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An MGM musical with too many left feet...
on 16 May 2011
Even in the Golden Age, studios could throw all their best talent and huge sums of money at the screen and still come up with a clunker, and this is a classic one from the peak years of MGM musicals. In production for more than a year at a cost of some $3m, with various sequences added or dropped to little positive effect, at its worst it's what fast forward buttons were invented for.
Any film that starts with William Powell as Flo Ziegfeld deciding to put on a show in heaven and leads into a musical number that has Lucille Ball whipping svelte female devils is not without a certain kitsch value, but its tacky overproduction, tone-deaf female chorus and a use of colour that is occasionally below par for the studio, the film looks more like a Fox musical at times. Tack makes its reappearance with the finale, with women dancing through drooping phallic shaped bubblebath foam, but inbetween the film is rather more conservative.
It is better than MGM's other all-star item, Thousands Cheer (I didn't) but because there's no plot to string them together (and MGM's plots were always better than the average for musicals) or characters to engage us, the film stands or falls on its musical numbers and comic routines, and they are here a very variable bunch.
Some start off well, only to veer off in the wrong direction, like Judy Garland's 'Interview', which is given better staging (by Charles Walters) than it deserves. Unfortunately a lot start off bad and just get worse. On the (minor) plus side, the opening puppet sequence (featuring caricatures of Fanny Brice, Will Rogers, Eddie Cantor and Diamond Jim Brady) is surprisingly effective and there is a genuinely funny sketch with Red Skelton - no, honestly - interspersing his 'Guzzler's Gin' drunk act with J. Newton Numbskull's poetry ('I brought my girl some garters/At the local Five-and-Ten/She gave them to her mother/That's the last I'll see of them').
Fred Astaire makes no fewer than four appearances and provides the highlight with the superbly designed, surprisingly bleak 'Limehouse Blues' (his other number with Bette Davis lookalike Lucille Bremer, 'This Foolish Heart of Mine' isn't bad either). The key selling point, however, is Kelly and Astaire's number, the only time they were paired until 1976's That's Entertainment Part Two. It's good as far as it goes, but it's not all that it should be considering the talents involved (their opening patter proves once and for all that both men were better actors when they were dancing). Yet, considering how weak many of the turns are here, it provides the picture with the closest it has to a climax.
Still, Warner home Video's Region 1 NTSC DVD provides an embarrassment of riches - audio for three deleted songs, making of featurette, trailers for all the studio's 'Ziegfeld' films, a couple of cartoons and a Crime Does Not Pay short, though it's a pity that the original opening sequence, with a stop motion animated Leo the Lion giving a rundown of Flo Ziegfeld's rise to fame, is not included despite a workprint of it still surviving (it can be found on Youtube while parts of it were used in the finished film minus Leo).