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Ziegfeld Follies

What a gaudy, sudsy archive of MGM class-act musical spectacle. This song-dance-comedy revue, directed chiefly by Vincente Minnelli in full phantasmagoric mode, was a big talent showcase of 1946. Today it's spottily interesting as a study in bygone style and for its assemblage of still-famous talents such as Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Red Skelton, Lena Horne, Fanny Brice, Keenan Wynn (not yet 30), and Hume Cronyn (also in his 20s). Anyone who remembers Lucille Ball only from I Love Lucy can't turn away from the long-legged redheaded youngster in a glittery gown, cracking a rhinestone-studded whip over a line of chorus girls costumed like The Cat Women From The Moon. Fans of vintage MGM grandiloquence also know Ziegfeld Follies for its tortured production history. After years in various development hells (World War II was only one of numerous speed bumps), when it finally reached a sneak preview the audience exited the three-hour experience noticeably underwowed. So the studio ordered an immediate makeover, and the film was recut, reshot, and reshuffled, losing an hour of footage along the way. The 15 self-contained numbers and sketches that survived the final cut still packed MGM's famous "more stars than there are in the heavens" into a bejeweled, bespangled, and occasionally bewildering definition of a mixed bag. But at least all this glam-and-glitter candy corn holds our interest in its cast of familiar faces (and voices and dance shoes) and its extravagant (to put it lightly) production values. There's not much you can call art here, but you can't deny the exuberant craft on display. Technically it's magnificent overkill, from Minnelli's swooping crane shots to the turning, floating "Hello Dali!" carnival-wedding-cake scenic design to the intense Technicolor that burned holes in retinas.

Ziegfeld, of course, is Florenz Ziegfeld, the impresario whose Ziegfeld Follies was Broadway's own Folies Bergères from 1907 through 1931. The 1936 Best Picture Oscar went to The Great Ziegfeld, starring William Powell. Now 10 years later, Powell — still in his Thin Man years — returns as the deceased "Ziggy" talking to himself in his private Heaven (like a room at a celestial Ritz). There he reminisces about the good old days (dramatized by the stop-motion Brunin Puppets) and imagines "one more Follies" headlined by his old pal Astaire. This corny frame is then abandoned for the rest of the revue, which comes beaded into a movie that's seemingly made for the chapter-skip button. Astaire and Cyd Charisse start it well with a screaming pink production number, "Here's to the Girls," with Ball and the inexplicable cat-women. It sets the tone for the numbers that follow: "high-class" spectacles outrageously staged and impeccably performed.

Nonetheless, while it's always a treat to watch Astaire at work, especially with co-talents such as Lucille Bremer in the elegant "This Heart of Mine," the numbers throughout Ziegfeld Follies feel spiritless and mechanical. We're so likely to remember the elaborate trappings over the stars themselves, Ziegfeld Follies might be more enthusiastically recommended for students of set, lighting, and costume design than for fans of the marquee names. The comedy sketches are more hoke than joke, though there's some appeal in seeing Red Skelton staging his "Guzzler's Gin" routine and Keenan Wynn in a solo bit. Fanny Brice — historically significant vaudevillian nails-on-a-blackboard — mugs through a woeful sketch that teams her with Hume Cronyn and William ("Fred Mertz") Frawley. Esther Williams' water ballet is one lovely aquarium but a long lap around the pool, and the misplaced operatic segment from Verdi's "Traviata" may engender fonder memories of MGM's Marx Brothers treatment of the material. Judy Garland's talent is wasted in a painfully kitschy patter-song sketch spoofing Hollywood divas.

On the other hand, memorable numbers include Lena Horne's sultry "Love," the atmospheric "Limehouse Blues" staged as dramatic pantomime with Astaire and Lucille Bremer (Astaire's "coolie" eye makeup is only momentarily perspective-wrenching), and the deliriously bizarre balletic finale, "Beauty," with Kathryn Grayson and the Ziegfeld Girls dancing through architectural formations built from soap suds and colored lights — so much sudsy submersion, in fact, that during production the out-of-control bubble machine nearly suffocated the chorines and sent a cameraman to the hospital. The number as it exists now is only a portion of what was originally filmed, with Astaire and Bremer now absent and Charisse only briefly visible among all that pretty yet nearly lethal foam. The most famous bit in Ziegfeld Follies is the only pairing of Astaire and Gene Kelly on film until That's Entertainment Part II in 1976. Set to George and Ira Gershwin's "The Babbitt and the Bromide," it's a surprisingly lackluster and forced comic song-and-dance duo. It's a nice scene, but given who they were (and are) and the first-time status of their team-up, it sure should have been better. At least it should have been built on a stronger song rather than such a throwaway from the Gershwins. Still, history and all that.

*          *          *

Warner Home Video brings us Ziegfeld Follies on a DVD that preserves the saturated Technicolor lavishness with a vivid print marred only intermittently by flecks or scratches ("Beauty" appears to come from poorer source stock). Audio is clean in its original monaural or remixed DD 2.0 stereo.

The main extra is a documentary, "Ziegfeld Follies: An Embarrassment of Riches" (14 mins.) that focuses on the the film's troubled production, the numbers that didn't make the final cut, and the unsung talents behind the screen (lyricist and music arranger Kay Thompson is appropriately lauded). It includes archival interviews with Cyd Charisse, Kathryn Grayson, and other participants (or, rather, eye-witnesses in the case of the suds deluge).

Other extras are the film's trailer, trailers for The Great Ziegfeld and Ziegfeld Girl, and the audio-only outtake songs "If Swing Goes, I Go Too," "This Heart of Mine," and "We Will Meet Again in Honolulu." We also get two period cartoons: Tex Avery's "The Hick Chick" and the Tom & Jerry "Solid Serenade." The short subject is a naive but interesting noir parable from MGM's Crime Does Not Pay series, "The Luckiest Guy in the World" (21 mins.), starring Barry Nelson and including another iteration of Skelton's Guzzler's Gin routine. Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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