I confess that I’m not the standard bearer of Eleanor Powell fandom. It’s not that I dislike her. It’s simply that I find her screen presence a little slim, defined largely by an overbig grin dominated by a healthy upper set of choppers and an admirable ability to make herself at home in any situation.
But that’s all beside the point the moment she starts to dance, invariably clad in slacks or pant suits or (for the big show-stoppers) tights and hosiery. You flaunt what you got, and she’s got legs and she makes them move. Long before Gene Kelly made the gymnastic leap from stage to screen, Eleanor Powell was Hollywood’s tap royalty (because Bill “Bojangles” Robinson could simply not be a leading man in the racial caste system of old Hollywood). Her smile still bugs me – it’s not aesthetics, it’s a matter of taste that makes me wince whenever she tosses her back for a wide, closed-eye grin in the middle of a number – but at the same time she makes it all look like fun, and that is infectious.
I mention this because Warner’s new nine-film box set Classic Musicals From the Dream Factory Volume 3 features four Eleanor Powell films, and they are a reminder of just what audiences attended musicals for. Broadway Melody of 1936 (which was, of course, released in 1935) and Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937) were MGM’s answer to Warner Bros.’s Golddigger films, purely formulaic backstage musicals with a revue approach to storytelling. The songs aren’t motivated by story, they are simply time-outs for showcase numbers. And while they lack the sass and spunk and surreal production numbers stage by Busby Berkley on a stage that exists only in his imagination, Powell can dance rings around Ruby Keeler, the chorus girl who rises to stardom by pure spunk. Keeler rarely took her eyes off her feet as she pounded out her dance numbers (she brought new meaning to the term “hoofer”) and had the grace of a factory girl on a night out, which may have been her charm at the height of the depression. Powell played the small town girl with grace and ambition and the talent to back it up, both as singer and dancer. Born to Dance (1936) is just as formulaic in its combination of backstage drama and sailors on leave looking for sweethearts, but slips into the more traditional musical style of wooing and romantic canoodling bursting into song and dance. (For the record, I didn’t rewatch Lady Be Good, 1941, for this review, but it’s a basic showbiz romantic drama with Eleanor Powell dancing around a story centered on songwriters Ann Sothern and Robert Young, and t hen helping them reunite after they divorce.)
It’s kind of fun to get a snapshot of studio stardom in the billing: Powell headlines the films Born to Dance (over rising star James Stewart) and Lady Be Good (over Sothern and Young), and yet is second billed in the two Broadway Melody films (under Jack Benny and Robert Taylor, respectively) even though she carries both production. Broadway Melody of 1936 and 1938 are really a matched set with shuffled characters and strained plots designed to get energetic unknown hoofer Powell on stage in the lead of producer Robert Taylor’s new show. In 1936, Jack Benny is a newspaper gossip columnist (inspired by Walter Winchell) who gets such a kick out of tweaking flailing producer Taylor that he manufactures a phony French start out of nothing, and then is stuck teaming up with Powell to bring her to life (she’s about as convincing as a French belle as Marlene Dietrich is a working class American housewife). The adorable Una Merkel and the sad sack New York mug Sid Silvers take the comic relief with their sassy courtship and Buddy Ebsen co-stars as a struggling dancer with his real-life sister Vilma as a brother-sister team who bond with Powell over a rooftop song and dance before breakfast. He of course winds up in the big finale, his lanky, loose-limbed dancing and his lazy drawling singing creating a kind of hayseed cool, and he was brought back for two of the subsequent Powell musicals in the set. The original story is credited to Moss Hart (probably something he didn’t feature prominently on his Vita), but it was all about the production numbers and the spotlight dances by Powell. She’s a tap virtuoso, limber and gymnastic, and she never let it look like it was work. The songs include “Lucky Star” and “Broadway Rhythm” (both memorably revived years later for Singin’ in the Rain).
For 1938, she’s a country girl who instantly bonds with vaudeville dancer turned horse trainers George Murphy and Buddy Ebsen in a railway box-car dance and impresses young Broadway writer and producer Taylor. The usual romantic and dramatic complications are multiplied with the entire horse subplot and there’s a bizarre big prize race (with Ebsen playing the world’s tallest jockey riding the underdog horse) before the even bigger opening night show finale. If anything, this is even more of a revue movie than 1936, with numbers tailored for supporting acts that otherwise have little place in the story (they look like they were shot in such a way that they could be removed in case of poor audience testing). Vaudeville and stage legend Sophie Tucker is brought on for pure nostalgia (she sings one of her old hits and a syrupy tribute to the old time stage stars), but to balance the past is the future: Judy Garland essentially gets her big shot as the little girl with a big voice. This is the film that she famously sings “You Made Me Love You” to a glossy photo of Clark Gable, and winds up joining the finale for a dance with Buddy Ebsen. In fact, pretty much everyone gets into the shows by the end of these films, with the notable exception of Robert Taylor, who is given a pass on both singing and dancing, leaving it to those who can. It’s ridiculous and tremendous fun, a veritable evening of entertainment with song and dance and comedy acts (Robert Wildhack, who catalogued the varieties of snoring in 1936, moves on to the finer shades of sneezing here) and a story that exists only to transition from one act to another.
Pretty much every contract performer at MGM had to sing for the supper, at one time or another, and James Stewart was no different. He has a few numbers in Born to Dance, playing a sailor who falls in love with aspiring singer/dancer Powell, but his fluttery, strained delivery in a duet of “Easy to Love” apparently convinced producers that he’d served his time and he was never forced to strain his pipes in that way again (the scene, in a studio recreation of Central Park, was duly trotted out for That’s Entertainment decades later, mostly for comic effect). In the great tradition of sailors-on-liberty musical comedies, Stewart is joined by fellow gobs Sid Silvers (who is desperate to connect with wife Una Merkel, who he hasn’t seen since their hasty marriage four years ago) and Buddy Ebsen (who woos waitress Frances Langford) to make a troika out on the town. The original songs by Cole Porter aren’t all memorable, but they are lively and two of them are among is classics: “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” (which lost out on the Best Original Song Oscar to “The Way You Look Tonight” from Swing Time) and “Easy to Love.” Virginia Bruce is the tempestuous Broadway star who transforms a photo-op with sailor James Stewart into a public relations romance (thus threatening his romantic chances with Powell), and Stewart duly turns the tables to give Powell her big opening night break (who saw that one coming?!). The show, by the way, is called “Great Guns” and features Powell tapping her way through naval-themed production numbers that fill the final act and grow until they fill an impossibly massive stage with a massive chorus and a huge prop whip with massive stage gun props that finally blast out a puff out smoke to punctuate to finale and, we assume, justify the otherwise arbitrary title.
Roy Del Ruth directed all three of these backstage musicals, which is surely a big reason they are so much fun. The Hollywood veteran helmed some of the liveliest Warner films of the pre-code era, among them Blonde Crazy (1931), Blessed Event (1932), Employees’ Entrance (1933) and Lady Killer (1933). He made these films immediate and dynamic, favoring personalities and dramatic flashpoints over story arcs (which came in handy when working over spotty scripts). And that’s exactly what these films called for and received. Eleanor Powell seems a bit too pure to Del Ruth’s taste, but he brings out a fun side of her, and while Robert Taylor is something of a bland romantic stiff, he gets his moment in 1936 in a signature sequence where he storms through the newspaper office, churning up a storm that sends loose paper flying into twister in his wake as he tears into Benny’s office to give him a smack in the kisser. Jack Benny is great as a scheming wiseacre who seems to relish a good verbal scrap, and Merkel and Silvers make a great romantic team of opposites, the wised-up urban doll with a good heart and the blundering mug with good intentions. And if these characters seem to make snap decisions on making friends and offering unqualified trust (not to mention an impulsive marriage in Born to Dance), Del Ruth simply makes that part of their integrity. You gotta love these guys. And I do.
Eleanor Powell left a very small cinematic legacy before hanging up her tap shoes and retiring in 1943, but she did make one more Broadway Melody film: Broadway Melody of 1940, another ridiculous story (this one of mistaken identity and dance partners and longtime buddies torn apart in rivalry) that justifies itself in the historic one-time-only pairing of MGM’s Queen of Tap Powell and the cinematic grace incarnate Fred Astaire. Song and dance man George Murphy is Astaire’s partner and looks every inch the talented fellow plugging away with all of his might when put next to the poetry in motion of Astaire, the gangly, goofy looking man who becomes a dream in dance shoes when he begins the beguine with Powell as his partner. This film is not part of the set – it was released years ago as a single disc – and director Norman Taurog is an adequate but otherwise colorless director who leans on the set pieces and dance numbers to enliven the production. But it does make a logical addition to the celebration of Eleanor Powell in motion provided by this set.
The films all look great (there are some light by visible emulsion scratches on Born to Dance) and the discs all feature archival cartoons and shorts and other supplements, including some audio-only musical outtakes.
For the record, the other films in the set are Vincent Minnelli’s Kismet (1955); the Stanley Donen-directed Sig Romberg biopic Deep in My Heart (1954) with Jose Ferrer as the famed composer and an all-star cast performing his catalogue; and three Jane Powell films: Nancy Goes to Rio (1950), Two Weeks With Love (1950), and Hit The Deck (1955), another singing sailor film co-starring Debbie Reynolds, Ann Miller, Tony Martin and Vic Damone.
The set will be released on Tuesday, April 8. See my column on that day for more releases, both contemporary and classic.