A fantastic Technicolor restoration, the mammoth 1946 MGM revue ZIEGFELD FOLLIES dances and pratfalls onto Blu-Ray, thanks to the backers and showbiz “angels” at The Warner Archive Collection.
Since 1936, when Metro blew the box-office up with the three-hour epic The Great Ziegfeld, starring William Powell, the Culver City studio toyed with the notion of a rousing follow-up. Every producer within casting couch distance of MGM real estate pitched ideas for the wall-to-wall extravaganza that would showcase their top talent, likely in the new three-strip Technicolor process. Cooler heads prevailed, however, and while nothing was officially halted, reminders of the white elephant known as The March of Time – the i.e. 1929 precursor (in two-strip Technicolor) – that all but bankrupted the studio was deftly brought into play (that picture shot forever, before being eventually shelved; pieces of numbers would be chopped into two-color shorts for several years, in an effort to save grace).
Then along came World War II, and 100% dancing and laff pics morphed into all-star patriotic displays. MGM’s entry was the 1943 Technicolor Thousands Cheer, directed by rising star George Sidney. It did great biz, and forever pushed Sidney out of the short subject and B-units.
V-E Day had audiences craving escapist entertainment more than ever; thus, the still-simmering Ziegfeld concept was enthusiastically revived (truth be told, the production had been off-and-on filming for over a year). Every writer and choreographer at the studio was encouraged to toss creative brain matter in the pot, with one important proviso: this was not to be merely a re-creation of a Ziegfeld show, but modernized to suit sophisticated viewers returning from the battlefields and yearning for a perfect couples’ night at the movies (as Ziggy himself would explain in an opening – live from Heaven with a white-haired William Powell, draped in a dressing robe and rarin’ to start the proceedings).
Sidney was pegged to helm the whole megillah, but with the accent on sophistication – and the current king of the musical being Vincent Minnelli (who scored a gargantuan hit with Meet Me in St. Louis, and who just happened to be married to the company’s biggest musical star, Judy Garland) – the reins were handed over to him. As compensation, Sidney (and six other directors, Robert Lewis, Roy Del Ruth, Lemuel Ayres, Charles Walters, Merrill Pye) were given side bar skits, mostly involving comedy and schtick, getting indy nods in each of their segments, but with Minnelli receiving solo main title credit.
It was a wise decision, as the music stuff is what sold the pic, and with chic talent like Kay Thompson penning much of the highbrow stuff (along with 39 other writers, including Samson Raphaelson, Max Liebman, Lou Holtz, Everett Freeman, Irving Brecher, and Al Lewis), everything seemed to meld in perfect unison.
Of course, in any revue, there is bound to be some unevenness – I mean, the great material will dwarf the lesser efforts, but in ZIEGFELD FOLLIES, even the lightweight offerings are exquisitely palatable. The movie, as a whole, is a textbook on how to do this sort of thing (the “thing” being the more-money-than-God musical) – and nobody did that better than MGM.
It all begins with an erotic-tinged bang, as Lucille Ball, astride Silver (of Lone Ranger fame), whips up her fellow female equestrians in a live-horse carousel ride fantasy number (“Bring on the Beautiful Girls”) with sexy showfemmes nearly eclipsed by Virginia O’Brien’s climactic and comedic capper.
And “tally-ho,” and off we go.
Like any Ziegfeld production, the lavish musical numbers were balanced by slapstick and ancillary vaudeville-type routines, honed to precision Swiss watch timing by ace comedians of the day. While some of these routines were hoary – even by post-WWI standards – they were eaten up by the adoring crowds (many of the bits would subsequently be “hijacked” by the likes of Abbott & Costello and others). In tribute, a quartet of sketches is delightfully presented here, and feature Edward Arnold and Victor Moore in “Pay the Two Dollars,” about an arrest made of an innocent who accidentally spits on a bus (indeed, expectorating on public transit was a crime back then; I still remember the warning signs, as late as the 1960s); Arnold’s pompous lawyer, who refuses to let his client Moore pay, practically results in the boob’s life sentence! Then there’s “A Sweepstakes Ticket” with a married couple Hume Cronyn and the wonderful Fanny Brice (in her final screen appearance) trying to retrieve the winning ticket given to skinflint landlord William Frawley. There’s also “Number, Please” with a harried Keenan Wynn in a phone booth (which was “borrowed” by Abbott & Costello). And, of course, MGM’s top funnyman, Red Skelton, gets a chance to do his famous “Guzzler’s Gin” sketch – probably originally written to parody radio ads, but now, prophetically entitled, “When Television Comes” (remember, modernized).
All this is well and good, but the music, the dancing and the beautiful girls are what made the Follies a crowning success for decades – and continues to do so in this production (there’s only so much you can modernize).
That said, certainly the most famous clip from FOLLIES is the only in-their-prime dance duet between Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly. It’s a smooth, funny competition that is just a joy to watch. Astaire returns for “Limehouse Blues,” a serious piece with the then-newbie Lucille Bremer. Bremer was genuinely gorgeous and and talented, but the camera never quite clicked with her; by no fault of her own, she quickly vanished from the screen. Despite her shortcomings, the stunning number remains a keeper, and she looks pretty good with Fred (although, remember, he once partnered triumphantly with a hatrack). The crème de la crème for many is the hilarious Garland piece, “A Great Lady has an Interview,” wherein a famous movie star recounts (in song) her adventures in the biz to salivating reporters.
There’s even a misfire finale, involving a bevy of dancing beauties engulfed by an apparently out-of-control bubble machine. For all the smart input, one really does wonder WTF were they thinking (Astaire and Bremer wisely opted out of appearing in this panache, or demanded they be cut).
Trying not to exclude anyone, this epic bonbon also features Kathryn Grayson, Lena Horne, Esther Williams, James Melton, and Cyd Charisse; nevertheless, the original four-hour-plus running time was shorn to 173-minutes (in previews), then down to the current 117-minute duration. As produced by Arthur Freed, with luxurious photography by George Folsey, Charles Rosher, and Ray June appending Minnelli’s flawless direction, ZIEGFELD proved worthy of every penny Metro pumped into it; it was a massive post-war hit – just the tonic reunited marrieds, lovers and families craved. Critics loved it, too (always a plus).
The Warner Archive Blu-Ray is a masterful 1080p demo-quality platter that rates a top spot on every musical collector’s shelf. The superb new 35MM transfer not only restores the previously washed-out Eastmancolor TV renditions to its original Technicolor glory, but includes the 1946 roadshow Overture and Exit music. The soundtrack can be accessed in either the Forties mono or in remixed 2.0 stereo. I’m a stickler for authenticity, so the crisp, buoyant monaural sound is fine by me.
Extras abound as well, and include Joseph Newman’s The Luckiest Guy in the World, a Crime Doesn’t Pay two-reeler (likely because someone is playing Skelton’s “Guzzler’s Gin” bit on the radio), and two cartoons (Tex Avery’s Hick Chick and Hanna-Barbera’s Solid Serenade) that could have supported the ’46 playdates. There are also some fascinating audio outtakes, and a documentary featurette (aptly entitled An Embarrassment of Riches). As one might expect, the theatrical trailer also on view.
A terrific tsunami of talent and taste (bubbles aside), ZIEGFELD FOLLIES is the ideal example of how to show off in style!
ZIEGFELD FOLLIES. Color. Full Frame [1.37:1; 1080p High Definition[; 2.0 mono or stereo DTS-HD MA. CAT #B094BC7BQ. SRP: $21.99.
This title and others can be purchased at the Warner Archive Amazon Store or online retailers where DVDs and Blu-rays® are sold.