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MGM has long been known for its big, lavish musicals, but Ziegfeld Follies (1946) was huge even by the studio's standards. Conceived as a revue showcase for all of Metro's top musical and comedy talent, it was structured around the character of legendary showman Flo Ziegfeld (William Powell, who played the same role in the biopic The Great Ziegfeld in 1936), now deceased and gazing down from heaven to imagine the kind of show he would put on with the wealth of stars in the MGM stable.
Thirty writers, five (credited) directors, numerous costumers, designers, choreographers, composers, and arrangers contributed to the production - not to mention more than 20 credited players and a large cast of supporters and extras (Peter Lawford did an uncredited bit as a voice on the telephone). Vaudeville-style comedy skits alternated with such over-the-top musical numbers as Fred Astaire and Lucille Bremer acting out a Chinese tale of intrigue in dance and Lucille Ball (her red hair and pink dress in eye-popping Technicolor) "taming" a bevy of chorus girls in cat costumes. The $3 million production was a popular success and won the Best Musical award at the 1947 Cannes Film Festival.
Ziegfeld Follies was a pet project for producer Arthur Freed, a chance to display all the talent in his renowned musical production unit using some of the 500 sketches, songs and vaudeville routines the studio had collected over a decade. It was planned for 1944, MGM's 20th anniversary but it ended up being in production for half the year and part of the next and wasn't released until 1946. As might be expected from a project this complex and multi-leveled, each individual segment was like a short movie with a behind-the-scenes story of its own.
Red Skelton's sketch about an on-air hawker of gin got funnier and funnier as the comedian drank real booze during the filming. The totally plastered Skelton cracked up assistant camera operator Bobby Bronner so much that the hysterical assistant fell off the camera boom and rolled into a corner. Chief cinematographer George Folsey had to grab the camera and finish the shot.
Even the Lone Ranger's famous horse, Silver, made an appearance in Lucille Ball's camp "Here's to the Girls" number. Life magazine ran a story featuring Ball and the horse (done up in braids, pink bows, and a pink ostrich feather between his ears) on its cover with the tagline, "Silver is a sissy!" The horse's trainer threatened the studio with a defamation of character lawsuit that was settled out of court.
Esther Williams' Honolulu number required six underwater and one above-water sets consisting of coral caves, exotic fans, sea shells, long water grasses and mother of pearl all made of rubber, linen, plastic, cork, and plaster, which disintegrated or faded if left in the water too long. So after each set-up was shot, the circular tank, 20 feet deep and 60 feet in diameter, had to be completely drained before the next set could be lowered into it. The tank held roughly 3,000 gallons of water.
Kay Thompson and Roger Edens wrote a number for one of the studio's biggest dramatic stars, Greer Garson, spoofing her image as the lead in serious biographical pictures about great, noble ladies of history (notably physicist Marie Curie, whose life story Garson filmed in 1943). Thompson and Edens performed the piece for Garson and her husband, actor-author Richard Ney, who sat staring blankly at them until Ney finally announced the number was not for his wife. Judy Garland, known to be an excellent mimic, stepped in and filmed it in perfect imitation of the older, sophisticated Thompson (who was herself doing an imitation of Garson's grand style). Caricaturing a self-absorbed Serious Actress announcing her new role as "the inventor of the safety pin" was an image change for Garland, who had become a star playing sweet, innocent teenagers.
The longest and most elaborate sequence in Ziegfeld Follies was Astaire and Bremer's Chinese red-light district number "Limehouse Blues." Directed by Vincente Minnelli and based on a song performed by Gertrude Lawrence in her 1924 Broadway debut, it took 18 days to rehearse and cost more than $200,000. In the fantasy dream sequence conceived by costumer-set designer Irene Sharaf, Astaire switched from his familiar dancing style to a more balletic approach. Choreographer Robert Alton came up with a routine using fans that gave Astaire interesting props to work with.
Another musical segment, "The Babbitt and the Bromide," marked the first time Astaire and Gene Kelly appeared together in a film. Their only other performance together was as hosts of That's Entertainment, Part II (1976), in which they danced together briefly.
Directors: Vincente Minnelli, Lemuel Ayers, Roy Del Ruth, Robert Lewis, George Sidney
Producer: Arthur Freed
Screenplay: Roger Edens, Kay Thompson, Charles Walters, Samson Raphaelson, and 26 others
Cinematography: George Folsey, Charles Rosher
Editing: Albert Akst
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons, Merrill Pye, Jack Martin Smith
Original Music: Roger Edens, Hugh Martin & Harry Warren
Cast: William Powell (Florenz Ziegfeld), Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Lena Horne, Esther Williams, Cyd Charisse, Lucille Ball, Fannie Brice, Red Skelton.
by Rob Nixon