1/18/08

THE BROADWAY MELODIES: TENTPOLE PIX OF THE DECO ERA

bmof40

Apropos of our quasi-in-depth treatment of "Singing In The Rain" (see posts from early January '08), I thought we'd look back at the movie that started it all--"Broadway Melody of 1929", the MGM all singing/dancing early talkie that won the first Best Picture Oscar. Then I noticed that depsite that films accessibility, nobody has bothered posting any clips from it on youtube.


One can't blame them. Even as stiff early talkies go, "BMof29" is a hard sit--the leading man, Charles King, is charm and charisma free and none of the numbers really take off, unlike some of the previously posted "Hollywood Revue of 1929" material. And the story--good heavens! Did it ever make any sense? Hard now to imagine what exactly hard core pro's of the time were so impressed with that they accorded it the best picture statuette--King Vidor's "Hallelujah. Lubitsch's "Love Parade" and Mamoulian's "Applause", from the same year, are all much better. But before abandoning the subject, I found something of perhaps greater value to explore; the fact that even seventy some years ago, Hollywood was shameless about repeating anything that worked. The highly successful "BMof29" spawned no less than four sequels--"BMof36", "BMof38", and "BMof 40". (By the time the fourth one arrived--in 1944--the series was out of gas and they didn't even bother with utilizing the brand name; the swan song is called "Broadway Rhythm"). Happily all--or at least the two that I've seen--are, unlike our current era's tentpole franchises, much better than the original.


Currently the only one of the sequels to the original "BMof29" available on DVD appears to be the Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell starring/Cole Porter composed "Broadway Melody of 1940." Fortunately it appears to be the best of them all (though I've heard fine things about the "BM0f36" which features Jack Benny as well as Powell). Below are two superb numbers from "BMof40"--the very famous "Begin The Beguine" tap dance featuring Astaire and Powell. And Astaire and George Murphy doing "Please Don't Monkey With Broadway". Both numbers are masterfully performed and staged in elegantly fluid long-takes and the sets are large and lavish without dwarfing the performers and overpowering the routines.


Eleanor Powell's fame came and went rather suddenly--especially given the fact that there was nothing flimsy or faddish about her talents. Charming, leggy and virtuosic in her talents, she was simply one of the most remarkable tap dancers--not "female tap dancers" you'll note--ever to burst upon the scene. Astaire himself--not noted for being generous to his dance partners--remarked about her in his autobiography that there was nothing "sissy" about Powell's tapping. She was a child of vaudeville, first gaining exposure in the Gus Edwards kiddie vaudeville act of the twenties; though now forgotten, the Edwards troupe was considered sort of a Mousekateer-like upper-rung stop for talented kids--if you made it into Gus Edwards you had "possible big time" written all over you. (Milton Berle was a Gus Edwards graduate as well.) Powell seemed to begin her screen career at the top, with MGM putting her in the BMof36 and building a number of specially devised production set-pieces around her in each of her subsequent films. Although wildly popular in the waning years of the depression, she began in the early forties to appear as something of a lavish, late deco relic from the previous era. As the Andrews Sisters years kicked in, Powell and her rather intimidating, hoity-toity persona and production numbers began, I suppose, to feel ponderous, of another more pre-warish mindset. She married actor Glenn Ford (before, it should be noted, he had become a name--she was the bigger star at the beginning of their relationship) and retired from movies altogether in 1945 to raise their son, actor Peter Ford. Good for her. A few scattered later appearences aside (as well as a nightclub act that she did with some success in the early 60's), she had the good sense to let history do the talking for her. When "That's Entertainment" was assembled in 1974, it was the below posted "Begin The Beguine" clip that attracted the most attention, leading to a rennasaince of interest in Powell. She died in the early 1980's.


Also note below the fine dancing of George Murphy, who also had something of a life after movies: he defeated Pierre Salinger for the United States Senate in 1964 and served until the early 1970's. Upon his election to the senate, the Broadway showman Jed Harris supposedly remarked, "If they wanted a hoofer in the Senate, they should have elected Astaire". Perhaps he was thinking of the below clip?







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