The vulgarity is endearing and Astaire, Horne and Garland are just fine
May 8, 2011
Watching this MGM review musical is a little like being a graduate student on an archeology dig. You'll find a lot to sift through, and one or two things you find still shine.
The overwhelming impression Ziegfeld Follies leaves is the lush vulgarity of the MGM style. I don't think there's a subtle color, costume or set in the place. There are acres of pastel gauze curtains hanging from the sky, crystal chandeliers that float, pink ostrich feathers that wrap around, stick up, hang down and envelop, glitter stuck on anything that moves or doesn't move, sunsets so colorful that no human could possibly have seen them in real life, gowns which are extravagantly bizarre. Everything blares out that this is the best quality money can buy, and we (MGM and Vincente Minnelli) have a lot of money. In a way, it's endearing.
While a number of the acts, especially the comedy numbers, are dated, three or four of the dances still hold up well. It's probably no coincidence that most of them feature Fred Astaire.
"This Heart of Mine," danced by Astaire and Lucille Bremer, to a song by Harry Warren and Arthur Freed, is a glamorous, over-the-top tale of a gentleman thief and a princess who meet at a ball and learn quite a bit about each other. It's all bright red sets, stylized white trees and purple gowns. Bremer may have had little on-screen personality, but she was great to look at and a fine dancer. The song itself is a lush, mesmerizing tale of romantic discovery. The lyrics may contain some cliches, but they work seamlessly with Warren's melody.
This heart of mine was doing very well. The world was fine as far as I could tell. And then quite suddenly I met you and I dreamed of gay amours. At dawn I woke up singing sentimental overtures.
This heart of mine is gaily dancing now. I taste the wine of real romancing now. Somehow this crazy world has taken on a wonderful design... As long as life endures it's yours, this heart of mine.
"Limehouse Blues' is an odd, tragic number for Astaire but he carries it off. He's a poor Chinese man in London's Chinatown who sees this exquisite Chinese woman (Bremer) and falls hopelessly in love. He could never have her; she barely notices him. In the aftermath of a robbery he takes a fan she had admired. Dying, he imagines a courtship dance with her involving fans.
"The Babbit and the Bromide" was the only pairing of Astaire and Gene Kelly. It's clever, amusing and not too challenging for either of them. It's also no contest; in my view Astaire carries the day.
"Love," the Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane song, is sung with sultry intensity by Lena Horne. She dominates the over-produced, over-decorated, over-costumed MGM idea of a tacky "Negro" nightclub. The song is sweet and hopeful, then knowing and realistic. Horne nails it...
Love can be a moment's madness; Love can be insane. Love can be a life of sadness and pain.
Love can be a summer shower; Love can be the sun. Love can be two hearts that flower as one.
It can be, fine and free But it's true, It doesn't always happen to you.
Love can be a dying ember; Love can be a flame. Love pledged in September May be dead in December; You may not even remember it came.
Love can be a joy forever, Or an empty name. Love is almost never ever the same.
Love can be a cup of sorrow. Love can be a lie. Love can make you wake tomorrow and sigh.
For the rest, Judy Garland does a song and dance number parodying a great lady of the screen being interviewed. She's terrific. I suspect Garland was coached by Kay Thompson, who did the lyrics, and who was a great over-the-top song stylist herself. You can get a rare recorded look at her in Funny Face, costarring with Astaire and Audrey Hepburn. Thompson, incidentally, was godmother to Liza Minnelli. When Thompson was very ill, Minnelli moved her into her New York apartment and cared for her until Thompson died. The other numbers range from interesting but slightly moldy artifacts (Red Skelton, Victor Moore, Keenan Wynn, Esther Williams and such) to awesomely awful (Kathryn Grayson, Fannie Bryce, James Melton).
For those who like musicals and older movies, who like Astaire, who look with fondness on the days of the studios and of a time when Louis B. Mayer and MGM tried to set the standards for what was tasteful and cultural, Ziegfeld Follies has a lot to offer. Just enjoy it for what it is, a collection of archeological discoveries, with some of them rare and wonderful.