Like the Follies themselves, the best thing about this fanciful biography of Florence Ziegfeld Jr., are the anything-goes production numbers. With the huge stage quite literally flooding into the audience (“You Gotta Pull Strings;” “A Circus Must Be Different”—which also features six well-trained dogs that almost always hit their marks and four ponies that delight in prancing with the showgirls), director Robert Z. Leonard wisely instructs his team of cinematographers to hold a wide shot and let Seymour Felix’s staging speak for itself. A close second are the solo acts including Fanny Brice (“Yiddel on Your Fiddle”—replete with a stand-up violinist/conductor) as herself and Ray Bolger’s superb tap work following the avalanche of balloons—his splits with sliding trombones is a hoot and the follow-up triplets are real showstoppers: who’s tapping like that anymore?
Apart from choosing and training beautiful girls in the arts of song and dance (the kicklines are great: front and back), Ziegfeld spared no expense, animal (like the constant smoking, it’s curious to see so many real fur coats) or garish design to create costumes that either celebrated the female form just short of nudity or covered the alluring belles with so much fabric and blossoming headgear (“You Never Looked so Beautiful”) that even a slight breeze would cause some of them to take flight.
William Powell (along with the William McGuire’s screenplay) makes Ziegfeld far funnier (the opening hour is peppered with wisecracks as the famed producer learns his craft and steals stars from his main competitor, Jack Billings—Frank Morgan is a tad over the top with his bellowing laugh) and more human than the real-life slave driver probably was. His (never happened) first marriage to French chanteuse Anna Held (Luise Rainer is marvellously melodramatic in her stoic heroism) sets the stage for a semi-fling with champagne-loving Audrey Dane (Virginia Bruce savours the relationship spoiler role), very grown-up Mary Lou (Ann Gills as the precocious child; Jean Chatburn as the sultry, ambitious showgirl wanabe) before following head over heels (and proposing to a ferry boat, no less!) with Billie Burke (the ever-radiant Myrna Loy fits the role like a glove) finally adding some stability on the home front (at least in the fictional narrative…).
The orchestra delivers a characteristically cheesy, portamento-rich Overture before settling down and filling the ear with delectable, obviously dated tunes (the first “hit” being “If You Knew Susie”). What fun to have intermission and exit music where the screen is stagnant while the music is played: no tableaus here!
After all is sung, danced, lost and said, it’s the allure of box office success that drives impresarios/producers like Ziegfeld to their next big act. In the early going Ziggy’s first real success comes after his headliner, Sandow: The World’s Strongest Man at the Chicago World’s Fair (1893), finally sells out when he allows the instantly smitten females to actually feel his quivering (in time to the music, of course) muscles. The universal truth of the human form in tip-top shape selling seats to those who aren’t but are ready for the fantasy—if only for a few hours—wasn’t lost on Ziegfeld and allowed him to muscle his way into the hearts and wallets of legions of fans. JWR