Monday, June 21, 2010

Watch This Movie (Sort of): Ziegfeld Follies

I've been wishing a lot lately that I could have a day- just one day- to do nothing. Well, ask and ye shall receive...although I received in the form of a stomach bug. No fun at all. So what else was there to do than to watch a movie? Ziegfeld Follies had been on my list for a while, and I was dying to see Tony Duquette's handiwork on the film's set. In case you're not familiar with it, the 1946 MGM film was a musical tribute to the late Flo Ziegfeld, Broadway producer extraordinaire. The extravaganza included musical numbers and skits by Fred Astaire, Judy Garland, Fanny Brice, Red Skelton, and others. If musicals give you hives, I wouldn't watch this movie. It was good but I was glad when it was over. (I now wish that I had watched a darker movie like Leave Her to Heaven or Born to Be Bad. There is nothing like whiling away an afternoon with a twisted movie.)

But back to Ziegfeld. I captured some screen shots of the Fred Astaire & Lucille Bremer number that is pure Tony Duquette. The scene begins in a red ballroom with enormously tall masked pages keeping watch over the room.

And then there's an impressive chandelier that crowns the room. Another uniquely Duquette flourish:

Outside the ballroom, guests are shown arriving in front of a naive but totally charming blue backdrop with white flowering trees.

When Fred and Lucille decide to take the action outside, the walls of the ballroom close to reveal more Duquette statues:

They dance amongst a faux bois bench with tasseled feet (wouldn't you love to have this on your patio?) I also am taken with the white painted urn with white branches. Hmmm, that might look nice somewhere in my home...

And after much twirling and dancing, the number ends with couples surrounding Astaire and Bremer on a revolving dance floor. How beautiful is this scene with the female dancers and their pink-hued dresses? See how the dancers are arranged according to the shade of pink that they're wearing? And look at white barren trees that they're standing in front of. At first, I thought they were holding horns above their heads.

There was one other number that charmed me- yet another involving Astaire and Bremer, only this time they're supposed to be Chinese. I don't believe that Duquette was involved in this number, or at least not that I have been able to determine. This gorgeous Chinoiserie set may be the work of one of the Art Directors, perhaps Cedric Gibbons or Merrill Pye. Don't you think these shots, below, look like handpainted wallpaper. Perhaps something from de Gournay or Fromental? This has to be one of the most inventive and fantastical sets I've seen.

If something like this were recreated today, it would be computer generated, something which would have far less charm than these sets from sixty years ago. Then again, I doubt anyone would do a Chinoiserie scene like this today. How many theatergoers would want to see something like this? Not many, except perhaps you and me.

(All screen shots from Ziegfeld Follies, MGM, 1946)


  1. Kevin P10:24 AM

    The grand chandelier and the blue backdrop are my favorite, the whole set is so romantic and dreamy.

  2. Oh I love this movie but as you say -it's mostly about the music, dancing and sets with little story line to go by. Just fine by me!

  3. Do you think the chinoiserie scene may have been inspired by Jean Baptiste Pillement's panels? they look just like them!
    By the way, we have been subscribed to your blog for a long time, and it is a staple in our studio; thank you for such a wonderful and informative read!

  4. These sets are remarkable. I supppose the movie itself is dated, but the movie industry does not have many people in it today that could rival this kind of set design in spite of all the special effects technology. The last three shots look like a Pillement painting brought to life in neon, black and gold. I read your blog every day to see things like this that I might never have known about otherwise.

  5. Lizzie and Harrison- I bet you're right. I didn't think of it, but the set does look like a Pillement painting. Good call!

  6. I love mixing muted with vibrant colors in the Chinoiserie set and agree it would likely be computer generated nowadays. Wonderful blog, really enjoying taking a look!

  7. Pretty amazing chinoiserie sets. The profiles and the colors are to die for. Thanks so much for giving me a little pop.

  8. WOW Tony Duquette was a genius!

  9. Anonymous11:43 PM

    Tony Duquette designed the sets for the "This Heart Of Mine" number while he was in the army. He made the statues which were built 20 feet tall at MGM at Fort McArthur and shipped them to MGM in a shoe box. When he got his leave he would go to MGM to see the sets completed. He told me that if you could have seen those sets you would have been amazed by the workmanship as the technicians at Metro were amazing craftsmen. Liza Minnelli said to me once "Tony Duquette took a hand full of dead tree branches, painted them white, sprinkled them with mirrors, and Hollywood history was made". When I was working with Tony at the old Duquette Studios on Robertson Blvd in L.A. we still had some of those mirror sprinkled trees that the dancers bring on to the dance floor at the end of the number. We also had a lot of the Chinoiserie props from the "Lime House" number which Tony told me was definately and directly inspired by Pillement. Anyway, when you see an MGM film with a dance sequence using a star shaped follow spot you can bet that Tony Duquette had something to do with it! I cover all of this in my two books, "Tony Duquette" and "More is More, Tony Duquette" which you have very kindly covered so generously at Peak Of Chic!!! Loved what you wrote about Ziegfeld Follies... Best...
    Hutton Wilkinson

  10. Thanks for info. I saw the one w/ Lana Turner, didn't see this one.


  11. Amazing chandelier.

  12. Anonymous9:52 AM