Monday, April 12, 2010
Movie Time: Rewind: Broadway Melody of 1936
Time to turn on the Way Back machine and look at another great film of yesteryear. The last few months I have really come to appreciate a new actress I have yet to highlight in the column, Eleanor Powell. The early 1930's were a wide open field in Hollywood. Audiences went to pictures in droves as an escape from the oppressing poverty of the Great Depression and the high days of radio were still a little ways off, let alone the on-set of television. Studios churned out pictures at an incredibly fast rate and many studios were trying to find out their identity. One studio that was in trouble in the early 30's was MGM.
By 1939, MGM would be the unparalleled titan of movie making, but early in the 30's they were still having trouble with their identity. The lady that really helped establish that was Eleanor Powell. Eleanor had been a dance prodigy since she was 11 years old and was a huge smash on Broadway with her electric dancing skills, particularly her tap dancing. She was called the "Queen of Taps", a moniker even Fred Astaire bowed to, citing her as the only person who ever intimidated him to dance with. Eleanor had several bit parts in films, but her performance in Broadway Melody of 1936 not only put her on the map, but MGM as well. The success of her films from 1935 to 1940 is one of the driving forces that established MGM as the home of the musical, and saved the company from bankruptcy.
Broadway Melody of 1936 was technically a sequel to the original Broadway Melody, one of the first talkie musicals in 1929, though it owes nothing to the first film in terms of story or characters. The film stars Powell as Irene, a young dancer who still has a crush on her high school sweetheart(Robert Taylor), who is now a big shot producer. She badly wants a part in his new act, but he is to busy romancing the financier of his play, a wealthy widow played by June Knight who is backing the play so she can have the part. When a newspaper reporter (Jack Benny) dreams up a famous French Dancer in his gossip column as a means to sell more papers, Powell begins impersonating the dancer to get the part. She is determined to show Taylor that she is good enough to survive on Broadway. Taylor wants the exposure Powell (as the French Dancer) will bring to his play, but doesn't know it is his former flame. In the end, Taylor and Benny have to decide what kind of choices they will have to make, and who they love.
This picture was Powell's first for MGM and her first as a lead actress. They surrounded her with some of there best talents, actors like Benny, Taylor, as well as marking this as the film debut of one Buddy Ebsen, the man who would later play Uncle Jed in the Beverly Hillbillies, though who cut his teeth as a song and dance man in many of MGM musicals throughout Hollywood's Golden Years. The real triumph of the film is the climax, a hugely elaborate piece set in a nightclub that is designed as a vehicle for each dancer. Ebsen, and his sister Vilma, dance, June Knight dances, and Eleanor Powell closes out the show to the song Broadway Rhythm in a doorbuster of a performance.
Broadway Rhythm was written by the great songwriter Arthur Freed, and culminate sin a number by Powell clad in a tuxedo tap dancing surrounded by trumpet players. Powell uses the entirety of the set
Powell was a trained ballet dancer who learned tap late after getting beat out for a lot of jobs by her lack of tap skills. She learned to tap with sandbags tied to her waist to keep her feet close to the ground and to dampen the more balletic style of her dance. When she does tap, she is amazing. Her machine gun style of tapping was unequaled and combined with the elegance of her balletic skills, she was un-comparable. What really amazed me was her skills at twirls and pirouettes, the flexibility combined with her long legs made her a dancer totally unlike anything movie goers had ever seen. I am an un-abashed fan of the classic Hollywood musical and the grandiose scope at which they operated. I can count only a few occurrences where I have been awestruck by a performance. Fred Astaire version of Puttin' On the Ritz. Gene Kelley and Don O'Conner in Singin' in the Rain. Powell floored me nearly every time I watched her. I picked Broadway Melody of 1936 because its the film that meant the most to her. Its the film that opened my eyes to the true genius that was her dance. I'm still searching for a copy of what I perceive to be her greatest performance, in the Red Skelton comedy I Dood it, where she does a Cow Rope dance that I would call impossible if I hadn't seen it performed.
Unfortunately after her stellar team up with Fred Astaire in Broadway Melody of 1940, Powell's career slowed down. Her production numbers had come under criticism for their ever increasing size and scope and after a surgery, she made only a few more films. All in all Powell's film career was brief, making less than 15 pictures. Less than that as the star. There were a few things about her career I never understood, specifically why studio's dubbed her voice in many of her films, despite the stellar voice she displayed on the songs they let her sing. It was a fallacy that Cyd Charisse, by many considered her successor, also suffered. I also didn't understand why MGM didn't team her up with other great dancers of her time. So many of her performances are wonderful tour-de-forces of her solo capability as a dancer. Plans to team her with Gene Kelly fell through on a sequel to her Broadway Melody series and once again in 1942 with dancer Dan Dailey in For Me and My Gal. Part of it I think were the others actors intimidation at her prowess, the other I think was her marriage to actor Glenn Ford in 1943. She made a few pictures after her marriage, including Sensations of 1945, largely overshadowed by also being the late W.C. Fields final film as well as a final team up with MGM in The Duchess of Idaho in 1950. Musicals had faded, given way to television to the most part by the late 50's and Powell did as well, along with her faith, hosting a Sunday morning television show for youths as an ordained minister. She did have a wonderful resurgence on the nightclub scene in the 1960's, singing and dancing well into her middle age.
Eleanor Powell is simply an amazing dancer. Even now I can watch one of her numbers and wonder how anyone could even compare to her. Ginger Rogers, her biggest contemporary at the time, was an actress who could dance. Eleanor was a dancer who could act. Not to take away from either girl, as each are performers who I hold a high regard for. Eleanor was simply on another level. Broadway Melody of 1936 is an amazing display of dancing skill, the first step of a series of films that showcase just how great she was. Broadway Melody of 1938 and 1940 continues that trend, the 1940 version especially with her dance numbers with Fred Astaire. Unfortunately many of her films are not on DVD yet and are quite difficult to find copies of. Still, I cannot recommend enough the caliber of performance she gives in each piece. Rehearsing until her feet bleed, striving for perfection. Powell's fresh look and dazzling smile always felt real in her performance, never a matter of having to smile for the scene, the woman loved dancing. She was once quoted as having said that she would rather dance than eat. I'm amazed at her continued ability to carry a dance number by herself, so many times and it's tragic that she didn't make more pictures.
Few could match the success or ability of Powell those first few years. I always thought it fitting that her final great film came out in Hollywood's Golden year, 1939, teaming with Fred Astaire. She made many good films after that, and even, in my opinion, had her best dance number. But without Eleanor, Hollywood would have been a far different place. Her contributions, so often downplayed when compared to the continued notoriety of Rogers, Astaire, and Kelly, should not be forgotten. Please check out 1935's Broadway Melody of 1936, from MGM. Eleanor Powell ha joined an elite list of actresses for me, joining the company of some of the all time greats, Ginger Rodgers, Grace Kelley, and Audrey Hepburn, as an actress who changed the way I look at motion pictures. Eleanor Powell was really the Queen of Taps, I'm in awe even now.
End of Line.