Monday, October 22, 2007

Broadway Melody of 1940

Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940) - Directed by Norman Taurog. Starring Fred Astaire, Eleanor Powell, George Murphy and Frank Morgan.

An underrated gem and one of Fred Astaire's best films from the post-Ginger Rogers era, Broadway Melody of 1940 features the music of Cole Porter, several excellent dance sequences, strong supporting actors, and maybe the best dancer Fred ever worked with, Eleanor Powell, who had a successful solo career of her own.

Their tap routine to Porter's "Begin the Beguine" is one of the most famous in Hollywood musicals and was given a place of honor in the original That's Entertainment.

Powell was a great dancer, but she's somewhat plain as an overall screen presence, as evidenced in the earlier Broadway Melody of 1938 as well. She does better as part of a large ensemble rather than as a romantic lead. Lacking the comic flair and sexual energy of Ginger Rogers, or the sensuality of Cyd Charise and Rita Hayworth, she treats Astaire more as a colleague than a potential lover, which lessens any erotic undercurrent in their dances. There's an edge missing from some otherwise superb routines. But it doesn't really matter much in the end, because they're both so great on the floor, and there's more than enough in the film to make up for their lackluster romantic chemistry.

There are two dance sequences without Powell that would make the film a must-see anyway: Astaire and Murphy doing a great job with Porter's delightful "Please Don't Monkey with Broadway" (a terrific New York song), and Fred's marvelous solo piece to "I've Got My Eyes on You." He begins simply at the piano, singing the song straight, but can't keep from bringing his feet into the musical mix, using them as a percussive element against the side of the piano as he continues playing. But the urge to dance becomes too great, and he's suddenly up and around the room, with one of his most enjoyable and skillful routines. Bosley Crowther, in the original New York Times review from 1940, said, "Astaire's rhythmic arabesques . . . seem even more fascinatingly intricate than ever before."

The story features Johnny Brett (Astaire) and King Shaw (George Murphy) as dance partners who came to New York hoping to make it on Broadway but never had much luck. They're running out of money and close to breaking up the act. Trying to outwit a bill collector, they wind up switching names, which causes problems when a producer, played by the always delicious Frank Morgan (The wizard in The Wizard of Oz and one of Hollywood's great character actors) tries to hire Brett for a new show and winds up with Shaw by mistake. Overwhelmed with his sudden notoriety, Shaw gets a big head, starts partying too much, and almost ruins the show. Brett, the better talent, tags along to help his partner learn his dance moves, but tension builds up as they both fall in love with the show's star, played by Powell. When Shaw turns up drunk on opening night, a crisis ensues. How will it all turn out? (Fine, of course, but one enjoys going from point A to point B.)

The film moves along at a good pace, directed efficiently by Norman Taurog, who knocked out an incredible 180 movies in a career that spanned from 1920 to 1968 and included most of the Dean Martin-Jerry Lewis films, as well as Elvis Presley's cinematic oeuvre. Along the way, we're treated to an amazing juggling routine by Trixie Firschke, an hilariously bad and bizarre audition, and several comic moments, including a running gag that has Frank Morgan using a mink stole to pick up young beauties.

Though the tap routine to "Begin the Beguine" became very famous, it's actually the last part of a long sequence that features amazing set designs - with mirrored walls, darkened glass floors and celestial lights - and Astaire in a flamenco costume at one point. There's a brief entre-acte with some absolutely horrific plaid outfits on the women (where was Edith Head when they needed her!) that don't seem related to anything else. The sequence is overly long but wonderfully surreal.

Don't confuse this film with the original Broadway Melody (1929) or its two successors in 1936 and 1938. Those are okay, but this one is far superior, mostly because of the addition of Astaire and Cole Porter.



Jeff said...

Magnificent! I'm not familiar with Eleanor Powell, but from what I just saw, I'd say you summed it up very well with her persona vis-a-vis Fred's other dance partners. Nice write-up.

Sharon said...

Great piece - I'm really looking forward to seeing 'Melody...' as I'm currently winding up with my 10 film Astaire-Rogers collection (just have 'Story of Vernon and Irene Castle' to go).

Remember a while ago you asked me for a transcript of the Astaire interview I found in Picture Play magazine? I've finally got around to posting it on Diamond Dame - direct link here: