After viewing OUT OF SIGHT early this evening, I stepped back in time several decades to watch something completely different, BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936.
BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936 was one of a very small handful of MGM musicals I'd never seen before. Although it boasts some wonderful moments, an excellent Freed-Brown score, one of my favorite leading men (Robert Taylor), and the great Eleanor Powell, overall the film was kind of...dorky, which is not an adjective I am in the habit of applying to MGM musicals.
The plot concerns Robert Gordon (Taylor) who's looking for a leading lady for his new Broadway show. Irene (Powell), a girl Gordon knew back home in Albany, would love to try out for the chorus, but Gordon thinks Irene's all wrong for the tough New York scene and tries to send her back home to the safety of Albany.
Meanwhile, Gordon's promised his financial backer Lillian (June Vincent) that if he can't find a leading lady in two weeks, Lillian can have the part. Gordon then desperately tries to cast a French star, Arlette, who is being highly touted by newspaper columnist Bert Keeler (Jack Benny)...and when Arlette dazzles Gordon with an audition, he doesn't even realize it's actually Irene. (If your head is spinning reading this, imagine watching it...) Of course, it all works out in the end.
The movie was made before MGM had really found its feet, so to speak, as a musical powerhouse. It's closer in style to the Warner Bros. Busby Berkeley musicals of the early to mid '30s than it is to the great musicals produced by Freed, Pasternak, and Cummings beginning roughly with THE WIZARD OF OZ in 1939. The only problem is, BROADWAY MELODY is not as well executed as the Warners movies, and although there's plenty of MGM gloss, even that doesn't come off with the typical MGM quality: I can only figure they used back projections of extras in the magnificent nightclub set near the end because they needed to do retakes.
"I've Got a Feeling You're Fooling" inexplicably, to my mind, won the then-existent Oscar for Best Dance Direction. Although it's fun to hear Robert Taylor sing some of this song -- which was used in THAT'S ENTERTAINMENT II -- the "magic" used in the dance seems to come out of nowhere, and the entire thing, including the dancing, looks clunky. It would have worked better if it was supposed to be part of a stage production in the movie, but it was supposed to be real life! The fact that Jack Benny's character was watching the dance from afar made it even harder to suspend disbelief as costumes magically changed and props appeared and disappeared.
Another strange angle is that Gordon (Taylor) spends most of the movie desperately trying to escape the fate of having to cast his backer Lillian (Vincent) in his show -- and then the finale shows her to be a graceful dancer!
The movie comes to a complete standstill in a couple of scenes featuring a "snoring expert" who threatens to put the audience to sleep obnoxiously demonstrating various types of snores. (I admit to using the fast-forward on the remote when I couldn't take listening to him any longer.) What were they thinking? Cutting his scenes would have given this 102-minute film a needed boost in its pacing. The snoring routines were far worse than the painful Hugh Herbert "comedy" scenes Warner Bros. insisted on putting in many of its musicals. (If I remember correctly, Ivan aptly called Herbert the equivalent of a "cinematic toothache.")
Viewers also have to suffer through Sid Silvers in drag...don't ask.
Now for the good stuff: First, of course, Eleanor Powell. This was Powell's first big starring role, as recounted by Jeanine Basinger in a fascinating chapter of her book THE STAR MACHINE. I'm not sure I recall ever having seen Powell dance in toe shoes rather than tap shoes before, and her ballet number set to "You Are My Lucky Star" was one of the highpoints of the picture.
My other favorite scene was the casual rooftop routine Powell performs with Buddy and Vilma Ebsen. Vilma, Buddy's sister, looked like a young Myrna Loy and was absolutely charming. It's a shame that this was her only film. She just passed away in 2007, at the age of 96. (My husband once saw Buddy Ebsen at a party at the Magic Castle, but that's a story for another time...) The dancing by Powell and the Ebsens makes watching the film a must for fans of musicals. The movie is also worthwhile to help understand the evolution of movie musicals in general and MGM musicals in particular.
Robert Taylor has quite a bit of screen time but doesn't really do much that's memorable other than sock Jack Benny several times. Taylor's gorgeous, but I prefer the more weathered Taylor of the late '40s and '50s.
Una Merkel adds some zing to the film as Gordon's long-suffering secretary. Frances Langford's lovely voice can be heard singing several songs throughout the film.
And, as a side note, I loved the donut shop, including the great sign...those scenes made me hungry!
BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936 was directed by Roy Del Ruth and an uncredited W.S. Van Dyke. IMDb says that Van Dyke headed up retakes because Del Ruth had moved on to another film.
This movie is available on DVD as part of Classic Musicals From the Dream Factory, Volume 3. The black and white print is outstanding.
It's also had a VHS release.
This film can be seen on Turner Classic Movies, where it next airs January 17, 2010. The trailer is here.
Some reviewers liked this film quite a bit more than I did; I'll watch it again sometime to see if this was an off night for me, but at this point I'd class this as an MGM musical that's a very rare disappointment, though watching it has its compensations.