Many of the musicals of the '30s and '40s focused on stage actors working in their milieu; they are films that exist in a privileged world, a strange place where there's a disconnect from (what must have been) the reality of the Depression and what most of the cast knew really happened behind the scrim. Perhaps it's because of the abundance of musical numbers that are unfortunately utterly unrealistic to real life, the backstage musical dramas are heightened to such extremes (especially the salacious elements) that they become intoxicatingly absurd bits of cinematic escapism. Or at least one can say that for Robert Z. Leonard's Ziegfeld Girl (1941). It follows three women who get picked to be Ziegfeld Girls, a position of power that resembles what Nomi was promised in the similar Showgirls: If these women play their cards right, they can have it all, or at the very least a rich husband. Susan Gallagher (Judy Garland) is the song-and-dance girl, raised by her boisterous father "Pop" Gallagher (Charles Winninger), who pushes Susan to perform in ways that seem out of date to the Ziegfeld regime that's led by Noble Sage (the always entertaining Edward Everett Horton). This leads to a sequence where Susan must choose between following her father's ways or having a career. Noble also spots Shelia Regan (Lana Turner), a simple elevator operator in love with Gilbert Young (James Stewart, top billed yet just a supporting player) but quickly becomes entranced with the idea of having a sugar daddy. Shelia rides the high of fame, and then finds out how quickly it can dissipate while old beau Gilbert joins up with gangsters to make a quick buck. Shelia then hits an abyss brought on by her new addiction to alcohol (leading to the film's greatest camp moment when Shelia shouts "I'M COUNTING MY BLESSINGS!"). Sandra Kolter (Hedy Lamarr) just showed up for her husband Franz's violin audition, and gets plucked by Noble to be one of the lead girls. Like Shelia, Sandra finds herself consorting with another man, but unlike Shelia, her European background makes it easier for her to be sexually indecisive without having the film give her a morally driven punishment. Leonard's film is very much a studio picture of its time, and Leonard is very much a studio director, but his work here is perfect for the film's content, and though the film runs 132 minutes, it moves swiftly. This though is probably because the musical numbers were directed by ace-in-the-hole Busby Berkeley, who fills these sequences with his patently insane human geography that can only be seen to be believed. Way too slight to be considered a masterpiece, Ziegfeld Girl is dated corn with a shelf life for those who can enjoy the pretty fakeries the genre holds so dear, but if you do enjoy this type of stuff, this is a winner. Warner presents the film in its original academy ratio (1.33:1) and in 1.0 mono. Extras include an introduction by Garland biographer John Fricke, "A New Romance of Celluloid: We Must Have Music" a thinly veiled history of the music that spotlights MGM's lavish productions, the musical Our Gang short "Melodies Old and New," audio (and what's left of the visuals) for two deleted musical numbers: "Too Beautiful to Last" and "We Must Have Music," and trailers for MGM's Ziegfeld trilogy The Great Ziegfeld, this, and The Ziegfeld Follies. Snap-case.
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