Ziegfeld Follies (1946): Only Time Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly Danced Together On Screen

Ziegfeld Follies was produced at MGM as an opulent tribute to the old-fashioned revue form, with which Minnelli was well familiar.

The picture was made in 1944, but due to various reasons, the studio released it in 1946.

Though dismayed by their breakup, Vincente Minnelli was not too hurt to work with Judy Garland again. In July, he directed her in the Ziegfeld Follies, a variety show that included, among other numbers, an Esther Williams’s water ballet, Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly’s only dance number on film.

Minnelli was elated to work with Fred Astaire, who he had admired in his RKO musicals. Fortunately for Astaire, an exciting musical era was beginning at MGM with the Freed Unit. Unlike other directors, such as Mark Sandrich and George Stevens, who allowed Astaire to devise his own routines and photographed them as unobtrusively as possible, Minnelli shaped the Astaire material with his own imprint. For better or worse, lost was the impromptu spontaneity of Astaire’s RKO work.

Despite being a new addition to the Freed Unit, Astaire was given four numbers in Ziegfeld Follies; the other performers got only one each. First seen with with Cyd Charisse in tutu during the opening “Bring On the Beautiful Girls,” Astaire returns for two ballets with Lucille Bremer. “This Heart of Mine” evokes the haunting specter of “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” from Follow the Fleet, about a jewel thief whose yearnings for Bremer overcome the lure of her diamonds. The number was filmed in intriguing fashion: Rather than shooting the dance against a theatrical backdrop, Minnelli envelops Astaire in a dizzying three-dimensional swirl of sweeping camera movements.

Astaire and Bremer then switched to the somber eroticism of “Limehouse Blues.” Astaire dreams of romancing Bremer amidst hallucination of Chinese dcor, before expiring from a random gunshot intended for the thugs. The setting and Astaire redeem the number by performing the cart-wheeling, fan-flicking fantasy sequence with superb panache. Astaire’s refusal to satirize the material lends a moving touch to the cardboard concept.

Astaire and Kelly Dancing Together!

“The Babbitt and the Bromide” is less startling but of greater historic significance. Its the first and only screen collaboration 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 Kellys 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.

Leaving the number to Astaire and Kelly, Minnelli was fascinated to watch how the two pro and competitors went about their jobs. He couldnt help but notice the cautious and guarded relationship between Kelly and Astaire. Minnelli regretted that Astaire and Kelly danced together only once, in Ziegfeld Follies. For his part, never working together again was both a shame and a loss for moviegoers. Minnelli tried to interest both in a future project but it didn’t work.
Before Hollywood, Minnelli’s innovation with scenic tints and textures had startled Broadway. Astaire’s color debut in Ziegfeld Follies gave Minnelli a chance to use his palette to dazzling effect, but his obsession with dcor overwhelms the dances. Assigned to direct Astaire again in Yolanda and the Thief, Minnelli gladly morphed into pure Technicolor phantasmagoria.

The most surprising scene in Ziegfeld Follies was 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.

Next to Edens, Thompson was to have the greatest influence on Judys performing style. The sketch satirizes the whole idea of stardom, which was the essence of MGM as a studio. Shooting the number was fun, and Judy came off extremely well, revealing a satirical flair for biting lines. Affecting a grand manner and a pretentious accent, Judy’s Madame Crematon slithers around the set in a slinky white gown, holding a press conference in which she gives absurd answers to absurd questions.

When the film came out, Judy received excellent reviews for this sketch. Minnelli succeeded in revealing yet another facets of Judys multi-talents.

The musical was first assigned to George Sidney, an unseasoned director, who, after months of shooting, asked to be released. Minnelli was then summoned to take over just one day after he finished shooting Meet Me in St. Louis. He wondered why Freed hadn’t assigned him to direct in the first place, since he was the right director for such material, having made his reputation with chic Broadway revue.

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.

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 five million dollars.

The movie was popular with moviegoers who have not seen the fabled Ziegfeld revues. For thse audiences, MGM recreated the show on an opulent scale than even outshone the showmans 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 films 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 laughts between production numbers, but both were discouraged by MGM, due to the middlebrow, conservative taste of its head, Louis B. Mayer.

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 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 seques into the aborted bubble number, in which Cyd Charisse and her tutued corps de ballet pirouette through columns of suds.

Working on Ziegfeld Follies reintroduced Judy to Minnelli’s virtues and charm. Even in a short segment, he was able to endow her with the quality she most coveted–looking beautiful. As a result, Judy fell deeply in love with Minnelli, all over again.

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