BROADWAY MELODY OF 1940
Review by Ed Nguyen
Fred Astaire, Eleanor Powell, George Murphy, Ian Hunter, Frank Morgan
Director: Norman Taurog
Audio: English mono 1.0
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: black & white, full-screen
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: cast & crew, behind-the-scenes notes, Our Gang comedy, trailer, featurette
Length: 102 minutes
Release Date: April 22, 2003
they begin the beguine, it brings back the sound of music so tender..."
Depression era of the 1930's was a time of great poverty in American history.
Naturally, any escape that would allow the common citizen to forget the
harsh unpleasantries of the real world, if only for a few hours, was greatly
welcomed. The picture-shows of those yesteryears provided just that.
For merely cents, audiences gained admittance into wonderfully breezy,
light-hearted movie realities where everyone was beautiful and carefree and
where wealth was often the rule, not the exception. Not surprisingly, during the
Great Depression, the motion picture quickly became the supreme source of mass
entertainment. Two new genres
emerged during this period - the screwball comedy, which provided uplifting,
soothing laughter, and the movie musical, which ascended from its infancy into a
glorious golden age.
multitude of musicals produced during this period and the subsequent war era is
quite astounding by any account. Many
were understandably rather conventional, but the sheer volume ensured that
memorable ones emerged. From
RKO came the enormously successful Astaire-Rogers films which transported
audiences into fantasy realms of glitz and glamour.
In contrast, the Warner Brothers backstage musicals, despite their often
extravagantly choreographed Busby Berkeley production numbers, were often set in
an impoverished urban backdrop through which the young stars struggled on their
way to the top. The most famous of
these backstage musicals were the Gold Digger films.
music machine was still warming up in the 1930's, although the studio was
already producing an impressive catalog of musicals. Younger audiences could cheer to MGM's numerous Andy Hardy
movies, starring the perpetually-chipper Mickey Rooney (the number one box
office draw of the 1930's) and his occasional co-star Judy Garland.
For older audiences, MGM offered the phenomenal singing of Jeanette
MacDonald and Nelson Eddy in several operettas.
Furthermore, to capitalize upon the popularity of the Busby Berkeley
musicals, MGM created the Broadway Melody series, its answer to Warner Brothers'
Gold Digger films.
original Broadway Melody actually
predates all these films. That
film, modeled after the revue style popularized by the Ziegfeld Follies,
showcased a succession of vaudeville acts one after another. Released in 1929, it won an Oscar for Best Picture!
Several sequels followed, initially arriving in 1935 and then regularly
thereafter. The films were
essentially variations on the same theme. While
obviously not very sophisticated, they were still whole-heartedly embraced by
audiences searching for simple, escapist fun.
Over the years, these films introduced such stars as Judy Garland, Robert
Taylor, and Buddy Ebsen. The 1940
incarnation, the last and finest in the series, featured the incomparable Fred
was an RKO mega-star with legendary work ethics. One reason he rarely made more than a film a year was his
taskmaster perfectionism. He would
endlessly rehearse his dance routines for weeks. He often tired out his partners during these practice
sessions, which lasted hours, at the end of which he would still ask to try it
just one more time! This incredible
enthusiasm for his craft is what makes his amazing dances seem so effortless and
so much fun in his films. That was
the magic of his performances. Unlike
modern musicals, in which the dancing footage is rapidly cut and edited and
rarely shot full-figured (often to hide dancing deficiencies in the actors),
Astaire's dances were filmed so that the dancer could be seen from head to toe,
and often in one uninterrupted take, too! The
final product might add a few different shots into the dance for close-ups or
better angles, but during actual filming, Astaire always danced his numbers from
start to finish, a testimony to his incredible skills as a dancer.
the time of Broadway Melody of 1940,
Astaire had just finished his ninth and final RKO musical with Ginger Rogers.
While Ginger Rogers was beyond a doubt Astaire's most famous partner, he
often sought to explore new vehicles, with perhaps different dance partners.
A Damsel in Distress was one
such early endeavor, featuring fantastic dance numbers, a classic Gershwin
score, and George Burns and Gracie Allen, too!.
Unfortunately, the leading actress, a young and decidedly green Joan
Fontaine, was clueless as an actress, could barely sing, and absolutely
could not dance. Broadway
Melody of 1940, then, represents Astaire's unperturbed second go-around with
a new partner. This time, however,
there was no doubt about the dancing abilities of his partner - Eleanor Powell.
Powell had initially been a Broadway star.
A girlish beauty and an electrifying tap dancer, she was once even named
the world champion in tapping. MGM
Studios brought her to the silver screen for her breakthrough role in Broadway
Melody of 1936. For a few short
years thereafter, she reigned supreme as the undisputed Queen of Tap. Eleanor Powell usually performed solo numbers, for no male
partners at MGM could keep pace with her! In
fact, her talents as a dancer far outshone those of Astaire's famous partner,
Ginger Rogers. Suffice it to say
that Powell was easily Astaire's dance equal. Any further proof that is needed is firmly supplied in the
final musical act of Broadway Melody of
1940, danced to the tune of the immortal "Begin the Beguine."
It is a dazzlingly joyous tap duet that must be witnessed to be believed.
The incredible virtuosity displayed by both Astaire and Powell elevates
this finale into one of the most memorable dance sequences in all of film
Broadway Melody of 1940, Eleanor
Powell plays Clare Bennett, a lovely and talented Broadway star (no stretch
there!). She has a secret admirer
in Johnny Brett (Fred Astaire), one half of a song-and-dance duo that includes
his friend King Shaw (George Murphy). One
evening, a talent scout, played for comic effect by The Wizard of Oz's Frank Morgan, happens to catch the duo's
performance at the Dawnland Ballroom. He
is immediately struck by Johnny's talents and wants to audition him as Clare's
potential partner for an upcoming Broadway revue.
As things work out, the wrong partner mistakenly goes to the audition and
gets the coveted role. Johnny is
disappointed when he learns the truth but vows whole-heartedly to help his best
friend with the choreography. The
rest of the film mixes light comedy with fantastic dance routines until King
realizes the truth and devises a plot to ruse Johnny into becoming Clare's
partner after all. That's what best friends are for!
of the comedy sequences in the movie, while enjoyable to the Depression and
wartime audiences, may seen awkward today.
This is particularly true of the embarrassing auditioning acts that pop
up every so often in the film, which is a backstage musical, after all.
The auditions are laughable bad, but the worst offender is a female
operetta singer who butchers a nonsensical aria like she was Jerry Lewis'
any rate, as with many musicals from the 1930's, the plot is light and breezy
and very inconsequential. Broadway
Melody of 1940 uses a variation on the mistaken identity theme that was
prominent in many of the Astaire-Rogers films.
It exists merely to provide a fun framework to support the musical
numbers. And what performances they
are! These numbers could be finales
in any other musical, but Broadway Melody
of 1940 contains a plethora of these show-stoppers.
The first number is a duet - Astaire and Murphy doing an amusing
top-hat-and-tails act to Cole Porter's "Don't Monkey with Broadway."
Murphy later has a romantic dance to the melody of "Between You and
Me" with Powell as part of his audition.
Eleanor Powell, for her part, has quite a number of solos.
Her opening number is a big production number with a naval ship theme, in
which she sings her only song - "Rocked in the Cradle of the Deep."
Her second solo is a whirlwind ballet routine, during which she performs
so many spins that it makes me dizzy just to watch!
Astaire also has one solo, too! In
it, he sits upon an empty stage and starts to play a jingle, "I've Got My
Eyes on You," on the stage piano. His
fingers literally waltz over the keyboard as he plays the tune (he achieves a
similar effect for another piano number from Follow
the Fleet). Astaire eventually
ends up dancing around the stage serenading a photograph of Eleanor Powell,
while unbeknownst to him, she secretly watches from the wings.
It is a tender and delightful moment.
best dances, however, are Powell's duets with Astaire, of which there are four.
The first occurs in a cafe, while Astaire and Powell sit and discuss
certain dance steps. Powell then
stands up to demonstrate a tap sequence. Astaire
taps out a response, and soon, they are dancing merrily away to the Jukebox
Dance. This sensational number is
very reminiscent of Astaire's classic "Pick Yourself Up" routine with
dance instructor Ginger Rogers in Swing
Time. The second Astaire-Powell
duet is the latter half of Powell's ballet to "I Concentrate on You;"
Astaire's friend is ailing and so Astaire must fill in at the last second as a
masked dancer. The final two dances
are highlights of the extensive "Begin the Beguine" finale.
really pulled out all the stops for this elegant number.
The art deco set was enormous, with polished-mirror floor tiles, huge
reflective backdrops, and a constellation of glowing, pinpoint stars.
Coupled with a shimmering curtain that introduces the number, it is one
of MGM's most glittering sets. And
it would look perfectly at home in any of Astaire's glamorous RKO musicals. It is on this graceful stage that Astaire and Powell perform
what is arguably the finest dance routine in all of MGM history.
finale begins with a sultry rendition of the classic Cole Porter tune.
Following that is a short solo by Eleanor Powell in a rather titillating
costume. The solo seamlessly
transforms into a duet as Astaire makes a remarkable appearance, first as a
reflection in the reflective backdrop and finally as a corporeal presence.
The ensuing duet is quite dazzling and would certainly be a suitable
finale to the film. But wait!
As the dance ends, more singers come out to provide a Big Band rendition
of the Cole Porter tune again. When
they finish, Powell and Astaire return, this time casually dressed in white
attire. She looks fresh and
wholesome in her cocktail dress, while he looks debonair and sophisticated in
his white suit. The brilliant tap
dance sequence that follows is unmatched by any
coupled dance that MGM would ever produce again. Furthermore, it was filmed entirely in one take with a full
view of both dancers, with only one minor editing cut to re-establish the camera
position! Powell and Astaire match
each other step for step and are, quite simply, so good that at one point the
music just stops and they still dance away, holding us as completely captivated
as audiences back then must have been. Folks,
it does not get any better than this!
this legendary pairing of Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell is a very classy
conclusion for the Broadway Melody
series. Not only did Broadway
Melody of 1940 turn out to be Powell's finest film, but it also proved that
Astaire could sustain a successful career without Ginger Rogers.
While Astaire continued to make classic musicals for years to come,
Eleanor Powell would retire only a few years after this film to devote her
attention to married life. Her
Hollywood reign may have been brief, but with Broadway Melody of 1940, Eleanor Powell secured her legacy as the
silver screen's finest female dancer.
Melody of 1940
is presented as a full-screen, black & white transfer.
The film is obviously quite old and has a healthy dose of dust specks and
some minor scratches. The
brightness of the image seems to flicker occasionally, too, although this is
common with these old films. Fortunately,
contrast is excellent, as are the details of the images themselves.
This is particularly important for the latter half of the film, during
which the many musical numbers are often performed on darkened but lavished
sets. Furthermore, the transfer of
the source print is quite good and is devoid of any obvious artifacts.
Overall, this video quality, although naturally not as pristine as newer
films, is extremely watchable.
film hails from the early years of sound, so it is fairly simplistic aurally.
The sound quality is a bit thin with no low end to speak of.
As a mono audio mix, it lacks a dynamic punch.
Still, it is pleasant enough and is devoid of hiss, pops, or crackles.
first couple of "features" are nothing of the sort.
The cast and crew section (as well as the behind-the-scenes section) is
so short you'll miss it even if you don't blink.
However, the trailer is a solid job of publicity.
It is done in a classic Hollywood style and emphasizes the musical
numbers; in fact, it doesn't even mention the plot!
And what footage! One
viewing of the trailer is enough to understand why audiences enthusiastically
arrived up in droves to make Broadway
Melody of 1940 one of the top hits of the year.
Our Gang short The Big Premiere is included. This
10-minute comedy is pretty much a tossaway but does give modern audiences an
idea of what a trip to the movie theater was like in the Depression era..
Not only did you get the main feature, but beforehand you would often see
newsreels, a few cartoons, and some short featurettes such as this comedy by Our Gang.
there is a 10-minute featurette about the film. It is narrated by Anne Miller, once a notable Hollywood
dancer, herself. Miller talks about
the Cole Porter music and the wonderful camaraderie between Astaire and Powell.
It is a shame that they only made one film together.