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M-G-M’s Folly: The Ice Follies of 1939

Published April 7, 2015 by allaboardforskinkersswamp

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It is stating the obvious to say that 1939 was a banner year in the history of Hollywood cinema. Producing three of the greatest movies of all time – The Wizard of Oz, Stagecoach and Gone with the Wind – we can also add to that list such stellar works as Ninotchka, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Of Mice and Men, The Women, Goodbye, Mr. Chips, and Wuthering Heights. And we haven’t even touched upon Gunga Din, The Hound of the Baskervilles, Dark Victory, The Roaring Twenties, or The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Yet amongst the scores of legendary titles from that monumental year, there is one particular movie that stands out from the crowd – a movie that achieved such immediate notoriety that not even its stars had a kind word to say about it: The Ice Follies of 1939.

Christ. Everyone was out of their collective minds when they made ‘Ice Follies,’” recalled leading lady Joan Crawford. “Me, Jimmy Stewart and Lew Ayres as skaters – preposterous. It was a catastrophe. The public thought so, too.” Contemporary reviews at the time of the movie’s release in March 1939 were just as scathing. “Far be it for us to rap one of Mr. (Harry) Rapf’s more glittering productions,” wrote The New York Times, “(but) the glitter does not extend to the dialogue, the incidents, the characters (for whom “fictitious” is an understatement) or the story, which is the one about the matrimonial clashing of two careers.”

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Over the years, The Ice Follies of 1939 has continued to be derided and ridiculed. It is not a coincidence that Mommie Dearest (1981) opens with Crawford preparing to shoot that particular movie. Yet can the film really be that bad? Surely any “spectacle picture” made at the height of M-G-M’s Golden Age must have something worthwhile to recommend it? Well, thanks to Warner Archive’s release of the movie on DVD, we can see that – yes – the whole concept of the film and its hackneyed plot is indeed flawed, and it can certainly be viewed as the nadir of both Joan Crawford and James Stewart’s illustrious careers. However, the film is not without merit. The two stars both put in admirable performances, and there is an appealing chemistry between the pair that transcends the poor material they are given to work with. And of course we can always rely upon those two great character actors, Lewis Stone and Lionel Stander, to enliven proceedings, along with the typically outrageous costumes designed by Adrian. But the real discovery when watching the movie today is to find that the musical score offers a treasure trove of forgotten delights. We can even hear the exact moment that triggered the birth of the legendary Freed Unit and the classic M-G-M musicals of the 1940s and 50s that followed.

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With a score composed by Franz Waxman, special material adapted by Roger Edens, a theme song written by the ”Queen of Tin Pan Alley” Bernice Petkere, orchestrations by Leo Arnaud and additional contributions from Daniele Amfitheatrof and George Bassman, the quality of the music throughout The Ice Follies of 1939 was always guaranteed to be first rate. The illustrious composer Waxman, listed as Musical Director along with George Stoll, contributes a handful of crucial incidental music cues at key dramatic points in the movie. “The Drunk Scene” features a haunting melody line consisting of long sustained notes accompanied by a bed of string tremolos, beautiful woodwind trills and judicious use of harp arpeggios, to create a magical mood of mystery and enchantment. “Next Morning” continues with the same combination of melancholy solo violin and rippling orchestral flourishes, while “On A Park Bench” includes a gorgeous, fully orchestrated dance band tune with a lilting string melody and prominent string bass accompaniment.

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The score also expertly incorporates a handful of traditional standards and contemporary pop songs of the era. A kiss at a park skating ring in New York is accompanied by the strains of the 1894 classic “The Sidewalks of New York” while the standout “Ice Follies 1939” segment in the middle of the picture incorporates a medley of popular Scottish tunes including “Comin’ Through the Rye” and “Loch Lomond,” plus a welcome reprise of “Hey, Babe, Hey!” an overlooked Cole Porter waltz that originally appeared in an earlier James Stewart movie, Born To Dance (1936). The 12 minute Follies segment also benefits from a number of tailor made compositions by the multi-talented Roger Edens, with each individual work complementing a specific type of dance on screen whether it be an Indian war dance, a Russian ballet or a Circus parade.

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Although the initial idea behind The Ice Follies of 1939 was to showcase Joan Crawford singing half a dozen songs throughout the picture (the original advertising campaign was intended to proclaim “Crawford Sings!”), in the end we hear her warble only a solitary line from the movie’s theme song “It’s All So New To Me” as she stumbles home drunk following a late night party. The performance of the song at the end of the film was dubbed by an unknown singer, while the rest of Crawford’s singing efforts were left on the cutting room floor. The majority of these rare outtakes are still awaiting an official release, but one notable outtake emerged on the 2006 compilation “That’s Entertainment!,” with Crawford singing a new Arthur Freed-Nacio Herb Brown song called “Something’s Gotta Happen Soon.” Her vocal limitations and affected delivery do not detract from a fabulous arrangement by master orchestrator Conrad Salinger, who contributes a delightfully jaunty counter melody and a typically light, soaring string coda that foreshadows his classic treatment of “But Not For Me” in Girl Crazy (1944). Crawford also re-recorded two of the deleted songs for commercial release in 1939, “It’s All So New to Me” and “I’m in Love with the Honorable Mr. So and So.”

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The highlight of the movie is unquestionably the 14 minute Technicolor finale, “A Song for Cinderella.” Featuring an ambitious, eclectic suite of music composed by Franz Waxman and Roger Edens, with special contributions by Daniele Amfitheatrof and George Bassman, the centrepiece of the suite arrives with a stunning piano scherzo comprised almost exclusively of dizzying sixteenth note runs. The virtuoso performance by M-G-M Orchestra pianist Lela Simone was all the more remarkable considering she had only been granted one hour to learn the piece, as Simone later recalled to biographer Hugh Fordin: “I said to Waxman, if you gave this part to Rachmaninoff he would have to go home and practice it for three months. Waxman replied, ‘Oh, that’s ridiculous; there’s a piano set up for you on Stage 2. Look at it and at one o’clock we record.’ I thought I’d die! Presto! Nothing but runs.”

Faced with such a daunting challenge, Simone rose to the occasion admirably and her performance would have far reaching consequences: “I somehow got it going and came to the stage. It was the first piece to be recorded and Waxman started with ‘Now follow me here and follow me there.’ I said, ‘Mr. Waxman, there is only one way to record this piece. You conduct and I play.’ I got through the first take by sheer nervous energy. After we finished somebody in the back of the stage screamed. Everybody looked. Then a man came up to Waxman and said, ‘Who is this girl?’ Waxman said, ‘This is Mr. Edens, this is Miss Simone.’”

The Freed Unit circa 1945, with Roger Edens on piano, flanked by Arthur Freed (left) and Conrad Salinger, with Kay Thompson singing to a rapt Jerome Kern (seated).

The Freed Unit circa 1945, with Roger Edens on piano, flanked by Arthur Freed (left) and Conrad Salinger, with Kay Thompson singing to a rapt Jerome Kern (seated).

Edens was instantly smitten by the waif-like, virtuosic pianist. “I knew then and there that this incredible girl had a special talent,” he remembered, and in due course he would invite Simone to work exclusively for the Freed Unit, making the most of her myriad talents by using her as a piano tutor, vocal coach, language translator, music supervisor, sound editor, and general sounding board. She quickly became an indispensible member of the team and was widely considered to be the backbone of the Unit until her departure in 1958, after which the Freed Unit collapsed and Simone went on to marry Franz Waxman.

It is therefore surprising to learn that the celebrated Freed Unit quartet that eventually came to be known on the M-G-M lot as “The Royal Family” – Freed, Edens, Simone, and Conrad Salinger – all made significant contributions to The Ice Follies of 1939, albeit individually and not as the collective team that they would soon become. It serves to demonstrate the huge wealth of talent that contributed to the movie both in front of the camera and behind the scenes. And if the movie itself is still considered to be one of the biggest flops of all time, then at least we should take a second look at the many musical delights it still has to offer, and the significant role it played in the creation of the greatest production unit in Hollywood history. And for that, we should all be thankful for The Ice Follies of 1939.

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The Ice Follies of 1939 is available to buy on DVD from Warner Archive:

Bibliography

Hollywood Rhapsody” by Gary Marmorstein

M-G-M’s Greatest Musicals” by Hugh Fordin

Conversations with Joan Crawford” by Roy Newquist

James Stewart” by Marc Eliot

Catalog of Copyright Entries – Part 3: Musical Compositions 1939” (Library of Congress)

Special thanks to John Waxman

Judy, Judy, Judy! M-G-M Musicals on Laserdisc

Published August 12, 2012 by allaboardforskinkersswamp

Has there ever been a better home video release than “Judy Garland – The Golden Years at M-G-M”? This gorgeously packaged laserdisc set was lovingly produced by the titan of home video marketing, George Feltenstein, assisted by Allan Fisch and John Fricke in 1995. The set features three of Garland’s greatest movies – The Harvey Girls, The Pirate, and Summer Stock – along with dozens of glorious supplementary features, including rare short subjects, dozens of original theatrical trailers, and new stereo remixes of classic performances. Many of these features have been reissued on DVD, but the set remains unique for the treasure trove of rare audio tracks capturing the pre-recording sessions in all their raw splendour. Here we find Judy and her many co-stars on M-G-M’s fabled Soundstage One, having fun and displaying their musical talents as they record the soundtracks to over a dozen legendary movies. You can read more about these sessions in an article I wrote here http://bit.ly/R3hXfg but suffice to say they make for essential listening. There is so much to say about this release. Do whatever you can to find a copy, buy it, and then get yourself a laserdisc player. You won’t regret it.

Following in the footsteps of the Judy Garland collection, a similar set was released in 1996 paying tribute to another of M-G-M’s musical stars. “The Gene Kelly Collection” again featured three timeless movies – On The Town, Brigadoon, and It’s Always Fair Weather – plus an assortment of classic performances, original theatrical trailers, interviews, and rare pre-recording sessions. Once again, the presentation was top notch, featuring an outstanding illustrated cover in the best MGM/UA tradition.

The third star in the M-G-M Musicals triumvirate was, of course, Fred Astaire. And although MGM/UA did not follow-up the Gene Kelly collection with a special Astaire set, Image Entertainment had already paid tribute to the Astaire/Rogers RKO musicals with a four disc box set titled “The Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers Collection” in 1994, featuring four of their best collaborations. Once again, the set came replete with glorious artwork and bountiful liner notes. Ah, those were the days.

The M-G-M Musicals of the 1930s were well represented on laserdisc, with many titles released in special “double feature” discs. Here are a selection of ’30s classics featuring some of Hollywood’s biggest stars, with the MGM/UA discs displaying some typically sumptuous covers by graphic artist Mike Baggetta.

But box sets were MGM/UA’s specialty, and they delivered in spades with “The M-G-M Composers Collection,”  released in the twilight of the laserdisc era in December, 1996. Focusing upon three composer ‘biopics’ – Till The Clouds Roll By, Words and Music, and Deep In My Heart – the package was notable for sparkling remasters of the three movies, copious liner notes, rare outtake sequences, and a plethora of pre-recording session audio tracks that remain unavailable elsewhere.

1995 proved a banner year for fans of M-G-M Musicals, with the release of dozens of classic movie scores on CD thanks to a partnership between Turner and Rhino Records. For the first time, movie fans could hear the original recordings in pristine sound – direct from the original scoring session tapes and remixed in glorious stereo. To mark this auspicious event, the three That’s Entertainment! movies were packaged into a stunning laserdisc box set in April, 1996, titled “That’s Entertainment! The Ultimate Musical Treasury.” Just look at that cover! With each musical segment carefully listed in the annotated booklet, we could finally discover the source of each clip, and use the chapter marks to skip to our favourite sequences. And the extras! A full disc of additional performances titled That’s More Entertainment! – introduced by Michael Feinstein and still unreleased on DVD! Over an hour of rare pre-recording sessions, featuring the likes of Jean Harlow, Jeanette Macdonald, Judy Garland, James Stewart and Groucho Marx! Rare documentaries! Outtakes! Surprise bonus clips! Stereo remixes! Wow!!

But even that set did not compare with the special “That’s Entertainment! III: Collectors Edition,” released in 1994 and literally overflowing with goodies. Inside we find four discs crammed full of special treats, including documentaries, audio pre-recordings, and an additional programme featuring an hour of unreleased musical outtakes from classic M-G-M movies. But wait – there’s more. Also included is a special collector’s souvenir program that is chock full of information and classic images, plus a deluxe set of six classic lobby cards. A collection not to be missed.

Judy Garland’s career at M-G-M was particularly well presented on laserdisc, with obvious care and affection devoted to every release. Deluxe multi-disc box sets showcased her greatest work in the best possible light, while even the weakest of her movies were afforded the luxury treatment, often being issued in special double feature presentations and featuring MGM/UA’s typically classy artwork. The laserdisc below remains the only source where you can find pre-recording sessions for Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry and Listen, Darling. And just look at that beautiful gatefold layout.

The Daddy of all laserdisc box sets arrived in 1993 with the release of MGM/UA’s “The Wizard of Oz: The Ultimate Oz.” Nowadays, we can find all the content on a single blu-ray disc for a fraction of the original price. But really, it’s just not as much fun is it. Opening this original laserdisc set is akin to entering an Aladdin’s Cave of vast treasures. There is just so much to discover. But – importantly – the invaluable liner notes help your journey and educate your progress during each step of the way. Classic film? Check. Informative documentaries? Check. Stunning visual artifacts? Check and double-check. Audio treasures, posters, continuity script, and a whole lot more besides all add up to a set that cannot be beaten for presentation, content, and quality.

The early 1940s heralded the arrival of two more stars to M-G-M’s unsurpassed roster of musical talent. Gene Kelly made an instant impression with his smash-hit performances in For Me and My Gal and Cover Girl, but his other work from this era was well represented on laserdiscs featuring some eye-catching cover artwork by the ever wonderful Mike Baggetta.

But if Gene Kelly was still finding his feet (so to speak) during the mid-1940s, then the reigning king of the M-G-M Musical was unquestionably Fred Astaire. He forged a fruitful partnership with Lucille Bremer in two classic movies – Yolanda and the Thief, and the incredible Ziegfeld Follies.

The “Ziegfeld Follies” laserdisc box set produced by MGM/UA in 1994 remains the definitive edition of this timeless movie, gloriously presented with jaw dropping artwork and an array of special features unavailable elsewhere. The audio pre-recordings – although restricted to outtakes from the movie – are plentiful and include such rarities as Kay Thompson singing “‘E Pinched Me,” an alternate arrangement of “Here’s To The Girls,” and an extended version of the “Limehouse Blues” ballet, masterly orchestrated by the great Conrad Salinger. The box also contains a unique document – a replica script of an unused number intended as a duet for Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, titled “I Love You More in Technicolor Than I Did in Black and White.”

Such a shame that this number never made it on to the screen… However, we should be thankful for the movies that Mickey and Judy did leave behind for posterity, including these two wonderful laserdiscs. Did I mention just how much I love these MGM/UA covers?

The 50th anniversary of Meet Me in St Louis heralded the release of another superb MGM/UA laserdisc box set in 1994, celebrating the classic musical in style with a wonderful digital restoration and a brand new CD soundtrack release in true stereo. The set also included a special documentary, a music-only audio track featuring Conrad Salinger’s sublime orchestral underscore, and – unique to this release – thirty minutes of excerpts from the pre-recording sessions, notable for alternate versions of “Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas” and the Freed-Brown ballad “You and I.”

If you love Meet Me in St Louis, (and let’s face it, who doesn’t?), then be sure not to overlook Judy’s next film. The Clock is a minor masterpiece, directed with typical flair by her husband-to-be Vincente Minnelli. Even if you don’t own a laserdisc player, this disc is worth buying for the cover alone…

And have you ever seen a more elegant cover than the one that graces this laserdisc issue of Easter Parade? The interior art design isn’t bad either….

Judy’s stellar career at M-G-M came to a close with the bucolic Summer Stock, but before then she had a chance to partner Van Johnson in a charming musical remake of The Shop Around the Corner, titled In the Good Old Summertime.

One project that Judy did not work on during her time at M-G-M – even though it was initially purchased with her in mind – was the successful 1947 musical Good News. Released on laserdisc in 1993, the cover featured another wowzer illustration. This stuff should be hanging in an art gallery, I tells ya!

If the 1940s belonged to Judy Garland, then the M-G-M Musicals of the 1950s were dominated by the presence of Gene Kelly. In tandem with Stanley Donen, Kelly’s hit movie On the Town triggered a string of classic M-G-M Musicals beloved by audiences to this day.

This special laserdisc issue of An American in Paris, released in 1992, is notable for its audio-only music track and a short selection of pre-recording outtakes – both features are unique to this release, inexplicably dropped from subsequent DVD and Blu-ray reissues. And just look at that amazing booklet artwork.

Two more examples of Gene Kelly’s laserdisc magic, post Singin’ in the Rain: the wistful Brigadoon, and – Kelly’s final feature for M-G-M – the exuberant Les Girls.

Finally, lets end with tributes to two unsung leading ladies, Esther Williams and Jane Powell, and more movie musical magic from the 1950s. No words are neccessary – the eye popping colours and gorgeous illustrations speak volumes. Ah, the joys of laserdisc!

And a special bonus! Even though it is widely available on DVD, “The Busby Berkeley Disc” compilation still shines on laserdisc. Artwork like this should be cherished for life. You’ll never get this kind of magic from a wmv. download.