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Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.:
Ah... Saturday, September twenty fifth. Another heavenly day. Ah, yes. Always a heavenly day.
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A Drop-Dead Gorgeous Show For The Serious Musical Fan
The Ziegfeld Follies were legendary stage shows that consisted entirely of musical numbers and comedy routines performed by some of the greatest stars of the day. When sound began to roar in the late 1920s, the movie studios followed the Ziegfeld form and quickly produced a series of films that were variety-show in nature. But the musical review is a form that really works best on stage before a live audience: in short order the movie-going public turned its back on the style in favor of musicals that offered increasingly complex, sophisticated, and sometimes unexpectedly dark stories.
In the 1940s MGM, famous for its musicals, unexpectedly decided to revive the form--and to do so in the style of producer Florenz Ziegfeld. The result was an outrageous budget that would have made Ziegfeld himself blanch, a wave of imaginative visuals that could have never been crammed onto even the biggest Broadway stage, a host of legendary performers, and the occasional comedy routine for relief from the sheer spectacle of it all.
The big hurdle for modern audiences is the fact that we have become accustomed to variety shows through television; they no longer have a unique appeal and it is difficult for us to sit through two hours of it. Even so, most musical fans will probably find ZIEGFELD FOLLIES worth the effort; although it has a few weak spots, it is easily one of the most visually stunning flights of fancy ever put on the screen.
The weakest links in the chain are the comedy routines, all of which seem insubstantial at best, slightly clunky at worst; still, they are amusing in an old-fashioned sort of way and it is always a pleasure to see the legendary Fannie Brice, no matter how inconsequential the script may be. Fortunately, the film weighs in heavily on the musical side, and while the actual material may be a bit weak at times the look of the thing is absolutely eye-popping.
The opening number is nothing short of stunning: Fred Astaire introduces a riot in pink and black that includes a spinning Cyd Charisse, a turning merry-go-round with real white horses, and a formidable Lucille Ball keeping a host of leopard-like women in check with a whip! Truly, musicals are the most surreal of all performing arts genres, but this seems to stretch the boundaries quite a bit.
The film is filled with notable performers. Virginia O'Brien, the great comic singer, dismisses the ladies in favor of the men--indeed, it seems, almost any man will do. Esther Williams swirls elegantly in front of lavish underwater sets. James Melton and Marion Bell offer memorable performances of the most famous duet from LA TRAVIATA in a memorably designed setting. Katherine Grayson is surrounded by some truly unexpected sets, walls of bubbles, and gold-clad bathing beauties. Certainly no one can complain that there is nothing to see on the screen! Along the way we also have some truly legendary moments, chief among them two amazingly beautiful dance numbers performed by Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer. The first, "This Heart of Mine," finds Astaire playing a jewel thief bent upon seducing Bremer at a ball: red and white with elaborate costumes, hidden treadmills, and decoratively turning platforms, it is both clever and very elegant. Even so, "Limehouse Blues" is finer still, introducing a mysterious Chinatown--and then suddenly bursting into a fantasia of white and blue and red as Astaire and Bremer dance out a love story that never was and never could ever be.
The film also offers two of MGM's most celebrated singing stars. During her MGM career Lena Horne was typically saddled with excessive movement and frequently peculiar costumes--but both actually work to her advantage here, and her performance of "Love" has tremendous tropical sizzle, to say the least. It may be a bit more difficult for modern viewers to know how to react to Judy Garland's "The Interview," for its references are lost; not only is it very much an industry insider joke, it is very much a take-off on "serious" actresses of the time who specialized in playing biographical roles, with Greer Garson a very specific target. Still, Garland nails it as only Garland can, and that says a great deal indeed.
The film also contains a true rarity: the only serious pairing of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, who lightly send up rumors of their rivalry--and then proceed to demonstrate just how truly competitive they could be in some of the finest choreography ever put on the screen. "The Babbit and the Bromide" is truly a remarkable thing to behold; you are constantly torn in your attention between the two men, each with very different styles and yet each truly incomparable.
In spite of its array of stars and remarkable visuals, ZIEGFELD FOLLIES was not among MGM's box-office knockouts of the 1940s and it was rarely seen after its original theatrical release. It is presently available only in VHS, and although the print is good it isn't the best possible--and since the visual spectacle is a prime reason for seeing the show you may want to hold out (and cross your fingers) for a full restoration on DVD. On the other hand, the out-of-print but still available VHS package does include the soundtrack on CD, which is a very strong plus.
Final thought on the film: unless you are a serious fan of MGM musicals you may want to skip this one, but if you are willing to make the act of acceptance the film requires you'll find ZIEGFELD FOLLIES a drop-dead gorgeous show.
Gary F. Taylor, aka GFT, Amazon Reviewer
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