Ziegfeld Follies (1946): Minnelli’s Opulent Tribute to the Revue Format

“Ziegfeld Follies” was produced at MGM as an opulent tribute to the old-fashioned revue form. The picture was made in 1944, but due to various reasons, its released got delayed and it finally opened in 1946.

MGM had already used the celebrated Ziegfeld name in two spectacles, “The Great Ziegfeld” (1936) and “Ziegfeld Girl” (1941), a melodrama with songs, which followed the fortunes of Broadway chorines, one of whom was played by Judy Garland.

In Ziegfeld Follies, Vincente Minnelli revived the concept of a plotless revue, making an extravagant spectacle, featuring Metro’s famous roster of singers, dancers, and comedians.

For the sake of efficiency, several numbers and comic routines were shot simultaneously. This meant that several sequences were given to various directors, most of whom were credited in the title cards introducing their respective items. According to most records, Minnelli directed about half of the movie. Some of George Sideny’s work remained intact, including Red Skelton’s “When Television Comes” monologue. Sidney also staged “Bring on the Beautiful Girls” opener, in which ring mistress Lucille Ball, wearing cherry-vanilla spangles, brandishes her whip at a cage of panther ladies dressed in black.

For some, the movie is important due to one segment, “The Babbitt and the Bromide,” which is the first and only screen collaboration of Fred Astaire with rival dancing ace Gene Kelly. Introduced by Astaire and his sister years earlier, in Funny Face, this vignette would have been more intriguing if it contrasted Kelly’s and Astaire’s stylistic differences, pitting Kelly’s muscular acrobatics against Astaire’s elegant agility. Instead, the duo merge styles for a spree of slapstick frivolity and light-hearted tap.

The most surprising scene in “Ziegfeld Follies” is Judy’s ten-minute sketch, “A Great Lady Has ‘An Interview, which was written by Kay Thompson and Roger Edens and lampooned Metro’s reigning queen, the stately Greer Garson. Though Edens is co-author, this delightfully wacky sketch bears the unmistakable stamp of Thompson, Judy’s new mentor.

More material was shot than could be incorporated. None of Jimmy Durantes sequences, which were shot, made it to the final print. Among the episodes shot but not used was a Fred Astaire dance to his own song, “If Swing Goes, I’ll Go Too,” and the Gershwin song, “Liza,” sung by Avon Long to Lena Horne, and Fanny Brice’s celebrated stage and radio sketch, Baby Snooks.

Minnelli chose for Judy the “Reading of the Play” sketch, a Beatrice Lillie highlight of his 1936 revue, The Show Is On, but it was never shot. One of the first numbers Minnelli staged was a duet for Judy and Mickey Rooney, “Will You Love Me in Technicolor (As You Do in Black and White).” The lyrics had an insider jokiness: Since you have seen my pan in a house of Westmore tan, I’m so afraid you’ll put me on the shelf,” parries Rooney. To which Judy ripostes: “You never were such an eyeful till you had a Natalie Kalmus dip. The finale, a tableau featuring tons of iridescent bubbles on Metro’s biggest sound stage, was drastically revised. The bubbles remained, but the stars, included Fred Astaire and Lena Horne, were left on the cutting-room floor. Principal photography on Ziegfeld Follies was completed in mid-August of 1944, four months after Minnelli took over. The reaction to the first sneak preview, in November 1944, was tepid, and more cuts and reshoots were ordered by Freed. There were additional cuts after a second preview, in spring 1945. Zigefled Follies the movie finally opened in April of 1946. Surprisingly, the public responded enthusiastically to the parade of stars and music, and Ziegfeld Follies became one of Minnellis most popular films, grossing over $5 million.

The movie was popular with moviegoers who have not seen the fabled Ziegfeld revues. For these audiences, MGM recreated the show on an opulent scale than even outshone the showman’s original efforts. Nonetheless, Ziegfeld Follies was an anachronism in 1946, the kind of which the studio would never repeat.

The formula of stars and showmanship had long since been replaced by a more streamlined approach to the Broadway musical. Revues usually consist of a series of showstoppers and stage fillers. In its heyday, the best models of the review format, such as Minnellis’s At Home and The Show Is On, disguised the forms grab-bag nature by a unified stylistic concept. But no such approach marks the screen version of “Ziegfeld Follies.” The film’s uneven components are linked by Minnellis theatrical imagination, though the lack of integrative concept only emphasized the stiffness of the comic sketches.

The review formats primary allure always resided in the personal interplay between entertainers and the live public. In the Broadway revues, topical satire and naughtiness sparked the laughs between production numbers, but both were discouraged by MGM, due to the middlebrow, conservative taste of its head, Louis B. Mayer. Minnelli resorted to old-fashioned vaudeville routines, like Victor Moore-Edward Arnold “Pay the Five Dollars. While Roy Del Ruth’s staging of the “Sweepstakes Ticket” sketch at least provided a showcase for Fanny Brice’s madcap virtuosity, the rest, with the exception of Astaire and Garland, was boring.

The technical proficiency of Metro’s craftsmanship subverts what made the form so appealing in the theater. Ziegfeld Follies revealed some new facets of its performers’ gifts, such as Garland’s sophisticated humor, Astaire’s touching mime, but the magnitude of the surrounding production overwhelms any spontaneity, diluting the fun. Ziegfeld Follies was the first of successive musicals in which Minnellis mise-en-scene labored to elevate the form to new heights of stylization. Minnelli added some cinematic energy to his already developed stage flair with color and composition. His looping crane shots enriched the performers’ choreographed routines. The stars remain at the center of the frame, but they function as one of its most vivid elements, without overwhelming the whole composition. The first Minnelli segment in Ziegfeld Follies is the fourth in the film. It is preceded by a ponderous prologue of Ziegfeld in heaven, which was directed by Norman Taurog and features William Powell in a reprise of his turn in the Oscar-winning The Great Ziegfeld. Astaire then introduces Lucille Ball and her bullwhip, and there’s a fragment of Esther Williams frolicking around the faux coral before she darts up among the lily pads for air

Minnelli’s staging of Verdi’s aria Libiamo from La Traviata doesn’t meet his usual standard of glamour, due to the low wattage of his performers and the blandness of Merril Pye’s set. The duet is sung by Marion Bell (later the star of Broadway’s Brigadoon) and opera tenor James Melton. The sound stage is dressed with massed curtains and chandeliers in the same stark-white hue. Minnelli tries to distract the eye with a waltzing chorus arrayed in Irene Sharaff’s hoop skirts appliquéd with butterflies and pinecones, but the bland setting fails to convey Violettas fevered romance.

The next sequence, however, is pure Minnelli. Harry Warren and Arthur Freed’s song, “This Heart of Mine,” is a ballroom-dance ballet, reminiscent of the Astaire-Rogers’ “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” from “Follow the Fleet.” It tells in movement of a gentleman-thief (Astaire), who crashes a society ball and woos a bejeweled princess (Lucille Bremer). After their dance, his greed clashes with his love, and as they exit, he wins both the diamonds and the girl.

The films conclusion is a messy Kitsch. Kathryn Grayson sings a bland Warren-Freed song, “Beauty,” shot against projected clouds in atomic hues. A blob of orange foam covers the lens as the camera segues into the aborted bubble number, in which Cyd Charisse and her tutued corps de ballet pirouette through columns of suds. There’s a Daliesque landscape of slate-colored skies and a tilted, forced-perspective desert floor, but instead of melting cloaks, the mirage is populated with anesthetized voluptuaries in gold-lame gowns. Engrossed by current trends in surreal art and psychology, Minnelli had already used this element in the theater, in his design for “Words Without Music,” a Ballanchine ballet for the 1936 Follies. Minnelli gives movement to a static canvas with his restless camera circling lunar-landscape odalisques to the offscreen voice of some Queen of the Night. The movie fades out on a conventional note, with Katryn Grayson atop a pedestal.

Produced by Arthur Freed.

Screenplay: 

Cinematography: George Folsey, Charles Rosher, Reay June

Art Direction: Cedric Gibson, Merrill Pye, Jack Martin Smith, Leuel Ayers

Set Decoration: Edwin B. Willis; associate Mac Alper

Musical direction: Lennie Hayton

Musical adaptation: Roger Edens

Orchestrations: Conrad Salinger and Wally Heglin

Vocal arrangements: Kay Thompson

Songs by Arthur Freed and Harry Warren; George and Ira Gershwin; Ralph Blane and Hugh Martin; Kay Thompson and Roger Edens; Philip Braham and Douglas Furber

Editing: Albert Akst

Choreography: Robert Alton

Puppet Sequence: William Ferrari

Puppets: Leo and Florence Bunin

Costume Supervision: Irene

Costume Design: Irene Sharf, Helen Rose

Technicolor direction Natalie Kalmus; associate Henri Jaffa

Recording Engineer: Dougals Shearer

Makeup: Jack Dawn

Hair Stylist: Sydney Guilaroff

 

Running Time: 110 Minutes

 

Acts and Sequences:

 

Introduction: William Powell (Florenz Ziegfeld)

Animated Sequence: Bunin’s Puppets, directed by Norman Taurog;

“Pink Number” (“Bring on the Beautiful Girls”: Lucille Ball, Fred Astaire, Cyd Charisse, Virginia O’Brien.

“A Water Ballet”: Esther Williams

“Number Please”: Keenan Wynn, directed by Robert Lewis

“Traviata”: James melton and Marion Bell, dance direction by Eugene Loring, costumes by Sharaff.

“Pay the Two Dollars’: Victor Moore and Edward Arnold.

“This Heart of Mine”: Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer.

“Fanny Brice Wins a Sweepstake Ticket”: Fanny Brice, Hume Cronyn, and William Frawley, written by David Friedman, directed by Roy Del Ruth.

“Love”: Lena Horne, directed by Lemuel Ayers.

“When Television Comes”: Red Skelton, directed by George Sidney.

“Limelight Blues”: Fred Astaire, Lucille Bremer, costumes by Irene Sharaff.

“A Great Lady Has an Interview”: Judy Garland, dance direction by Charles waters.

“The Babbitt and the Bromide”: Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly.

“Beauty”: Kathryn Grayson.