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BORN TO DANCE/LADY BE GOOD

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Eleanor Powell, James Stewart, Buddy Ebsen, Una Merkel, Sid Silvers, Frances Langford, Virginia Bruce, Ann Sothern, Robert Young, Red Skelton
Directors: Roy Del Ruth, Norman McLeod
Audio: English monaural, French
Subtitles: English, French
Video: Black & white, full-frame
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: Shorts, outtakes, radio promos, trailers
Length: 216 minutes
Release Date: April 8. 2008

You’d be so easy to love, so easy to idolize, all others above...

Films ***

In 1935, the MGM musical extravaganza Broadway Melody of 1936 took a virtual Hollywood unknown named Eleanor Powell and made her an overnight sensation.  RKO may have had Ginger Rogers, and Warner Brothers may have had Ruby Keeler, but neither could match the toe-tapping magic of MGM’s new dancer extraordinaire Eleanor Powell. 

The studio wasted little time in producing a new musical for its star and the following year released Born to Dance.  For anyone familiar with musicals, the film’s plot is a recognizable one.  New-girl-in-town Nora Paige (Eleanor Powell) has dancing in her blood and longs to make it big in the City That Never Sleeps.  She soon earns the spot of understudy to the leading lady of a new Broadway show, and when a temper tantrum leaves the show without its leading lady on opening night, Nora gets her golden opportunity to go out onto stage a nobody but to come back a star!

In actuality, Born to Dance is a loose hybrid of two popular themes in early musicals - the backstage musical and soldiers-on-leave.  A navy submarine has pulled into the New York harbor, and sailors Ted Barker (James Stewart), Mush Tracy (Buddy Ebsen), and Gunny Saks (Sid Silvers) have leave to hit the town.  Gunny wants to see Jenny (Una Merkel), the check-in girl at the Lonely Hearts Club; she is his wife of four years, and not seen for those four years.  While at the club, Ted meets and woos Nora in the cute boy-meets-girl “Hey, Babe, Hey” ensemble dance and later in the park alone with “You’d be So Easy to Love.”  For Jimmy Stewart fans, this is a very rare opportunity to see the actor singing and dancing!

Things don’t go too swimmingly well for the sailor’s romance, though, as he soon finds himself involuntarily tangled in a publicity stunt with the temperamental stage star, Lucy James (Virginia Bruce), of Nora’s show.  Lucy decides that she wants Ted for herself, even if that complicates things for her understudy, Nora.  Further comic relief is provided by Sid Silvers and Una Merkel as the reunited but quarreling married couple.  There is also a recurring joke involving dingbat submarine Captain Dingby (Raymond Walburn), who regularly confuses Ebsen’s tall and lanky Mush with Silvers’ short and stubby Gunny, and whose letter for a rear admiral never seems to get delivered by Mush or Gunny.

Among the musical highlights are “Rap-Tap on Wood” danced by Eleanor Powell and the comic if short “Love Me, Love My Pekinese” by Virginia Bruce.  The honors of singing what would become the film’s most famous tune, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” also goes to Virginia Bruce.  The film’s showstopping finale features “Swingin’ the Jinx Away” sung by Frances Langford, followed by one of Eleanor Powell’s more famous solos on a mock-up of a battleship, complete with a chorus of musical sailors.

With Born to Dance, Eleanor Powell firmly established herself as the best female dancer not just at MGM but in all of Hollywood.  Her subsequent films, including Rosalie, Honolulu, and several more installments in the “Broadway Melody” series, only served to reinforce the range of her dancing talents.

After Broadway Melody of 1940, however, Eleanor Powell took a short break from movies to recuperate from surgery.  Soon though, she was back on the silver screen for 1941’s Lady Be Good, a musical comedy produced by Arthur Freed and also starring Robert Young and Ann Sothern.

For the most part, Lady Be Good is the story of married couple Eddie and Dixie Crane (Robert Young and Ann Sothern).  They are a successful songwriting team who, as the film opens, are about to be divorced due to professional and personal differences.  But, as is often the case, once Eddie and Dixie are no longer married, they begin to develop feelings for each other once more, and soon, the question is not if, but when, Eddie and Dixie will fall in love again and re-marry.  Marilyn Marsh (Eleanor Powell), being Dixie’s best friend and roommate, schemes to get Eddie and Dixie back together again.  She even recruits the help of club singer Buddy Crawford (Clark Gable-lookalike John Carroll) to woo Dixie in order to fan the flames of jealousy in ex-hubbie Eddie.  The fake courtship has its intended effect, even if things soon spiral a little out of Marilyn’s control!

Lady Be Good is best described as a comedy with incidental musical numbers, but it still benefits from the presence of several outstanding songs.  Ann Sothern sings “You’ll Never Know” and later introduces the now classic “The Last Time I Saw Paris” as a pair of popular Crane melodies.  The film’s namesake, a Gershwin tune, is also the fictional songwriting team’s biggest hit.

But of course, this wouldn’t be an Eleanor Powell film without some dances, even if Lady Be Good is far less dance-oriented than Powell’s previous films.  For one of her most unique tap duets, Powell taps away to “Lady Be Good” with a pet dog (especially trained by Powell herself for this number).  For the show’s musical finale, she performs to “Fascinating Rhythm” (with staging by Busby Berkeley) amid a collection of grand pianos.  Lady Be Good also boasts the comic pratfalls of a young Red Skelton as Eddie’s clumsy if well-meaning friend and the novelty dance act of the Berry Brothers, a highly energized sibling trio that rivals MGM’s own Nicholas Brothers for dancing athleticism.

Lady Be Good proved popular enough with film audiences but also marked the beginning of the end for Eleanor Powell.  In fact, she plays only a supporting role in the film despite receiving top billing.  Within a few years, while still at the heights of her dancing abilities, Powell would walk away from her film career to raise a family instead.  She would make a few more cameo film appearances, but nothing further.  Eleanor Powell’s time as a Hollywood star was brief, but as the saying goes, the star that burns twice as bright burns half as long.  Powell had created a legacy of silver screen dancing wizardry that remains unmatched to this day.  She was, and will always be, Hollywood’s premiere dancing lady!

Video ** ½

While the images are detailed and clear for the most part, these movies do show their age in the grainy film texture, mild flickering in spots, and a few minor scratches here and there.  Both films are presented in their original black & white, full-frame format.

Audio ** ½

These films are decades old, so don’t expect any aural fireworks.  The sound quality is adequate and devoid of pops or misses.  Words and lyrics in Born to Dance are by Cole Porter.

BONUS TRIVIA:  Lady Be Good’s “The Last Time I Saw Paris,” written especially for the film by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, won an Oscar for Best Song.  It is particularly poignant considering that, at the time, Paris and all of France was under Nazi occupation.

Features ** ½

This release is a two-disc set and can be purchased either separately or as part of the Classical Musicals from the Dream Factory, Vol. 3 box set.

Disc One contains Born to Dance and some related bonus materials - a vintage short, a cartoon, an outtake, a radio promo, and a trailer (4 min.).  The short “The Second Step” (10 min.) follows the struggles of aspiring Hollywood actress Jane Barnes; Maureen O’Sullivan (of Tarzan fame) and Chico Marx make cameo appearances.  The Harman-ising cartoon “The Old Mill Pond” (7 min.) gives us a night of musical frogs.  The audio-only outtake (3 min.) features Jimmy Stewart singing “Easy to Love,” while a long excerpt (41 min.) from the Hollywood Hotel Radio program provides performances of songs from multiple MGM musicals, including a preview of Born to Dance in the second half of the broadcast.

Disc Two contains Lady Be Good and its related extras.  The vintage “FitzPatrick TravelTalks” film “Glimpses of Florida” (9 min.) offers a short travelogue of Florida.  The Oscar-nominated “The Rookie Bear” (8 min.) follows the misadventures of a bear conscripted into the U.S. army.  There is an audio outtake (4 min.) of “I Love to Dance” with Eleanor Powell and promotional clips (6 min.) from the radio program “Leo Is on the Air.”  Lastly, there is a 4-minute trailer for Lady Be Good.

Summary:

The Born to Dance / Lady Be Good two-disc set offers two vintage MGM musicals which aptly demonstrate why Eleanor Powell was considered the queen of movie tap dancing.

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