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BROADWAY MELODY OF 1940

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: 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

"When they begin the beguine, it brings back the sound of music so tender..."

Film ***

The 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.

The 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.

MGM's 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.

The 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 Astaire.

Astaire 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.

At 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.

Eleanor 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 history.

In 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!

Some 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' godmother.

At 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.

The 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. 

MGM 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.

The 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!

Ultimately, 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.

Video ** 1/2

Broadway 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.

Audio **  

The 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.

Features ** 1/2

The 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.

The 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.

Lastly, 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.

Summary:

Looking for a golden age musical with great dance numbers and a Cole Porter score?  Try Broadway Melody of 1940!  Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell are at the absolute peak of their considerable powers, and their final duet is arguably the greatest dance number of all the MGM musicals.