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?
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.