Sunday, April 15, 2012

Ziegfeld Follies

I like to watch films with very little or no foreknowledge of what is in store.  I like to be surprised.  So, when I stumbled across a listing for Ziegfeld Follies on TCM, I immediately programmed my DVR to record it.  My cable provider gave the film four stars and it had William Powell in a non-Nick Charles role?  I was intrigued.  And only minutes after I began watching, I was utterly confused.

Ziegfeld Follies opens with Florenz Ziegfeld (William Powell) lounging around what appears to be a luxury suite in Heaven.  While Ziegfeld appears to enjoy being dead, he also wistfully wonders aloud what a great show he could put on with the current crop of famous talent.  In case you didn't know --- and if you are under the age of 70, that's not terribly surprising --- Ziegfeld was a real person who masterminded a string of high-profile, star-studded musical/comedy/dance revues on Broadway, in the 1910s and 20s.  Ziegfeld's reminisces are brought to life by some sort of puppetry/stop-motion animation, which  features (among many things) holy-shit-that's-racist portrayals of Native Americans and blacks.  How racist is it?  You know those Tom & Jerry scenes that have been edited out of television broadcasts for the last twenty-odd years?  Worse than that.
If only because the "joke" wasn't caused by an explosion
You may rightly wonder why the hell there are puppets onscreen at this point, and that's a valid concern.  It won't be answered in this film, but I can guarantee that it won't be referenced again, either, so...there's that.  You see, Fred Astaire shows up, as himself, on a stage and explains that Ziegfeld had a magic touch for entertainment and racism.  This segues into a song (naturally), which transitions into Lucille Ball giving some S&M treatment to a crowd of Batman villain cosplayers.
She's gonna have some 'splainin' to do
Oddly, Ball --- arguably the most famous comedienne ever --- doesn't have a line of dialogue or any physical comedy bits.  She just looks bitchy and cracks a whip at Catwomen.  That's not even close to the only bizarre choice made in Ziegfeld Follies, but it won't bother you for long; after a few minutes, it is time for a new bit, with only a title card serving as a transition from one act to the next.  After all, that is what is going on here; this is a collection of unrelated musical and comedic bits thrown together to wow the audience with glitz, glamor, and star power.  How much star power, you ask?  Fred Astaire stars in several bits, but you also get to see Judy Garland, Esther Williams, Gene Kelly, Lena Horne, Red Skelton --- and those are just the ones I recognized without doing any research!

To be perfectly frank, I had no idea when I watched Ziegfeld Follies who Ziegfeld was or what his Follies were.  I was also unaware that William Powell played Ziegfeld once before, in the 1936 Best Picture winner, The Great Ziegfeld.  Even armed with that knowledge, I don't think I would have been prepared for the sheer ridiculousness of this movie.  Oh, you think The Hunger Games had some odd costumes?  Consider this check and mate.
That's a hat, not a pink luckdragon in heat
I'm not even going to bother explaining the scene where dozens of pretty girls may or may not have been suffocated by soap bubbles.  But that's okay, there are a ton of ill-advised scenes in this revue.  Do you love comedy sketches that are about ***snicker*** how annoying telephone operators are?  Hmm...okay, maybe that doesn't translate very well into the modern age.  How about lawyer jokes?  Maybe some 1940s fake drunken acting?  No?  Okay, you're a viewer with discriminating tastes --- here's a gift for you:
Yes, that is Fred Astaire, wearing heavy makeup and playing a stereotypical Chinaman.  The racist puppets were kind of surprising, but this...damn, Fred!  I could excuse you somewhat if this was a really cool song or dance number --- it's not like they had a lot of Asians in Hollywood at the time, much less singing and dancing ones --- but it's really slow and boring, plus offensive to modern tastes.

I don't want to give the impression that Ziegfeld Follies is just a collection of what-were-they-thinking sketches.  To be fair, there are a number of charming acts. For instance, I had never seen Esther Williams (outside of a few MGM montages) before, and her underwater scenes were interesting.  I don't quite understand how her swimming choreography became popular in movies, but I have to admit that some of it looked pretty.
...and some of it looked like Minority Report murders
Fred Astaire, when he wasn't busy offending Asians, was pretty entertaining in a few dance numbers.  Notably, this was the first and only time he and Gene Kelly danced together on film in their prime.  While I didn't care for any of the songs in Ziegfeld Follies --- which I was surprised at, given the star power in the film --- the dancing sequences were pretty impressive.
Perhaps not the best screenshot to capture that sentiment
I also liked Judy Garland's spoof of serious actresses.  It wasn't a great song, but the sentiment was kind of funny; it was more of a style over substance bit, but I was surprised to see such sharp barbs aimed at the same people who bring prestige to their projects.
"Drama!" - a more or less direct quote

Almost every scene had a different director, with only Vincente Minnelli and George Sydney handling multiple scenes.  Robert Lewis, Lemuel Ayers, Roy Del Ruth, Charles Walters, and Merrill Pye round out the rest of the directors in this film.  Not surprisingly, the different directors only emphasized the disjointed nature of this film; even if there had not been title cards separating each scene, the difference is style was very noticeable.  I wasn't very impressed with any of the directors, but I will admit that (as a whole) the group used some pretty high-end sets.  Not every set, mind you --- they ranged from opulent to minimalist --- but there were enough "wow" moments to stick with you.

Ziegfeld Follies was probably never meant to stand the test of time, but that is the issue modern viewers are faced with.  On the one hand, this is a movie that feels like the sort of thing you would have seen in Manhattan in the 1920s.  The dance sequences are pretty well done and the songs (while not memorable) are inoffensive.  On the other hand, every single attempt at humor fails miserably, the dance sequences never blow your mind, and the songs are mediocre and not very famous.  When you add that amount of underwhelming to something that is hodgepodge, without the semblance of story, and add a generous heaping of WTF, the result is less than magical.  There are only a few shining lights in this movie to justify anything approaching a respectable rating, but the randomness, the racism, and the absolutely wretched comedy in Ziegfeld Follies makes for a soul-sucking experience.

Oh, and William Powell is only in the opening scene?  What the hell?!?  He is the only reason I watched this damn thing!

1 comment:

  1. Nice writeup, and I agree on just about everything. I don't think ALL the humor fails (the Garland segement is pretty funny) but the comedy sequences tend to be rather painful.