars at MGM, and she was arranging most of the music for Arthur Freed’s musicals.
Back to the “Great Lady” number. Thompson and Edens hoped to poke fun at Garson and other “grand” stars like her who only appeared in serious, dramatic roles. When Garson passed on the number, Thompson performed it for Judy Garland, who essentially just mimicked Thompson’s amusingly grand vocals and gestures in her performance.
Vincente Minnelli directed the sequence. He had first directed Garland in Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), and they were married in 1945.
The number begins with a bunch of youthful, male reporters showing up to interview the “great lady” about her personal life and her next movie. The glorious actress appears in a stunning gown and an ostrich trimmed wrap that she uses to dramatic effect.
She appears (falsely) surprised by the press gathered in her fancy home, but of course she is delighted to give them the scoop in her own noble way!
Fun fact: as I mentioned earlier, the graduated, brightly lit corridor would show up again in Lovely To Look At (1952).
Besides specifically spoofing stars like Garson, this number is a send-up of MGM and the studio system’s glamour machine and publicity department. The studios were brilliant at turning normal people into “stars,” and ensuring that they received the appropriate amount and type of press to support the image that the studio so painstakingly crafted for them.
Reporters were often sent to a star’s home, where the star was of course perfectly attired, coiffed, and pleasantly humble and forthcoming, but suitably glamorous, too! There is an image that must be upheld! The butler pointing a warm golden spotlight at the great lady as she lounges in typical glamour poses is a particularly nice touch.
Garland lets the reporters in on a “secret.” She’s tired of playing serious, dramatic, biographical roles, and longs to star in a comedy or some sexy, cheesecake role where she can do the acting “with her torso!” But her next role will be Madame Crematante, the inventor of the safety pin, who toiled and suffered in an attic tenement until she gifted the world with her marvelous metal contraption!
Garland’s discussion of this oh-so-serious film quickly becomes a hep musical number. The dance director was Charles Walters, who would go on to become a director of films like Easy to Love (1953) and High Society (1956).
This number is a delight, especially after the heavy, obvious “artistry” of “Limehouse Blues.”
Fun fact: “The Great Lady has an Interview” has attained cultish, near mythic importance in the gay fandom of Garland. For example, in A Hundred or More Hidden Things: The Life and Films of Vincente Minnelli, film historian David Ehrenstein recalled attending a screening of Ziegfeld Follies in a retro theater in Greenwich Village. He noticed the audience perk up as Garland’s number neared, and he heard two men sitting next to him announce, “Here comes ‘The National Anthem'” when “The Great Lady” title card appeared.
In this number, Garland is a “camp Madonna,” surrounded by men who adore her and all of her diva artifice. But beyond that, there is a queer undercurrent among the reporters. As scholars and critics have noted, the reporters are a very close bunch, dancing arm in arm and at some points appearing far more interested in each other than in the Great Lady herself. The reporters could be considered the original members of Garland’s devoted gay fan base.
You can watch Ann Miller in an almost shot for shot re-make of the song on television in 1958:
Costume appreciation break. Garland is glorious in this pale blue, impeccably draped dress. Notice the split skirt to allow for dancing, the two trains falling from the back, the slight dolman sleeves, and the huge diamond necklace.
Also notice the prominent portrait of a barefoot, tattered Garland, reminding the press of her humble and most likely fascinating beginnings! It also resembles her “Look for the Silver Lining” performance in Till the Clouds Roll By (1946).
After Garland’s star turn, Fred Astaire is back for the fourth time with a number called “The Babbitt and the Bromide” co-starring Gene Kelly.
Fun fact: This was the first time that the two legends appeared together onscreen. They would dance together only one more time in That’s Entertainment, Part II (1976).
But then they are back to being pals. They engage in a fun meta-moment when they suggest improvising a little something together before admitting that actually they’ve been rehearsing this routine for days.
It’s fun to watch these two greats dance side by side. Their different styles are very evident; Kelly’s center of gravity is lower to the ground, he uses his upper body more, and he has a more athletic, balletic, loose technique. Astaire dances more upright with a classic, incredibly precise style. One isn’t better than the other–they’re just different.
You can even see their different styles in the last shot, when Kelly beams directly at the camera with that Singin’ in the Rain (1952) “Broadway Melody” three-quarter grin, and Astaire smiles slightly to the side.
Fun fact: The “Babbitt and the Bromide,” written by George and Ira Gershwin, was first performed by Astaire and his sister and dance partner Adele in the musical Funny Face on Broadway in 1927. (That musical bears little relation to the movie Astaire starred in thirty years later.)
Next up is the finale. Kathryn Grayson sings “Beauty” against a pinky grey and gold sky surrounded by dead, sparkly trees. This scene comes across as nightmarish to me, but I don’t think that was the intention.
A breeze buffets her hair and flowy skirt, and I can’t help thinking of “You Were Meant for Me” in Singin’ in the Rain when Gene Kelly demonstrates all the lights, wind machines, and other tricks used to craft onscreen magic of the type we see in this number.
The cloud backdrop even looks the same!
After Grayson sings, we cut to Cyd Charisse dancing in giant bubbles. Sounds great in theory, but in practice it just looks like the dishwasher overflowed. Poor Charisse must have been so sticky after filming this scene.
Fun fact: Grayson’s part in the finale was added after the first preview screening in 1944. And apparently the bubble sequence was intended to be much longer, but the bubble machine malfunctioned so they spliced the footage they did get into Grayson’s song.
The first preview of the movie was held in November 1944. At that time, the film was 273 minutes long compared to the 110 minute running time of the final version. Many comic sketches were cut after that preview, and more musical numbers added.
When the movie did premiere in 1946, it did well at the box office, recouping MGM’s investment. It also won the Best Musical award at Cannes in 1947.
Bosley Crowther called it a “dazzling Metro film,” and wrote:
For the West Coast executors of “Ziggy” have spared neither stars nor expense in screening a Technicolored revel which has humor, magnificence and style. Reserving artistic opinion as to the full felicity of the conventional stage-revue pattern applied to entertainment on the screen—and that pattern is here stiffly followed, down to tagging the separate acts with title sheets—it must be agreed that Metro, through Producer Arthur Freed and Director Vincente Minnelli, have done the film revue that puts form to the test. They have routined a show with right proportions of glittering spectacle, comedy skits, experienced dancing and fair, if not distinguished, tunes.
Crowther comments on most of the numbers in the movie (you can read the full review here) before giving his final verdict: “Strictly episodic, with inevitable ups and downs, this ‘Ziegfeld Follies’ is entertaining—and that’s what it’s meant to be.” Indeed.
Originally, Ziegfeld Follies was to be the first in a series of films that would be released every two years, but perhaps the long production schedule and enormous budget convinced MGM to scrap that plan.
Here’s the trailer–enjoy! If you like this movie, definitely check out the That’s Entertainment! series (1974, 1976, 1994), which strings together some of MGM’s best numbers along with interviews and behind-the-scenes stories about the studio and Hollywood’s Golden Age.
And if you’d like to know more about Ziegfeld Follies, you can watch a great fifteen-minute feature on the film that was part of the 2006 DVD release: