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Archive for the ‘Esther Williams’ Category

Ziegfeld Follies

13 Jun

Ziegfeld Follies – directed by lots of people including Vincent Minnelli. Song and Dance Musical Scrapbook. 110 minutes Technicolor 1945.

★★★

The Story: None. Flo Ziegfeld in heaven reminisces into being a last great follies. When it is over, he reappears as the other slice of the sandwich. The filling is a compendium of talent then under contract at MGM.

~

Some of these acts lie dead in the water. Others dogpaddle around. All of them are with Olympic grade performers, including Esther Williams who actually was Olympic grade. She tumbles under water smiling valiantly amid the kelp in a piece that feels forced, and, of course, is just that, as we are forced to believe that when she swims off-camera she wouldn’t dream of taking a breath of air there.

Judy Garland plays The Great Movie Star giving an interview, but the chorus boys have more life to them than the piece. Not even Garland, full of vaudeville fun as she was, can energize the flaccid material. For once, though, she is properly costumed and it’s good to see her looking so grown-up, cute, and soignée.

Red Skelton’s immediacy is funny as a TV pitchman for a brand of gin. And Victor Moore brilliantly convinces himself and each of us watching that he is being reduced to desperation by his blowhard lawyer, well played by Edward Arnold. It looks like an old Orpheum Circuit skit, and it probably was one. As does the piece with Fanny Brice playing a housewife who has to recover a winning sweepstakes ticket given by her husband to the landlord, William Frawley. The skit was must have been funnier on the stage; Brice must have been funnier on the stage, she probably relished her audiences, they in turn enriching her. Hume Cronyn surprises you by his deftness as the comic husband in this piece.

The one solid dud in the collection is Keenan Wynn in the telephone sequence. Directed by the famous acting teacher Bobby Lewis, one would have thought something might have been made of it, but it would have been better played by his father Ed Wynn, or at least by someone with natural funny bones, like Durante or Hope or Raye. Keenan Wynn could be funny as a character but not as a stand-up single. He is suicidally bad, poor guy. Let’s sink down into our seats and spare him further shame.

This being MGM, everything is over-produced, including Lena Horne’s solo, the wonderful song “Love.” With her hot eyes and powerful arms and elbows, Horne moves through the song’s genius in a costume wrapped around her like a wound.

Another singer, James Melton, sings the waltz scene from Traviata. And Kathryn Grayson sings the finale, in which Cyd Charisse twirls about as the ballerina, as she does in the opening, briefly with Fred Astaire.

Astaire dances four times in this film. And he sings. And there is no one like him, and, without meaning to, he really puts everyone else in the piece outside the pale. He is the one who’s worth the ticket of admission.

One of his dances is with Gene Kelly, in a frivolous duet, “The Babbit and the Bromide,” and Astaire opens the entire show with a turn or two in which Charisse dances and Lucile Ball appears wielding a whip as a dominatrix. Except for two sideways glances she asks us to take this hysteria seriously. No one with hair that particular color could possibly be serious.

But Astaire dances twice with the stony Lucile Bremer, once playing a society dame at a ball being wooed by a cat burglar, and in the second with Bremer as a Chinatown doxie being woed by Bobby Lewis, terrifying as the ganglord, and by Astaire as a Chinese peasant.

Bremer was a talented dancer, with good carriage, and a fine figure. She dances beautifully with Astaire, but as a screen personality she is meaningless. Astaire is dancing with a mummy, and it is odd that this was not found out sooner, when all Astaire needed to do was turn to Cyd Charisse who was standing there right next to him. Bremer’s face is cold; she can’t help it, but it is just awful to look at. She had made Minnelli’s Yolanda and The Thief with Astaire and Minnelli, another failed film, and these two pieces, one suspects, are left-overs from that film. Bremer was Arthur Freed’s mistress. He is the producer. Indeed, “Raffles” – an upper-crust dance at a satire ball – is an exact duplicate of the plot of Yolanda.

“Limehouse Blues” is fan dance, and is especially interesting as Astaire retains a poker face, his slant eyes expressionless, while they both wield four fans in startling metronomic display. It is actually a ballet, such as Gene Kelly would mount, and it works like all get out. Astaire’s cooperation with a partner on the dance floor is meritorious. The more you look at him perform the less you believe your eyes. Credulity is inapt to a miracle.

Both pieces seem to have been augmented by Minnelli’s set designs, décor, and color sense – with big corps de ballet. And certainly by his desire for fantasy-dance and dream-dance, of the kind he would put into play at the end of The Bandwagon, also with Astaire.

Why sample this smorgasbord?

Because Fred Astaire had the greatest body ever to appear in film.

One looks at all the Rembrandts one can.

 

 

 
 
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