Friday, May 1, 2015

Broadway Melody of 1940 (MGM, 1940)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

The film was Broadway Melody of 1940, fourth and last in the Broadway Melody series at MGM and a better film than its immediate predecessors, Broadway Melody of 1936 and Broadway Melody of 1938, mainly because of two mega-talents MGM added to the mix this time around: Fred Astaire and Cole Porter. Astaire was available because he’d completed his seven-year RKO contract in 1939 with The Story of Vernon and Irene Castle, the last in his original series of nine films with Ginger Rogers, and he was now free-lancing. Porter was available because he already had an ongoing relationship with MGM that had produced the scores for Born to Dance (1936) and Rosalie (1937), both with Eleanor Powell, who had starred in the two immediately preceding Broadway Melodies and was in this one along with her dancing partner from the other two, George Murphy. The script — “original” (quotes definitely merited) story by Jack MacGowan (a writer on the previous films in the series) and Dore Schary (an odd name indeed for a film so utterly without social comment) and screenplay by Leon Gordon and George Oppenheimer — was nothing special and blatantly copied the mistaken-identity gimmick from the Astaire-Rogers classic Top Hat five years before. Johnny Brett (Astaire) and King Shaw (Murphy) are taxi dancers at the “Dimeland” dime-a-dance hall; their duties include escorting the female members of the couples that get married there — the place offers a live, for-real wedding ceremony every night — and essentially giving them away at what passes for an altar at the Dimeland dance floor. They also get to do a specialty number every night, though they don’t get paid extra for it; the number we see is a Porter song called “Please Don’t Monkey with Broadway” which —though I hadn’t thought of it this way before — is really an anti-gentrification song pleading with the New York City authorities to let Broadway remain what it is and traditionally has been instead of being remodeled into something newer, more antiseptic but less appealing. (Maybe I was wrong about this movie being utterly without social comment.) Johnny learns that a bill collector is coming to Dimeland to serve a subpoena on King Shaw — so he assumes Shaw’s name and puts off Bob Casey (Frank Morgan), who he thinks is a process server but is in reality a Broadway producer wanting to sign up that spectacular dancer as the lead in a new musical, Swing Song, starring established Broadway attraction Clare Bennett (Powell).

The real King Shaw gets summoned to the producers’ offices, where Casey’s partner Bert C. Matthews (Ian Hunter, who’d previously played people around the fringes of Broadway in weepies starring Bette Davis or Kay Francis at Warner Bros.) sees him, tells him to study Bennett’s show and learn her number “Between You and Me,” and learn it so he can dance it with her as his audition piece. King gets the job with Clare’s show and also starts romancing Clare, while Johnny moons over her from afar — though not that afar since he’s on hand during the rehearsals, constantly rehearsing King privately and showing him new dance steps for the numbers. Alas, King lets success go to his head even before he’s been successful, drinking heavily (especially when it seems like his on-again, off-again relationship with Clare — we know she’s not really interested in him as a lover, but he doesn’t — is off again), spending evenings out in nightclubs and working himself into such a state that on opening night for the show he’s too potted to perform the opening number (a harlequin-themed production with stentorian baritone Douglas MacPhail butchering Cole Porter’s lovely song “I Concentrate on You” and Albertina Rasch’s ballet dancers supporting Eleanor Powell, who here as in other Broadway Melody episodes shows herself a good all-around dancer and not just the tap specialist she’s remembered as being) and Johnny goes on in his stead. (One contributor noted the “goof” that the harlequin costume fits Johnny perfectly even though Fred Astaire was noticeably shorter and skinnier than George Murphy.) King recovers to perform the rest of the show, but the next night he’s really too incapacitated to go on at all, Johnny takes his place, the show is a hit and Johnny and Clare get together. The End. What I like about Broadway Melody of 1940 is not only the obvious points of appeal — the great Cole Porter songs (most of which he wrote specifically for the film but one a five-year-old oldie, “Begin the Beguine” — first done in a “Carioca”-like style by Carmen D’Antonio, though one Jeri Hudnutt actually dubbed her vocal, and the Rasch dancing girls; then reprised in swing style featuring a clarinet and vibraharp, nodding both to the Benny Goodman Quartet ensemble sound and the hit record of “Begin the Beguine” Artie Shaw had made in 1938, two years before this film had made, as a dazzling dance duet between Astaire and Powell) and the incredible dancing done to them — but some of the novelty acts and, above all, Astaire’s characterization.

Instead of the dirty, disgusting and vile tricks Astaire and Bing Crosby played on each other in Holiday Inn and Blue Skies to win the heart (or get into the pants) of the leading lady (Marjorie Reynolds and Joan Caulfield, respectively), Astaire in this one plays a character so humble, so willing to sacrifice his own ambitions to boost the career of his friend, that if he were in the Divergent universe he would definitely be Abnegation. At one point Eleanor Powell’s character even calls him on it — “You just handed your friend a career on a silver platter,” she tells him after the harlequin number, “and I’d like to know why.” Frankly I’d rather watch this noble, self-sacrificing Astaire than the nasty, cutthroat one of Holiday Inn and Blue Skies — and it’s especially moving in the song “I’ve Got My Eyes on You,” which Astaire (watched, unbeknownst to him, by Powell), does a sort of virtual dance with her, playing the song on piano (it is Astaire on piano — he was an excellent musician on both piano and drums, and whenever a script called on him to play either of those instruments, he insisted on doing the playing himself) and doing tap breaks from a seated position at the end of each eight-bar strain. Then, to the accompaniment of the MGM “magic orchestra” — the unseen musicians who steal in on the soundtrack to play behind the star, a musical convention brilliantly lampooned by Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour in The Road to Zanzibar — Astaire does a virtual duet with Powell, holding in his hands the song’s sheet music with her picture on it (recalling the dance he did with a chorus line of women wearing Ginger Rogers masks at the end of Shall We Dance) and, for someone often compared to Buster Keaton, assuming a surprisingly Chaplinesque air of pathos as he sits down and longingly gazes on Powell’s photo at the end. Add to that a novelty act by a brilliant juggler, Trixie Firschke — considerably more appealing than the snoring and sneezing done by Robert Wildhack in the two immediately previous Broadway Melodies — and acceptable direction by Norman Taurog (the two previous films had been made by Roy Del Ruth, who was more energetic, but Taurog is good here even in a film not involving children, his specialty), and Broadway Melody of 1940 emerges as a quite lovely musical and a fitting end to the series. (There was supposed to be one more — Broadway Melody of 1943, filmed in Technicolor and starring Eleanor Powell and Gene Kelly — but it was abandoned, though the numbers filmed for it were plugged into Thousands Cheer and Broadway Rhythm.)