The Bootleg Files: Follies

BOOTLEG FILES 861: “Follies” (fan film recreation of the legendary 1971 Broadway musical).

LAST SEEN: On YouTube.


REASON FOR BOOTLEG STATUS: An unauthorized presentation of inconsistent quality.


When the Stephen Sondheim musical “Follies” opened on Broadway in April 1971, the show’s co-director Harold Prince was sowing the seeds of a potential film version featuring some of Hollywood’s greatest stars. John Springer, who handled the publicity for the Broadway show, would later claim that a minor miracle was achieved when Bette Davis and Joan Crawford agreed to be in the film – albeit without being in the same scene; Springer also insisted Gloria Swanson, Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton expressed interest in being part of the cast.

Prince shopped the property to the big studios, but there was initially little interest. But that’s not because Hollywood turned its back on Broadway. Contrary to revisionist film scholarship, musicals were still popular with audiences in the early 1970s – “Scrooge” (1970), “Fiddler on the Roof” (1971), “The Boy Friend” (1971), “Cabaret” (1972) and “Jesus Christ Superstar” (1973) were box office hits. In April 1973, the New York Times ran an item stating the film version of “Follies” was being developed 20th Century Fox.

That film version of “Follies” never happened – the studio opted to pursue another musical project, Peter Bogdanovich’s “At Long Last Love,” which was a box office flop. (20th Century Fox had another musical in 1975, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” and that also flopped but then enjoyed a second wind as a midnight movie smash.)

While “Follies” would enjoy multiple theatrical stagings over the years, a movie version proved to be an elusive concept. A potential big screen adaption was hyped in the media in 2015, with Meryl Streep leading a cast under Rob Marshall’s direction. Four years later, Derek Cooke was the subject of news stories that he was going to film “Follies.”

To date, “Follies” has never been made into a film. However, a YouTube account called 1971FolliesFan has offered a visual record of the original Broadway production that was pieced together from four different film sources – these appear to come from 8mm footage shot by audience members. Still photographs fill in the gaps where no moving image exists while the soundtrack also derives from multiple audio recordings of varying quality from the live performances.

The resulting recreation of “Follies” is a fascinating but bewildering presentation. Some of the footage was shot from the rear of the theater and the actors look like blurry ghosts in the distance – which, perhaps, is somewhat appropriate given the show’s focus on coming to terms with the past. And there are gaps that are maddening, most notably the severely abbreviated presentations of Yvonne De Carlo’s rendition of “I’m Still Here” and Dorothy Collins’ jolting “Losing My Mind.”

But when it does work, there are invaluable performances preserved on this rough little film, especially Ethel Shutta’s show-stopping “Broadway Baby” (she’s in the photo at the top of this page) and Gene Nelson’s offering of “The Right Girl.” Shutta was a longtime actress who never hit stardom, but at 74 years old she achieved theatrical glory with her rowdy and invigorating take on the Sondheim tribute to working actresses. Nelson’s number is particularly interesting because he never truly fulfilled his potential in 1950s movie musicals – he was usually cast as the second lead – and he retreated behind the camera for a successful career as a director. In “Follies,” his talent is on full display and it is hard not to wonder what he could have achieved if he received better parts during his youth.

This recreation of “Follies” answers the question about why the show didn’t get the big screen treatment. D.A. Pennebaker, who was associated with Prince’s film proposal, commented the film executives in the early 70s saw the show as “a downer” – there was more bitter than sweet in too much of the story, and the absence of radio-friendly songs from the score didn’t help in selling the concept.

Also, MGM scored a surprise hit in May 1974 when it knitted together scores of classic numbers from its Golden Age musicals into the anthology feature “That’s Entertainment!” – and the studio recruited its old-time stars including Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Debbie Reynolds, Frank Sinatra and Elizabeth Taylor as on-screen hosts. By 1974, American audiences who grew depressed by the one-two punch that Vietnam and Watergate had on the national psyche embraced the old-school jollity of the yesteryear musicals – the cheerful and toe-tapping spirit of “That’s Entertainment!” was the polar opposite of Sondheim’s uncomfortable introspection in “Follies.”

At this point, it seems unlikely that “Follies” will ever become a movie. Mercifully, this fan-fueled record of the original Broadway show provides a tantalizing glimpse of what audiences in 1971 were able to enjoy.

IMPORTANT NOTICE: While this weekly column acknowledges the presence of rare film and television productions through the so-called collector-to-collector market, this should not be seen as encouraging or condoning the unauthorized duplication and distribution of copyright-protected material, either through DVDs or Blu-ray discs or through postings on Internet video sites.

Listen to Phil Hall’s award-winning podcast “The Online Movie Show with Phil Hall” on SoundCloud and his radio show “Nutmeg Chatter” on WAPJ-FM in Torrington, Connecticut, with a new episode every Sunday. His new book “100 Years of Wall Street Crooks” is now in release through Bicep Books.