The Warner Archive Blu-ray release of Ziegfeld Follies offers the clarity and Technicolor brilliance that one has come to expect from their archive releases.
The Production: 4/5
In the early years of talkies, the major studios all put together musical revues to show off the versatility of their contract stars. While some of them were wildly successful (MGM’s Hollywood Revue, Paramount on Parade), others were colossal flops which soured all of the studios on the genre. While revues never went out of fashion on Broadway, the movies didn’t resuscitate them until World War II as a means of entertaining the troops (and the rest of the country) with each studio’s current roster of talent (MGM’s Thousands Cheer, Warners’ Thank Your Lucky Stars, Universal’s Follow the Boys, Paramount’s Star Spangled Rhythm) and even then the numbers were usually formatted within a flimsy narrative, something the early revues didn’t bother with. But leave it to MGM to go for broke and try once again a plotless revue, motivated at first to celebrate the studio’s twentieth anniversary in 1944 but with constant retakes and reshuffling of numbers, not released nationally until 1946 – Ziegfeld Follies, once again tapping into the name of the impresario who had headlined two of their previously successful musicals The Great Ziegfeld and Ziegfeld Girl.
Ziegfeld Follies is not a great musical revue, but there is greatness in it along with a potpourri of middling to lousy comedy sketches and some of the biggest musical stars on the MGM payroll doing things both expected and unexpected of them. Obviously, Fred Astaire was intended to be the star of the show, slotted for six numbers within the running time (with cuts and retakes, he ended up in four segments, all of them wonderful) while two of the studio’s newest musical acquisitions, dancer Lucille Bremer and tenor James Melton, were scheduled for multiple appearances within the film (Bremer’s contributions remained for two numbers, both the highest points of the movie, while Melton’s four intended sequences dwindled to one: “The Drinking Song” from La Traviata, staged rather routinely by director Vincente Minnelli (who had to deal with voluminous forty-pound ball gowns on the ladies and little nuance in the singing by Melton and soprano Marion Bell).
While the comedy spots featured talent both famous at the time (Red Skelton, Fanny Brice, Victor Moore) and up-and coming (Keenan Wynn whose semi-amusing “Number Please” skit was the last thing filmed, a year after principal photography had begun), none bring the house down today, not even Skelton’s “Guzzler’s Gin” routine which he was famous for and which he continued to perform for the rest of his life. The Fanny Brice-Hume Cronyn-William Frawley “The Sweepstake Ticket” is the bottom of the barrel quality-wise, but it’s almost all aces from that point onward.
What Ziegfeld revue wouldn’t begin by celebrating beautiful women, and Ziegfeld Follies is no exception: the opening number “Here’s to the Beautiful Ladies” begun by Fred Astaire and featuring MGM’s astounding assortment of “glamazon” women elegantly gowned and plumed and presided over by flamed-haired Lucille Ball attempting to “tame” eight panther girls elegantly slinky in black sequins gets the show off to a great start (well, after a nominal introduction by William Powell reprising his “Ziggie” and reminiscing about the Follies of old assisted cleverly by Bunin’s Puppets). There is a forgettable follow-up as love-starved Virginia O’Brien seeks male companionship and Esther Williams performs a negligible water ballet, but the best musical stuff comes later in the movie.
Fred Astaire’s contributions can’t be overestimated as he performs two sensational pantomime numbers, as celebrity jewel thief Raffles in “This Heart of Mine” with the elegant Lucille Bremer inevitably offering him her diamond necklace after he sweeps her off her feet (in a delightfully elaborate maze of turntables and treadmills in the elaborate set) to the romantic melody of the segment’s song (music by Harry Warren, lyrics by the film’s producer Arthur Freed) and as a dying Chinese coolie fantasizing about a romantic encounter with a beautiful Chinese streetwalker (again, Bremer) in “Limehouse Blues,” perhaps the high water mark of the entire movie. He also dances for the first (and until That’s Entertainment II, only) time with fellow hoofer Gene Kelly to a number Fred and his sister Adele had introduced many years before “The Babbitt and the Bromide.” Even though at the time of filming, Gene Kelly had only been in Hollywood a couple of years with For Me and My Gal and Cover Girl as calling cards, by the time Ziegfeld Follies was released, he was much better known for his Oscar-nominated turn in the huge hit Anchors Aweigh. The two men dance to a photo finish and give the film a definite star turn to serve as a true grand finale to the movie since otherwise we’d be stuck with the movie’s only musical dud, the risible “There’s Beauty Everywhere” with scraps of the out-of-control soap bubbles footage from the song’s first attempt at staging with Astaire, Bremer, and Melton cut out and Kathryn Grayson brought in to salvage the segment (which she was fully unable to accomplish).
And speaking of star turns, the other two highlights of the movie belong to Lena Horne in a devastatingly rhythmic paean to “Love” (a gloriously tuneful song by Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane) and to the Roger Edens-Kay Thompson satire “A Great Lady Has an Interview” sung and danced by Judy Garland and a cadre of male reporters out to get the latest scoop on the star’s next movie role. Conceived for Greer Garson but turned down by the lady when it was presented to her, Judy and her cohorts spoof Garson’s British accent and affected posturing of her acting in great biographical sagas (Judy’s star is about to film a drama about the inventor of the safety pin) as the interview turns into a quasi-rap number and then a sophisticated song and dance solo with male chorus that Garland (and stager Charles Walters) had and would again be famous for (from “Embraceable You” in Girl Crazy through “Mack the Black” in The Pirate and “Get Happy” in Summer Stock).
3D Rating: NA
The film’s 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully rendered in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. Sharpness is all one could want, and the blazing Technicolor is rich and fully saturated without ever going out of control (and the vivid reds in “This Heart of Mine” and corals in “Limehouse Blues” are torture tests for any color timer. Also, you’ll break into a wide grin when the lights come up in the dream sequence of the latter number and we see the awe-inspiring set designs and costumes). Skin tones are wonderfully consistent throughout with contrast dialed in to make the ladies one and all look their loveliest. The movie has been divided into 26 chapters which include the overture and exit music.
The disc offers the viewer a choice of remixed-from-audio-stems stereo (the default) or the original mono, both in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. I chose to enjoy the film with as wide a soundstage as possible choosing the stereo mix. While the stereo might not be as consistent throughout as one might wish, at its best (which is most of the time), the music offers a sweeping fidelity that comes close to full immersion in sound. Dialogue and song lyrics are also wonderfully recorded and presented. There are no age-related problems with hiss, crackle, pops, or flutter.
Special Features: 4/5
The Luckiest Guy in the World (21:09, SD): Crime Does Not Pay live-action short
The Hick Chick (7:10, HD): animated short
Solid Serenade (7:25, SD): animated short
An Embarrassment of Riches (14:32, SD): a making-of featurette with film historians John Fricke, James Givin, and Hugh Fordin and performers Gloria de Haven, Cyd Charisse, and Kathryn Grayson.
Audio Outtakes: “Here’s to the Girls” alternate take (6:26), “Liza” (6:14), “Honolulu” (5:33), “A Cowboy’s Life” (4:44), “E Pinched Me” (0:39), “I’m an Indian” (0:48), “Start Each Day with a Song” (4:35), Leo the Lion Speaks (1:46), “There’s Beauty Everywhere” James Melton finale version (7:51), “Love” in Spanish (3:37).
Theatrical Trailer (2:34, HD)
The Warner Archive Blu-ray release of Ziegfeld Follies offers the clarity and Technicolor brilliance that one has come to expect from their archive releases. But this release isn’t definitive: Fred Astaire’s audio outtake “If the Swing Goes, I Go, Too” which was on the DVD release was not included here, and the original opening sequence footage with Leo the Lion and the Bunin Puppets which can be found on YouTube was also not included here. What has been included, of course, can’t be minimized, and the film has never looked or sounded this good in any prior release. One only laments that the last little bit of effort couldn’t have been expended to give us as complete a version of Ziegfeld Follies as was possible to produce. Recommended!
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