Thursday, March 3, 2011

DVD Review: ZIEGFELD FOLLIES (MGM, 1946)

What a nice DVD package this was -- giving the full flavor of a night out at a friendly neighborhood Loew's Theatre, circa 1946. In this case, the main feature fully complements the accompanying grab-bag of shorts and cartoons, since this is MGM's grand, brassy attempt to simulate the high-gloss vaudeville of Florenz Ziegfeld's famed stage productions. Ziegfeld Follies was actually the third in a series of MGM films celebrating the flamboyant showman: the first (The Great Ziegfeld {1936}) had bagged a Best Picture Oscar, while the second (Ziegfeld Girl {1941}) featured such stars as Judy Garland, Lana Turner, and Hedy Lamarr and did good b.o. business. Ziegfeld Follies, originally intended to celebrate MGM's 20th anniversary, was supposed to top them all... or doesn't the tag line "Greatest Production Since the Birth of Motion Pictures!" suggest a little something special? Actually, the movie is more famous for its troubled production history than anything else. Most of the acts were filmed in 1944 and early 1945, but the original three-hour version of the film didn't go over well in test previews, and MGM commenced to slicing and dicing, not releasing the svelter finished product until the Spring of 1946. In all, seven directors got some piece of credit for the activities herein, though Vincente Minnelli's name is by far the most prominently featured.

There is at least a feeble attempt to construct a premise for this hotch-potch: from his suite in Heaven, Ziegfeld (William Powell -- who played the character in The Great Ziegfeld but here appears to be a weird cross between a peeping Tom and Captain Kangaroo) maps out one final, ultimate Follies to be remembered by. His reminiscences of days gone by are acted out by a troupe of truly creepy-looking puppets. This is a fitting beginning to what is perhaps the "fakiest" movie I've ever seen. Literally everything in the movie is completely unreal and stylized -- which, I suppose, was the point. This is supposed to be pure escapist entertainment. As you might expect, things are hit-or-miss. Fred Astaire (the closest thing to a headliner; he is featured in four major pieces and three dance routines) exudes class whenever he's on stage, even when he plays a suave jewel thief in "This Heart of Mine." His memorable "Babbitt and the Bromide" duet with Gene Kelly is unquestionably the film's highlight and really should have been the final number. Instead, we get a rather leaden delivery of a ballad called "Beauty" by Kathryn Grayson, in a production number that notoriously turned into a near-disaster thanks to a hyperactive bubble machine. Think Lawrence Welk on steroids. I suppose that this number, with its bevy of beauties, was meant to be a bookend for the opening "Pink" number starring Lucille Ball and a cast of babes, but, given that part of that earlier bit involved pink-clad Lucy cracking a whip at women in cat costumes, it couldn't help but come up a bit short. The recently deceased Lena Horne's sassy delivery of "Love" should also be mentioned, though setting the performance in what contemporaries might have termed a "low Negro den" tended to undercut the very idea of featuring a woman of color at all.

The "old-time" comedy routines hold more historic interest than actual entertainment value. It is instructive to see such old Ziegfeld troupers as Victor Moore and Fanny Brice plying their trade, and watching a frustrated Keenan Wynn eat a telephone (!) is certainly memorable, but the most famous business shown here is Red Skelton's "Guzzler's Gin" routine, and, quite frankly, I wasn't impressed. This is strange, as I've always liked the equally broad humor of The Honeymooners. Actually, the best comedy bit of all herein is the strangely rap-anticipatory "The Great Lady Gives an Interview" starring Judy Garland, who plays a "Grande Dame" actress famous for her biographical roles. (This was apparently meant to be a poke of some sort at Greer Garson, who was originally slated for this role.) Pressed by the press to "give with the scoop" about her newest bio-pic, Judy basically starts to rap about the story of the female inventor of... the safety pin! It's very funny and well-choreographed, and Judy is, as always, excellent.

Oh... and Esther Williams swims around for a while, too. I guess that the phrase "you had to be there" applies equally well underwater.

Overall: a pleasant viewing experience, but certainly not a "new era in entertainment," much as MGM might have wished it were so.

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The extras include a brief documentary on Ziegfeld Follies' production history and the trailers for the three MGM Ziegfeld movies. Now, for the other subjects:

(1) A black-and-white Crime Does Not Pay short, The Luckiest Guy in the World (1947), starring Barry Nelson (the first actor ever to play James Bond, let's not forget). This series was not based on the famous comic-book series of the same name; the first CDNP film actually predated the comic books by some seven years. The Luckiest Guy is the classic tale of a guy who thinks he's gotten away with murder, BUT... This was nominated for an Oscar for Best Short Subject.

(2) Tex Avery's The Hick Chick (1946) and Hanna and Barbera's Tom and Jerry joint, Solid Serenade (1946) (aka "The One Where Tom Sings and Talks More Than He Ever Did Before or Would Ever Do Again, At Least at MGM"). Both good, both completely representative of the vastly different styles of their creative "driving forces." Never having been much of an Avery fan, I prefer the classic H-B mayhem. The female cat (she actually has an official name: Toodles Galore [why not Pussy? Never mind...]) is a treat for the eyes, especially those that enjoy looking at Miss Ma'amselle Hepzibah.



If you ever run across this DVD, you could do much worse than renting it for an enjoyable night's entertainment in the grand MGM tradition. Buying it, now... that's probably another story, depending upon how much of an obsessive-compulsive MGM completist you are.

3 comments:

Joe Torcivia said...

Great review, Chris! I like a review that gives me more of a feel of what it’s like to watch the DVD, rather than simply watch the movie. And, there might be no better contrast between an “MGM Night at the Movies” and a “Warner Bros. Night at the Movies” than reading this post and my own Blog Entry on the Warner DVD “Bullets or Ballots”.

http://tiahblog.blogspot.com/2011/03/dvd-review-bullets-or-ballots-1936.html

I think that, overall, I prefer the Warner Bros. direction (I probably always have.) – but there’s no denying that MGM aimed the highest, and had the best production values.

I never cease to be fascinated at the occasional “reconstructing” of what “Nights at the Movies” were. The films (or at least their iconography) have survived into our present-day consciousness – and (due to decades of television airings) so have the cartoons. But the other elements are strictly out of a “lost era”. So much so that, when Leonard Maltin offers an introduction to the Warner Bros. package, I need him to INTERPRET as much as enhance.

To the trailer, doesn’t the set for the dance number at 0:27 look like the “Anti-Matter World” from LOST IN SPACE? Check out the white barren trees and the sky! I’m half expecting an evil bearded Fred Astaire to show up! And Lucille Ball and William Frawley on the same bill! Gotta love it.

As much as I am a partisan of WB theatrical shorts, even MGM’s animation was more “lush” overall! And H&B carried the “tradition of “uber-fierce bulldogs” into their wonderful early Yogi Bear cartoon “Pie Pirates”. At the end of the T&J short At least they didn’t go far enough as to execute the “cat gut” bass fiddle string gag that I’m SURE crossed their minds!

Did MGM seem to do their “Night at the Movies” as somewhat of a regular thing – as once did Warner Bros.? If so, some of these would be fun to check out.

Joe.

Chris Barat said...

Joe,

This is the only DVD I've reviewed that actually had the extra added attractions as part of the package. Glad you liked it. If we get any more DVDs like this one, I'll make sure to handle them in the same way.

Chris

Joe Torcivia said...

Great, Chris! I look forward to those, when they occur.

As you know from my own Blog DVD reviews, I’ve developed a great appreciation for the total movie experience package! It would be interesting if there were MGM packages (or those of other studios) to mirror what Warner did.

For instance, Universal released a “2-Disc Special Edition” for “Double Indemnity”.

It sure would have been nice to see a Woody Woodpecker cartoon, and whatever other goodies Universal offered back in the day.

However, there was no such program. Disc One had the film – with not one but TWO different commentary tracks (Good, I like those!), trailer, featurette on the film, and an intro by Robert Osborne. All great! Disc Two (which I have not seen yet) is said to consist of a 1973 made-for-TV version of “Double Indemnity”….?!

Nice, I suppose, but what makes THAT so special as to have a second disc all to itself.

I sure wish Universal had taken the Warner approach instead.