Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly barely survive Ziegfeld Follies
As disasters go, Ziegfeld Follies, given general release by MGM in 1946, probably doesn’t rank very high on the long list of overripe, misconceived, misbegotten turkeys that have rumbled down the Hollywood pipeline over the past fifty or sixty years. Compared to such megaflops as Heaven’s Gate, Ishtar, and The Post Man, The Follies was a mere drop in the bucket.
But for its time, the Follies implosion was a real big ‘un, as Dan Rather likes to say. The original film, released in 1944 and pulled back after disastrous previews, ran almost three hours and consumed the talents of eight directors and close to three dozen writers, not to mention Fred Astaire, Judy Garland,1 Lena Horne, Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse, Lucille Bremer, Kathryn Grayson, Red Skelton, Esther Williams, Virginia O’Brien, Fanny Brice, and Lucille Ball.
The intent, obviously, was to create a follow-up to The Great Ziegfeld, one of the longest and most expensive and most successful musicals ever made, winning the Oscar for Best Picture back in 1937, as well as Ziegfeld Girl (1941), which featured Judy Garland, Lana Turner, and Hedy Lamarr. This time, the suits figured they’d skip all the plot — and both of the earlier films had lots of plot — and just give the folks an updated version of the Ziegfeld Follies.
It always sounds like a good idea. Why, after all, do people go to musicals? They want singing and dancing and a few laughs. So why bother with a plot? Why not put on a revue, which is nothing but singing and dancing and laughs?
Well, for one thing, people do like a story — someone to identify with. But the biggest problem with revues is that they eat up so much material. You need lots of songs, lots of dances, lots of sets, lots of everything. Unfortunately, the material the suits pulled together for Ziegfeld Follies was mediocre at best, and more often just plain lousy, while the set designs and costumes, which reek of hashish and crème de menthe, resemble nothing so much as an explosion in Liberace’s wardrobe cabinet.2
The most conspicuous victim left clinging to the wreckage in all this was Fred Astaire. In the original version, Astaire appeared in six numbers, including the bizarre finale, during which a berserk bubble machine almost suffocated several chorus girls (an “only in Hollywood” death if there ever was one), while most of the performers only appeared in one or two.
After the relative austerity of his previous film, The Sky’s the Limit, Fred was probably looking forward to a shot of MGM opulence. In Ziegfeld Follies, his first color film, he surely got both more and less than he bargained for.3
The revised version of Ziegfeld Follies begins with a clumsy frame — the late Flo Ziegfeld, sitting up in heaven and thinking about those wonderful shows he used to do back on earth. Ziegfeld, played by a mildly sedated William Powell,4 is helped along on his trip down memory lane by some cutesy, unappetizing puppets dreamed up by art director William Ferrari.
Eventually, we get past Powell and the puppets, who never show up again, to an honest to god stage, where Astaire addresses the audience directly, telling them about the good old days and Ziggy’s magic touch. This segues into a number, “Here’s to the Girls,” with, naturally, lots of show girls.5 A young Cyd Charisse shows up in only her fifth film, dancing on her toes, followed somehow by Lucille Ball, cracking a whip at a bunch of young women dressed as black cats.6
After the girls, we get a few gags, in the form of Virginia O’Brien, singing a fairly funny parody, “Bring on the Wonderful Men.” O’Brien, a deadpan comedienne, was quite popular in the forties, usually playing a man-hungry chick who never got laid.7
Once the opener is done, we get a succession of comedy skits and musical numbers with no introduction or relation to one another, and almost all of them are awful. In fact, all of the comedy skits are awful.
Fred reappears in “This Heart of Mine” with dancer Lucille Bremer, an elaborate number directed by Vincente Minnelli. This is a sort of mime dance, with Fred showing up at a fancy dress ball as an international jewel thief. To let us know that he’s sophisticated and wicked, Fred has a monocle and cigarette holder to go along with his white tie and tails. The sets here are incredible overkill, at once abstract, ornate, and gauche beyond the wildest dreams of a rarebit fiend.8
Fred’s quarry, of course, is Bremer, a virginal princess in a white gown. The song, “This Heart of Mine,” isn’t bad but has never attained the status of a standard. The dance isn’t bad either — not “great” but quite enjoyable if you can get past the outrageous decor. The big surprise is a pair of moving sidewalks built into the floor, which can both separate the dancers and bring them together. The devices work as more than just a gimmick, but because the sidewalks don’t figure in the climax of the dance, they don’t quite justify themselves.9
“This Heart of Mine” flirts with greatness at the end when Bremer discovers that Fred, while kissing her, is also relieving her of her diamond bracelet. She starts to go, pretending that she is still under his spell, and then, turning around, proudly takes off her necklace and gives him that as well. Fred slinks off, humiliated. But, sadly, Vincente and Fred didn’t have the nerve to give us an unhappy ending. After another beat, they embrace joyously. Hey, they’re really in love!
The only non-Fred number in Ziegfeld Follies worth watching is “Love,” sung by Lena Horne, a bit that is more about Lena than the song, which is (obviously) not very well known. Horne hated the “frame” for the number, which shows two black women fighting over a man in a Caribbean bar.10
Fred, Bremer, and Minnelli are up again in another mime dance, “Limehouse Blues,” a number that is a sad disappointment. Fred has a very unusual role for him, a sullen, penniless coolie, a misfit and an outcast, who is obsessed with Bremer, who plays an elegant Chinese courtesan.11 After a variety of misadventures, which take up an awful lot of screen time, Fred finally nods off,12 setting the stage for a “dream ballet” — not a good idea. Giving Vincente Minnelli a dream ballet was about as sensible as giving a kilo of coke to John Belushi or the presidency to George Bush. The choreography is a gruesome grab bag of pseudo-chinoiserie, culminating in a disastrous cartwheel by Astaire, one of the very few times that Fred actually appears awkward on screen.
Fortunately, Fred gets a chance to redeem himself in a duet with Gene Kelly, a well-known bit that appears on television a lot as well as in the 1976 compilation That’s Entertainment. It’s certainly a relief to get away from the high seriousness of the previous numbers, but the tune that Fred and Gene are given is one of the Gershwins’ absolute worst, “The Babbitt and the Bromide” — a collection of conversational clichés of the “How’s tricks?” “What’s new?” variety.13
Although Fred and Gene do burn up the floor with their taps, much of the number is weighted down with kind of heavy-handed humor typical of the forties. Two guys waltzing together! Hey, that’s funny! Two guys kicking each other in the butt! Funny! Funny!
In the original cut of Ziegfeld Follies, Fred had a solo number, “If Swing Goes, I Go Too,” but it was dropped from the reissue and has never resurfaced. He also took part in the original bubble finale, but that was discarded as well. He probably felt lucky to get out alive.
Ziegfeld Follies is only available on VHS at this writing. The Great Ziegfeld is out on DVD, which allows viewers access to the forty-five- odd minutes of real entertainment without having to wade through more than two hours of plot. The sentimental highlight of the film is a series of numbers by Fanny Brice, including “My Man.”14 Ziegfeld Girl is out on disc as well. If you’re really curious about Ziegfeld and Broadway in the twenties, track down Glorifying the American Girl, out of print and available on VHS only, the only film that Ziegfeld ever directed. Glorifying the American Girl was shot in 1929 in New York rather than Hollywood, so the technical quality isn’t very good, but it does preserve the stage acts of some of the legends of the time. If you know who Helen Morgan was, and what she sat on (a white piano), you might want to find this film.15 There are a couple of nice sites devoted to Ziegfeld here and here. You can catch up with Fred at Fredastaire.net.
- The waste of Garland’s talents was particularly unforgivable. Judy looks great, in one of the first of her grown-up roles, but the material she’s given, supposedly designed as a send-up of the overly grand Greer Garson, lacks even a hint of substance. [↩]
- The Great Ziegfeld had one of the most famous sets in movie musical history, the “A Pretty Girl Is Like a Melody” revolving staircase cum curtain. (Scenes from this number were recycled in Ziegfeld Girl.) MGM threw around an awful lot of money when they made Ziegfeld Follies, but never came up with anything remotely comparable. The Great Ziegfeld also used classic tunes associated with Follies performers like Fannie Brice and Eddie Cantor, while few of the songs in Ziegfeld Follies are known today. [↩]
- Both earlier Ziegfeld films were in black-and-white. [↩]
- Powell played Ziegfeld in The Great Ziegfeld, but it’s hard to imagine that a post-WWII audience could give a damn. [↩]
- Also horses. [↩]
- Not really as kinky as it sounds, but worth seeing if you’re in the right mood. [↩]
- The man shortage at home, and the woman shortage overseas, was the source of a great deal of humor in the WWII era. See Bette Davis singing “They’re Either Too Young or Too Old” in Thank Your Lucky Stars and Ray Walson and chorus singing “There’s Nothing Like a Dame” in South Pacific. [↩]
- Among other things, there are lots of jeweled, masked, alabaster statues that incongruously sprout both branches and candelabra. [↩]
- Fred and Ginger’s first big number, “The Carioca,” in Flying Down to Rio (1933), had a revolving dance floor, which they used very little. Moving sidewalks were used for laughs in the Fun House number in A Damsel in Distress (1937) and more seriously (but with no real payoff) in the “I Left My Hat in Haiti” number in A Royal Wedding (1951). [↩]
- In the bad old days, the official middle-class morality decreed that chick fights could only take place among blacks, gypsies, and other such low folk. In today’s enlightened era, it’s more common for rich bitches to get down and dirty, a la the Carringtons in the late, lamented Dynasty TV series. [↩]
- Of course, rather like Miss Kitty in Gunsmoke and Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, we aren’t told that she actually “does it.” We have to guess. [↩]
- Well, actually, he gets shot. [↩]
- “The Babbitt” refers to George Babbitt, philistine businessman hero of Sinclair Lewis’s Babbitt, once one of the most famous novels in American lit. [↩]
- Be prepared for the fact that funny lady Fanny (left) bore almost no resemblance to Barbra Streisand. [↩]
- Furthermore, Glorifying the American Girl, not Gone With the Wind, is the first film to contain the word “damn” in its dialogue. “Damn” occurs twice in Eddie Cantor’s skit, “Charlie the Cheap Tailor.” Earlier, Cantor uses another word that didn’t come up often in thirties pictures — “goyim.” [↩]