BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE GOLDWYN FOLLIES

By • May 18th, 2009 •

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Samuel Goldwyn (who changed his last name from Goldfish after crossing the intersection of Hollywood and Vine) was responsible for some of the most memorable malapropisms in Hollywood history, such as “that oral contract isn’t worth the paper it’s written on” and “include me out.” Upon watching George Balanchine’s concluding ballet for THE GOLDWYN FOLLIES (1938) set to George Gershwin’s musical suite “An American In Paris,” Goldwyn apparently remarked it would be over the heads of most coal miners in the state of Pennsylvania, and refused to shoot the sequence.

Now MGM Home Video, in a kind of sinister switcheroo on Goldwyn’s attempt at shielding the American public from a potentially dangerous overexposure to Balanchine, has released Goldwyn’s most reviled musical, the aforementioned GOLDWYN FOLLIES, on DVD. After slicing open the case and viewing the contents without flinching, it turns out THE GOLDWYN FOLLIES is not half as bad as we’ve been led to believe all these years.

The impression of THE GOLDWYN FOLLIES as a cinematic train wreck was mostly formed by Harry and Michael Medved’s 1980 book The Golden Turkey Awards, in which the film was prominently featured as the “worst” musical ever made. THE GOLDWYN FOLLIES also was a huge box office flop, nearly bankrupting Goldwyn, one of Hollywood’s first indie producers, who made literary projects such as Sinclair Lewis’ DODSWORTH (1936) along with popular entertainments featuring the “Goldwyn Girls,” a bunch of scantily-clad dancers modeled after Flo Ziegfeld’s legendary chorines.

As has been speculated elsewhere on the internet, I think THE GOLDWYN FOLLIES wasn’t a failure because of poor quality so much as the lack of major stars. When you have Gershwin, Balanchine and Gregg Toland, the innovative cinematographer of CITIZEN KANE involved, there must be something on the screen worth watching, even with Samuel Goldwyn’s fabled interference. All the major performers of THE GOLDWYN FOLLIES (except for Adolphe Menjou, who was a character actor) were from the worlds of radio or the concert stage. Many of them, including Vera Zorina, the nominal star, were appearing in films for the first time.

I found THE GOLDWYN FOLLIES wonderfully entertaining, along with possibly the best use of Technicolor I’ve seen in a Hollywood film, startlingly naturalistic and visually stunning – think of Monet’s color pallet crossed with the sensibility of Edward Hopper – thanks to the inspired collaboration of cinematographer Gregg Toland and production designer Richard Day. The Gershwin music (augmented by Vernon Duke after George Gershwin’s untimely death) is a major element in the film, standing out on its own, and as compelling in its own right as any performer or story element. The Balanchine choreography is at turns silly (probably due to Goldwyn’s insistence on something the folks in Harrisburg could appreciate) and suddenly extraordinarily moving. For example, there’s a “jazz” version of Romeo and Juliet, with the dancers crudely shaking their hips in a manner that makes one think of the more vulgar passages on “Dancing With the Stars”, while the death scene turns into a moment of supreme delicacy, as the two dancers hardly move at all, entwined with each other and yet almost weightless, seemingly suspended above the floor. This is pure Balanchine, using movement to create a feeling of intense subjectivity that lingers in the mind long after the specific images have faded.

In some ways, the story of the making of THE GOLDWYN FOLLIES is even more entertaining than the film itself, a heady Hollywood brew of hubris and misspent millions, peppered with choice Goldwyn quotations. Goldwyn’s initial intention was that THE GOLDWYN FOLLIES would be the first of a series of three hour, 2 million dollar Technicolor films that would, as Goldwyn stated to the Hollywood Reporter in 1936, “help put an end to double features.” A noble aspiration to be sure, and though Goldwyn hired writers as noteworthy as Lillian Hellman and Dorothy Parker, no one could come up with a story that would combine ballerina Vera Zorina and Metropolitan Opera singer Helen Jepson with ventriloquist Edgar Bergen and his sidekick Charlie McCarthy, not to mention, God help us, the Ritz Brothers, who are featured singing Sid Kuller and Ray Golden’s “Here Pussy, Pussy” with the rousing chorus of “Here pussy, pussy, pussy, pussy, pussy…”well, you get the idea, while cats of various colors are being thrown through an open doorway. (Imagine being a cat wrangler on that production, with the assistant director complaining of too many calicos.)

Ultimately, Ben Hecht came up with a plot that is deliriously self-referential, with more in-jokes than an early Godard film. Adolphe Menjou plays Oliver Merlin, an independent movie producer suspiciously like a Samuel Goldwyn seen through rose-colored (or in this case, Technicolor) glasses, all quiet charm and benevolent grace. Merlin’s last two films have been box-office bombs, thanks to his leading lady, pouty European actress Olga Samara (Vera Zorina), who wears a tragic sensibility the way other women might apply perfume by Guerlian. (An unnamed source on TCM believes that Oliver Merlin’s unrequited crush on Olga Samara in the film is a reflection of Goldwyn’s feelings towards Ms. Zorina, who was married to Balanchine at the time. I think Anna Sten, a Ukranian actress Goldwyn unsuccessfully tried to turn into another Garbo a few years before THE GOLDWYN FOLLIES was produced, is the real-life parallel here. In fact, Cole Porter wrote a lyric on the subject: “If Samuel Goldwyn can with conviction/Instruct Anna Sten on her diction/Then Heaven knows/Anything goes!”)

In any case, Merlin is shooting Olga’s new film on location when he overhears local girl Hazel Dawes (Andrea Leeds, whose most memorable role was as the impoverished actress in STAGE DOOR) criticize the action to a friend as laughably unbelievable. On an impulse, Merlin hires Hazel to be his consultant, calling her “Miss Humanity,” and brings her to Hollywood to impart the perspective of, as Merlin puts it, “20 million people.”

As can be discerned from this brief description, the film, which is basically a series of revue sketches, has an improvised air about it, simultaneously a self-parody as well as somewhat self-congratulatory. Mostly though, the humor is fairly subtle and sophisticated, as well as veering into the occasionally crazy, as typified by the aforementioned color-coordinated pussy tossing. Also, the spectacle of radio singer Kenny Baker in a diner, crooning “Love Walked In,” one of George Gershwin’s most beguiling compositions, to a grilled hamburger, is, at least from my perspective, irresistible. (The other Gershwin songs having their debut here are “I Was Doing All Right” and “Our Love Is Here To Stay,” which was completed by Vernon Duke.)

Although the story line has a tendency to totter and weave like W.C. Fields leaving the Fat Black Pussycat saloon after a hard night of imbibing, there’s always something to catch one’s eye, not to mention one’s funny bone. Then again, perhaps the story line isn’t sloppy at all, but rather Ben Hecht and George Marshall simply developed the first post-modern, open-ended essay form in the cinema twenty years before the French New Wave. (Certainly, the reprise of “Love Walked In,” with Kenny Baker and Andrea Leeds serenading each other on the beach at Malibu, surrounded by red umbrellas like signposts of desire, could be taken from PIERROT LE FOU.) Whatever the case, it’s a hell of a lot of fun to watch, plucking out the in-jokes and cross-references while being dazzled by Gregg Toland’s super-realist cinematography and delicate color sense that at times seems to belong in an entirely different movie.

Edgar Bergen’s sequences are really sharp, with Charlie McCarthy’s insults escalating with such quickness and sense of surprise I found myself doubling up in laughter. The Water Nymph ballet, while probably not poetry, is certainly not to be missed, if only for the sex goddess aspect of the whole thing, along with a generous helping of Goldwynesque kitsch. Set in a lily-pad covered pond surrounded by Doric columns, it’s a very strange mix of classical ballet with Balanchine’s own metaphorical, movement-based dance, presented in trippy, neo-psychedelic color.

One can see in Ms. Zorina’s movements the same mixture of technical mastery and personal expression as Patricia McBride and Darci Kistler, revealing the beginning of a legacy of Balanchine ballerinas that transformed ballet. Ms. Zorina’s body is a precision instrument that is able to express the most subtle emotions. Her acting, unfortunately, is not in the same league, which Ben Hecht turns into yet another in-joke as she plays a dancer who can’t act in the movie within the movie.

Merlin’s studio is actually the Goldwyn facilities in Burbank, giving the film a strong documentary flavor, accentuated by Toland’s use of deep focus, with green foliage in the foreground and the sets and cameras in the middle to far distance. Everything seems so natural one has to remember that shots such as this were impossible due to shallow focal lengths only a year or two before. One can even imagine Orson Welles seeing these images in a theater and thinking, “What if one were simply not to cut but let the scene continue unabated?” (Toland, a cameraman of deep sensitivity to image and nuance, was also a technical innovator, discovering that by coating lenses with Teflon, one could achieve much greater depth of field.)
While certainly not the CITIZEN KANE of Hollywood musicals – I would reserve that distinction for SINGIN’ IN THE RAIN – THE GOLDWYN FOLLIES is consistently entertaining and continually fascinating, both from a historical standpoint as well as for the crazy-quilt mixture of high and low musical culture on display, from vaudeville to La Traviata. Although the disc is a single layer (gee, when’s the last time a major studio released a single-layer DVD?) the color is utterly stunning with no problems whatsoever. The sound is also sharp as a tack. THE GOLDWYN FOLLIES is RECOMMENDED, especially for those interested in musicals and films of the 30’s in general. THE GOLDWYN FOLLIES is as relaxing as a trip to the seaside, although Samuel Goldwyn would probably say, “Include me out!”

Rating: (***) for the movie; (****) for the photography & the musical score.

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