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.