Musical

Gene Kelly Embraces the Ziegfeld Follies

This post is part of the Gene Kelly Centennial Blogathon, celebrating Kelly’s 100th birthday. It’s hosted by the Classic Movie Blog Association and runs August 20-25, 2012.

Rita and Ginger never looked better
Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly ham it up in perfect synchronization.

In some ways, the 1946 musical The Ziegfeld Follies is a rip-off.

Here is a film that features virtually the only on-screen pairing of Gene Kelly with rival Fred Astaire, and it lasts only seven minutes. Seven minutes!! However, we console ourselves with the fact that these are seven mesmerizing minutes, and it is the unexpected chemistry between Kelly and Astaire that provides some of the biggest laughs in the film.

The actual Ziegfeld Follies were a series of lavish Broadway musicals that were hugely popular between the years of 1907 and 1931. They were vaudvillian in nature; they featured music, dance and comedy sketches, but were furnished with spare-no-expense sets and costumes. The Ziegfeld Follies were based on the famous Folies Bergeres of Paris.

American Florenz Ziegfeld was the mastermind behind the Ziegfeld Follies; his business card modestly described him as an “Impressario Extraordinaire”. He personally supervised every detail of the shows, which likely drove the assistants and performers crazy, but no one could argue with his success. He was a born promoter and showman; they say that as a child growing up in Chicago, Ziegfeld sold tickets to the other neighbourhood kids to see – get this – invisible fish. Of course, it was nothing more than a clear bowl of water. You almost have to marvel at such a kid; you can pat him on the head with one hand, but make sure your other hand is firmly on your wallet.

Now this bring us to the second reason why we think The Ziegfeld Follies is a rip-off. Instead of focusing on the life of this colourful man, the script largely shies away from this subject. Can you imagine Gene Kelly, with his charisma and mega-watt smile, as the great Ziegfeld himself? It would make for a fantastic movie!

Yet, casting Kelly and Astaire together was one of those strokes of brilliance that only Hollywood can engineer. In the mid 1940s, Kelly was the younger, up-and-coming dancer; Astaire was the established dancing juggernaut. Kelly’s style is more organic and cutting-edge; Astaire is polished and traditional.

In their scene in the film,”A Babbitt and a Bromide”, Kelly and Astaire are two acquaintances described, with tongue planted in cheek, as “solid citizens”. The scene is true Ziegfeld – a little song, a little dance, a little schtick. The two characters are superficially polite, but they compete constantly with each other.

The scene opens with the two meeting by accident on a park bench. Kelly recognizes Astaire, but Astaire doesn’t quite recognize Kelly. Or says he doesn’t.

Astaire: I can’t quite place you. What kind of business are you in?

Kelly: I dance.

Astaire: At home, for the folks? Picnics and that kind of thing?

Kelly: No, no, in public.

Astaire: On street corners?

Kelly: Did you ever see a picture called Cover Girl?

Astaire: Yes.

Kelly: Well, who did all the dancing in that?

Astaire: You’re not Rita Hayworth?!

Kelly: No… I’m not, Ginger.

Watching the two dance is mesmerizing. Sometimes they move as one person, but Kelly is a bit hammier. They are true performers who generously put differences aside to give us a taste of movie magic.

If you intend to watch The Ziegfeld Follies, may we suggest a quick online search of either the actual Broadway productions and/or of Florenz Ziegfeld himself. (We like this article.) This background info, which would have been familiar to movie audiences in the mid 1940s, is helpful; without it, the film seems disjointed and not a little weird.

But even if you aren’t that interested in the historical aspects of The Ziegfeld Follies, we encourage you to watch it for the Kelly/Astaire scene alone. It is a delightful piece of movie history.

Ziegfeld Follies: starring Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire and just about every other big name in Hollywood. Overall Direction by Vincente Minnelli. Sketches written by Peter Barry, David Freedman, Harry Tugend, George White, Robert Alton, Al Lewis, Irving Brecher. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, 1946, Technicolour, 110 mins.

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31 thoughts on “Gene Kelly Embraces the Ziegfeld Follies

  1. Interesting bit of movie history here. Two legendary Hollywood hoofers in one inspired musical scene–only in Tinseltown. I suppose it is almost as iconic as Kelly dancing with Jerry from The Tom and Jerry Show.

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  2. I must admit I never cared for this film but seeing Kelly and Astaire is a real treat and the highlight of the film. You frame this nicely.

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  3. Ruth, I’ve never seen ZIEGFELD FOLLIES all the way through from start to finish, but you have me interested in that Kelly/Astaire number! I enjoyed your post, as always!

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      1. Ruth, thanks for the YouTube tip about the ZIEGFELD FOLLIES scene with Kelly and Astaire; I’ll watch it later tonight after Team Bartilucci returns from seeing the Encore performance of SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN! 🙂 Our awesome Aspie kid is intrigued because I always sing “Good Morning to You” to her every morning! 🙂

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      2. Hi, Ruth, I’m ba-a-a-ack! 🙂 Just wanted to follow up with you and let you know we of Team Bartilucci saw SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN at the Rave in Center Valley, PA, and we all absolutely LOVED it! We were especially thrilled that our daughter Siobhan adored it, too, especially since she’s been diagnosed with ADHD and Asperger’s Syndrome (though she’s extremely high-functioning, we’re happy to say). It’s not always easy to get her to sit still and focus (runs in the family, hence my blog’s title), but she absolutely loved it, especially Donald O’Connor and his “Make ‘Em Laugh” number! It was time and money well spent!

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  4. A great dance routine, and as John said, really a treat to see. I like the background you’ve included in Ziefeld, and your suggestion that Gene Kelly would fit the role of the great man. That would have been really interesting.

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  5. The movie is a real hodgepodge, sort of a musical revue showcasing MGM’s stars and contract players. The whole is less interesting than the parts, but Kelly and Astaire together are definitely one of the most interesting parts!

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  6. Super post! I am interested in all things Follies and enjoy watching this pairing very much. Just because it’s them, though. By the standard both of these men set individually it is somewhat of a disappointment, as you say. In any case, together or apart, we’re lucky to have their work to watch forever.

    I’m all misty over Gene this week. Suppose that’s normal.

    Aurora

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  7. My favourite number in ZIEGFELD FOLLIES, is the very cute “The Babbitt & The Bromide”, with Astaire and Kelly together on screen. I have to agree with every one else … they have to be one of the best dancer/singer/actors on film. Their timing is absolutely amazing!

    I also enjoyed Esther Williams, swim scene..

    Wonderful post!!

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  8. I have to say, I enjoy this movie more than the actual movie made of Ziegfeld’s life; THE GREAT ZIEGFELD, with William Powell, from 1936, was, for me, a true bore, despite the presence of Powell and Myrna Loy. FOLLIES is, as noted above, a hodgepodge, with segments that work (I love Red Skelton’s bit, Keenan Wynn’s “Number Please”, and Fanny Brice’s segment) and those that don’t (surprisingly, I wasn’t a fan of the Judy Garland segment, which seemed like an inside joke, and I’m afraid I was never a fan of Esther Williams), but there’s enough things I liked for me to generally recommend the movie. And, of course, the big reason why is the Astaire/Kelly duet, which you did an excellent write-up of.

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  9. Top-notch review, as always! I’ve never seen this film, but I definitely look forward to seeing this number — I’ve only seen its and pieces of it on a documentary. In that same documentary, Gene Kelly was quoted as viewing the number as “bland” — he would have liked the steps to be more challenging/difficult, I think. What do you think?

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  10. Great piece. I like “Ziegfeld Follies,” but am familiar with the back-story on Ziegfeld and his Follies, so it works for me (I also enjoy “The Great Ziegfeld” and “Ziegfeld Girl’). You describe Kelly as “hammier” in his number with Astaire. I’ve always preferred Fred’s elegance to Gene’s athleticism, but I hadn’t considered the “ham” angle. Possibly another aspect of my preference for Fred. None of this, though, detracts from my great admiration and enjoyment of Gene Kelly as an dancer/actor/singer/director/etc.

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  11. I have to admit that this film just wasn’t my cup of tea. I didn’t even care for the biopic years earlier though.

    You’ve done a wonderful job here on pointing out the high points and lows. I agree that it really is a shame that Astaire and Kelly weren’t given a couple numbers together. You mentioned seven minutes but it seemed like 2. They’re that amazing to watch that time flies by.

    I really enjoyed your well thought out review. I wish I would have enjoyed it more than I did.

    So sorry for my lateness in getting here. I hope you’re having a wonderful weekend.
    Page

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