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Absurdly promoted as the “greatest production since the birth of motion pictures,” Ziegfeld Follies was the first box-office hit of 1946. Its shameless promotion seems especially ridiculous in a year which would give us such truly great films as The Best Years of Our Lives, It’s a Wonderful Life, Notorious, The Razor’s Edge, and The Yearling from Hollywood, as well Brief Encounter and Henry V from the U.K., Open City from Italy, and Children of Paradise from France.
The idea of producing a film in the manner of the Ziegfeld Follies, containing musical numbers and skits but no plot, came to MGM studio heads in 1939 in the wake of the phenomenal success of the 1936 Oscar winner The Great Ziegfeld with William Powell in the title role. The idea was to have Powell playing Ziegfeld, who died in 1932, looking down from Heaven on a new production of his famed Follies. That idea was put on hold while they produced the dramatic 1941 film Ziegfeld Girl, in which Hedy Lamarr, Lana Turner, and Judy Garland vied for jobs in the Follies, instead. When that film proved to be a box-office success as well, ideas for Ziegfeld Follies sequences began in earnest in 1942 with Charles Walters (Easter Parade) assigned to direct.
Numerous scenes were planned, but not all were used when the film finally went into production in early 1944. Things were so hectic that Walters quit and was replaced by Vincente Minnelli on the heels of Meet Me in St. Louis. Minelli brought in his own team including vocal arranger Kay Thompson.
The film’s most famous sequence is “A Great Lady Has an Interview,” written and composed by Thompson. The sequence was planned for Greer Garson, who looked forward to spoofing her image and singing and dancing as she did in the music hall sequence in Random Harvest. Thompson came to Garson’s home to demonstrate how Garson should perform the sequence, flailing her arms about and exuberantly singing as Thompson would do on screen years later in Funny Face. Garson was aghast! The sequence was assigned to Judy Garland instead.