Written by Jeremy Quist

USA, 1946. 110 min. MGM. Cast: Astaire, Kelly, Judy Garland, Lucille Ball, Lena Horne, Esther Williams, and William Powell; Music: George & Ira Gershwin, Arthur Freed, Roger Edens, Giuseppi Verdi; Dance Director: Robert Alton; Produced by: Arthur Freed; Directed by: Vincent Minnelli, George Sidney, Charles Walters, et al.

Unless you are familiar with the elements that constituted the Follies shows, you might expect an actual plot from Ziegfeld Follies, the 1946 musical extravaganza from producer Arthur Freed. You might also assume the film to be a sequel to the blockbuster The Great Ziegfeld, winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture ten years prior. But this is not a continuation as much as a reference, and instead of a story there is simply a concept. The title refers to the elaborate theatrical revues created by Florenz Ziegfeld in 1907. These lavish productions were essentially Broadway variety shows, mixtures of sketch comedy and grand musical performances. Around the early 1930s, the popularity of the Follies died when Ziegfeld himself did. How appropriate that the film should begin in heaven.

Soaring past Shakespeare’s and P.T. Barnum’s heavenly gates, we arrive at Ziegfeld’s. He has secured a spot as one of history’s great entertainers. As Ziegfeld (William Powell, reprising his role from the 1936 film) shares his souvenirs and reminisces about his time spent on Earth producing his revues, we are offered a claymation representation of this era: audiences arrive at the theater, chorus girls dance in unison, Eddie Cantor sings. All this nostalgia of the “good ol’ days” makes Ziegfeld wonder if there could be a new Follies, and he begins to design what he would do given the chance to produce one more show. And here is our film—we have the opportunity to experience one of Ziegfeld’s long-gone productions, updated with performances by major talents of the 1940s. He maps out the opening on paper (“a beautiful pink number” to be introduced by Fred Astaire), and just as someone had created the animated sequence by molding and manipulating figures made of clay, Ziegfeld pulls the strings from his home up above, picking and placing the songs, sets, and stars, to present us with his new Follies. Accordingly, Astaire appears onstage.

Astaire explains that one of the most important aspects of the Follies was “glorifying girls,” a Ziegfeld speciality. This quickly becomes apparent as Astaire sings, “Here’s to the beautiful ladies, here’s to those wonderful girls” while a line of decadently costumed chorus girls makes its way on screen. Vincente Minnelli’s direction of the segment captures this concept by allowing his camera to linger on these women as they elegantly pass by. There is a fine line between glorification and objectification here, the camera promoting a “male gaze” by presenting the chorus girls as something to be looked at. Moreover, the number soon grows in spectacle as a pink and feathery Lucille Ball yields a whip and dances along with a new line of women dressed in tight, black, cut-out gowns, portraying what looks like a 1940s stage version of Cat Woman. This idea seems to be tamed as Virginia O’Brien sings about her desire for male companionship, calling for the film to “bring on those wonderful men.” Here, the woman is allowed to be a sexual subject, except she does not get her wish—no “elegant guys” are brought to her. Instead, looking directly at us, she says, “Hey, you in the third row,” and winks, reaffirming the concept of the male viewer and the female image.

This is further confirmed in the following vignette in which Esther Williams, the woman who made a film career of swimming, performs her “Water Ballet.” The camera sits and allows us to watch Williams, in her signature, full-cut swimsuit, being beautiful underwater. But gaze or no gaze, glorification or objectification, it really is a stunning number, not to mention (as the name implies) balletic. She gracefully floats, flips, and twirls among the reflective ripples of the water and the glowing coral sets, her feet perfectly pointed and her smile always dazzling.

From an over-the-top showstopper to underwater choreography, from sketch comedy to operatic waltz, Ziegfeld Follies truly does contain variety, with each number starring a different cast and usually employing its own director. Arthur Freed, with a huge budget and virtually any MGM-contracted star at his disposal, spent more than two years putting together what is essentially an elaborate talent show. And like any talent show, some pieces are better than others, and not everything necessarily works—difficult to believe considering there were so many ideas to work with that the final version of the film had to be cut from well over three hours. But with this much variety, there is something for everyone, which helped the film turn an astounding profit for MGM. Red Skelton is off-thewall as a spokesman on a television commercial, Judy Garland satirizes wealthy and pretentious Hollywood actresses (playing the part almost too well), and Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly are utterly charming and delightful in their first of only two on-screen appearances together.

Delighting the audience is exactly what a lavish musical of this type should do, and this is achieved not only through grandiosity, but also through the element of surprise. In Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer’s “This Heart of Mine,” the couple leaves a fancy party to go outside and dance. The outside set is gigantic, but the focus remains on the couple. Although they take advantage of covering the distance of the wide set as they dance, the camera always moves with them, ensuring they are perfectly framed in the center of the screen. After several minutes, the audience is well aware of the on-screen and off-screen space. The camera then stops, and from the left side of the frame, sixteen couples suddenly enter the screen, one by one, seemingly out of nowhere. The camera backs up a considerable distance to fit everyone within the frame and still has difficulty doing so. It is an unexpected effect, one that transforms an elegant ballroom pas de deux into another grand spectacle. And this is perhaps what Ziegfeld Follies is most remembered for—its saturated colors, elaborate sets, flowing costumes, star power, and lush orchestrations—when the production is so extraordinary, it is almost too much to handle.

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