Decorgasmic: Ziegfeld Follies (1946)

 

I have a very intense love/hate relationship with the movie Ziegfeld Follies.

I’ve been re-reading Guy DeBord’s ‘Society of the Spectacle‘, and it’s re-ignited my interest in the big post-war Hollywood song and dance movies of the 40’s and 50’s. The middle class obsession with beautiful distraction was at its height, and studios were throwing ridiculous amounts of money at the big film production companies like MGM to create these amazing big-scale escapist fantasies, and the sets and costumes that resulted were spectacular and excessive.

One of these films that had a huge effect on me was Ziegfeld Follies (1946), and I think it’s because when I saw it I had no idea the amazing artworks I would be witnessing, but also it was a portal to a different time; a blatantly racist and sexist one. Something so beautiful and detailed was also so deeply unsettling to me, and I watched it over and over again to try and get a handle on it. It really exotifies Jewish, Asian, African and Native American cultures, and in a quick and shallow way, but it also does that to everthing in the film; everything is diluted then exaggerated, stereotyped, sequined, fetishised and then blown up on the Silver Screen. A really great article about the director of this film Vincente Minnelli and his obsession with illusion/delusion is here.

The production designers were MGM regulars Cedric Gibbons ( American In Paris, Wizard of Oz and Julius Ceasar, who was on the original Oscars panel, designed the actual Oscar stauette, and holds the world record for most design Oscar wins and nominations) Jack Martin Smith (Cleopatra, Planet of the Apes) and Merrill Pye (North By Northwest) with Tony Duquette. Costumes were by Helen Rose, a prolific MGM costume designer who famously designed Grace Kelly and Elizabeth Taylor’s wedding dresses. Looking at the sheer amount of work and money involved, its no wonder so many designers and artists were on board!

Its popularity in the 40’s just shows how normal this type of film was becoming, and it spurred on the movie-musical genre of the 50’s. In an America that was so diheartened post-war and post-depression, its no wonder these larger than life fantasies gained so much popularity, and its a genre I seem to keep coming back to.

The Esther William’s Water Ballet is a scene that I regualrly have dreams about. An underwater, floaty, multicoloured coral reef dance. A few years ago I designed (with Alice Joel) an outdoor area for Secret Garden festival inspired by ‘America’s Million Dollar Mermaid’. If you have a chance, check out her other synchronised swimming routines, they will blow your mind! Other big name stars in the film were Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Judy Garland (who married the director!) Lena Horne and Lucille Ball.

I’m obsessed with histories of decadence and delusion, and Hollywood movie-musicals are a goldmine.

As an artist and designer its super important to always be researching and understanding the references you use, and any designers out there, I really recommend watching this film as a 101 in “The Spectacle”. Here’s some stills I’ve chosen from the film!

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