Saturday, August 11, 2012

Shameless Saturday Camp Explosion: Dream, Girls

The death this week of Tony Martin, MGM crooner and serial star-marryer (if two - Alice Faye and Cyd Charisse - can put him in that rank; it's not like he's a Mdivani or anything), provides the excuse for this week's SSCE.  It's less obscure than most to date, but instead an opportunity to see what the very toppest-of-the-top in Hollywood could pull off when no expense was spared, and how Metro did things differently.

Integrating the number into the story, for one thing:  this is the first big moment in Ziegfeld Girl, giving some stage time to all three of the picture's heroines:  Hedy Lamarr, Lana Turner, and Judy Garland (we catch a bit of the last two in the dressing room right at the beginning - maybe Hedy was already off dealing with her imposing headpiece).  It makes it clear that Hedy and Lana are in it for the glamour, to be Real Ziegeld Girls (eventually, one flies and one falls), but that Judy has Talent (you can tell because she's one of the dancers, as opposed to being a showgirl, the most elite of whom didn't even have to walk).  It also means that she trades a stunning Adrian gown (just look at Hedy in hers - it's what she was born to wear!) for what is essentially a tinsel poncho, but there you go - it's the singers and dancers, if they're lucky, who become the biggest stars.  Just ask Miss Brice.

The other MGM difference, of course, is scale - no other studio could pull together all the resources required to do so much, so lavishly, so consistently.  Warner's went big with its Gold Diggers numbers in the mid-30s (it is, after all, where Mr. Busby Berkeley, at the helm on this movie, learned his trade), but had pretty much passed on large-scale musicals by this time (1941, by the bye).  RKO had taste and glamour, and certainly their big numbers (think Fred and Ginger) are ravishing - but few were sustained spectacles like this.  Paramount had fun, but couldn't throw this many stars into one mix - Bing Crosby pictures didn't need a raft of leading ladies the way this story did.  Fox never had taste, and the sustained tone of this number is utterly beyond the studio's reach - Zanuck's boys would inevitably have thrown in a dance break for the Albertina Rasch troupe or a Dubious Comedy Interpolation from the likes of the Ritz Brothers or worse.  After that there's pretty much only the also-rans, like Universal (which mostly dispensed with big numbers in favor of The Many Moods of Deanna Durbin) or Columbia, which had Ann Miller for fun and Rita Hayworth for glamour, but did all of it on the cheap.  Of what's left, the less said the better.  Anybody up for a Vera Hruba Ralston tap number over at Republic?

No, this is pretty much the State of the Art, MGM at its MGMiest: vast staircases, lush orchestrations, armies of Beautiful Girls, and fabulously demented costumes (look out for Eve Arden at about 5:00, managing not to look too mortified in one of the most celestially ludicrous, a Moderne explosion in an angora factory).  Adrian clearly relished these opportunities - who else could have come up the passementerie madness that precedes Miss Arden?

Over it all soars the voice of Tony Martin, a slick '40s update to the traditional Irish tenor.  Watching him, I can see why he was a better fit for Charisse than for Faye - he's a bit too solemn for the Girl from Tenth Avenue, a little too replete with self-regard (something I've always thought, too, however divine she was in Singing in the Rain, about La Cyd, so they worked).   He was originally meant to be a kind of singing Gable, and if that didn't quite come off over the long haul, he's still a pleasure to watch here.


  1. Eve looks like she's taking Cousin It out for a walk. And look! There's Jimmy Stewart, looking confused. Who can blame him?

    1. He had every reason to be confused - for a few years, the studio kept putting him into musicals, up to and including what is possibly the worst-ever Joan Crawford picture (including even the execrable Trog), Ice Follies of 1939 - in which the big number features Joan walking across the ice on a carpet. Thrilling!

      After Ziegfeld Girl, though, he was mostly off the hook, although he did get thrown into The Glenn Miller Story a few years later...

  2. Eve Arden could arch an eyebrow like nobody else.

  3. I love Ziegfeld Girl, some of the numbers are downright demented and the costumes incredible and while some of it is an unabashed Velvetta fest it also contains one of the most exquisite singing performances Judy Garland ever gave, her audition rendition of I'm Always Chasing Rainbows. The one big mystery of it with all those A level stars and the sumptuous production, why wasn't it in color? The whole thing screams out for it.
    Tony Martin could certainly sing but he was a piece of wood when called upon to act. Have you ever seen his "performance" in the Charles Boyer part in the remake of Algiers called Casbah? Strictly amateur hour!
    I agree about Cyd Charisse, she was an elegant and dignified dancer but always gives off the impression that she thinks she's terribly grand too and aren't we all lucky that she has chosen to share herself with us common folk. Vera-Ellen was a much more talented and resourceful performer and a warmer presence to boot.