Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940)

Although Fred Astaire would never again reach the same level of charm and appeal with another partner as he did with Ginger Rogers in the 1930's, he certainly gave it a good run all the same. After moving from RKO to MGM in 1939, Astaire partnered with some of the finest dancers in the business, although after Ginger he never worked with the same girl for more than two films. Astaire's list of leading ladies in the 40's and 50's reads like a role call of the most talented and glamorous actresses in Hollywood, and, naturally, the best dancers: Judy Garland, Ann Miller, Rita Hayworth, Cyd Charisse, Jane Powell, Vera-Ellen, Leslie Caron, Audrey Hepburn, Paulette Goddard, and my personal favorite: Eleanor Powell, in Broadway Melody of 1940.

Eleanor Powell starred in only ten films during her tenure with MGM from 1936 to 1944 before retiring from show businesses to get married. Most notable of her films are the Broadway Melody series. Banking on the success of 1929's The Broadway Melody, which won the second ever Academy Award for Best Picture, MGM made three more films on the same model in 1936, 1938, and 1940, all three of which featured Powell in the lead. Curiously, the male leads in the majority of her films, including Broadway Melody of 1936 and 1938, were not strong dancers. Powell most frequently performed solo dances when paired with the likes of Robert Taylor, Nelson Eddy, Jimmy Stewart, and Red Skelton. This choice was not an artistic decision, but a reflection of the studio's available resources. During the 1930's, MGM simply did not have a male dancer on the payroll who could keep up with her. Indeed, few could. At the age of 16, she was hailed as the "World Champion of Tap Dancing," and despite her short career, her blistering tap routines are the stuff of legend.

When Fred Astaire signed with MGM after his RKO contract expired in 1939, the first film on his agenda was Broadway Melody of 1940. The plot is simple and formulaic, although no less charming for all that. King Shaw (George Murphy) and Johnny Bret (Fred Astaire) are partners who do a double act at a dance hall in Brooklyn, completely small potatoes. When a Broadway producer (Frank Morgan) sees the pair dance, he is so impressed with Bret's skill that he recommends him to his partner for a new show they're doing. The only trouble is, he gets the names mixed up, and before he can sort out the mistake, Shaw has landed the job. To make matters more complicated, both Shaw and Bret fall for their charming leading lady, Clare Bennett (Eleanor Powell). 

While the plot may be forgettable, the music is not. 1940 features a lush Cole Porter score, complete with such gems as "I've Got My Eye on You," "Between You and Me," "I Concentrate on You," "Don't Monkey with Broadway," and of course, "Begin the Beguine." Astaire doesn't even get all the good dances, for once. Two of the best dance numbers have Astaire watching from the sidelines. Most poignantly, he must watch while Shaw dances to "Between You and Me" with Clare, on whom he has a terrible crush, to a routine that he has himself choreographed, auditioning for a job he desperately wants for himself. The number is graceful and romantic, and looks as though it could have come straight out of a Fred and Ginger movie.

The real triumph of 1940, however, is the magnificent finale to "Begin the Beguine." A special nod is due here to MGM's resident set decorator, Edwin B. Willis, for his work in the final production number. An enormous stage, far bigger than would fit in any real theater, is backed by dark velvet draperies and thousands of tiny lights. Art deco palm trees, a sand dune or two. There's an orchestra mysteriously tucked away in a corner, where it only ever seems visible in its reflection. A handful of languid dancing girls in modestly suggestive attire, reclining on cushions. And of course, the most spectacular floor you've ever seen. Every bit of it is a pristine, sparkling mirror, that looks as though it's never even been breathed on, let alone danced on. Supposedly, MGM offered the job of constructing this floor to every glass maker in Los Angeles, and none of them wanted the liability. After all, this was a floor made of glass to use as the surface for two incredibly energetic tap dancers. When no contractors were available, MGM simply had their own crews do the work, and my, it looks gorgeous. The floor was carefully draped during rehearsals so all the tapping wouldn't scuff the finish.

As for the dancing, there's just nothing else like it. Astaire and Powell don't even look like they're trying very hard, and they certainly don't act like they're performing, or trying to impress anyone, except maybe each other. They're just having a good time, two of the finest dancers the world has ever known doing what they were born to do. There's an incredible synergy here in this meeting of talent. All too often, Powell's expressions during a performance seem pasted on, her focus clearly on her footwork. As she dances with Astaire, however, the two of them keep glancing at each other and grinning, as if in mutual admiration. Then suddenly the music stops, leaving only the lightening fast staccato of their taps. The steps get faster and faster, each challenging the other to push just a little bit harder, every sequence faster, more varied. Astaire's dancing has never been this intense, as none of his other partners were strong enough to challenge him as Powell does. As the music comes back in, the camera pulls up overhead, giving another shot of that incredible floor, now clearly a little worse for the wear as it bears the physical imprints of the dancers' steps.

Frank Sinatra said of this number in 1974's That's Entertainment, "The last of the big black and white production numbers, starring Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire. Cole Porter's music, the sets, and the camera work, the direction by Norman Taurog, the incredible tap dancing by these two, well, it all seemed to come together in Broadway Melody of 1940. You know, you can wait around and hope, but I'll tell you, you'll never see the likes of this again." 

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