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DVD SAVANT

Broadway Melody OF 1940


Broadway Melody of 1940
Warner Home Video
1940 / b&w / 1:37 flat full frame / 102 min. / Street Date April 22, 2003 / 19.98
Starring Fred Astaire, Eleanor Powell, George Murphy, Frank Morgan, Ian Hunter, Florence Rice, Trixie Firschke, Johnny Broderick, Carmen D'Antonio
Cinematography Oliver T. Marsh, Joseph Ruttenberg
Art Direction John S. Detlie, Cedric Gibbons
Film Editor Blanche Sewell
Original Music Cole Porter
Written by Walter DeLeon, Leon Gordon, Vincent Lawrence, Albert Mannheimer, Jack McGowan, Eddie Moran, George Oppenheimer, Thomas Phipps, Dore Schary, Sid Silvers, Preston Sturges
Produced by Jack Cummings
Directed by Norman Taurog

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

Quite the pleasant little musical, Broadway Melody of 1940 again showcases MGM's top tap star Eleanor Powell, teaming her with a newly-returned Fred Astaire. The plot is minimal, but the Cole Porter tunes are not - at the ending the whole movie seems to converge on its 'reason for being' - a magnificent dance duet to Porter's Begin the Beguine, performed on an oversized set with mirrors for a floor.

Synopsis:

Johnny and King Brett (Fred Astaire and George Murphy) are a losing hoofing team working a novelty dance hall in New York, waiting for their big break. Both are discouraged, and King doesn't have the best attitude. Because Johnny covers for him when the bill collectors come around, a mixup sends King to an audition meant to be Johnny's big break, to be the dance partner of established star Clare Bennett (Eleanor Powell). A disappointed Johnny helps the lackadaisical King prep and rehearse, even though he's secretly loved Clare for months; but it's only a matter of time before the situation is straightened out.

Broadway Melody of 1940 is a fine example of MGM's factory film theory functioning at its best. It's a predictable and reassuring trifle using top personalities to dazzle the audience, while saving most of its production value for a big musical finale. Fred Astaire is more than charming, and audiences were thrilled to see him dance with their other favorite, Eleanor Powell. After five years hoofing almost exclusively with Ginger Rogers, this was something very different.

The Astaire-Rogers RKO teaming was more romantic; she seemed to fit like a glove into Astaire's every dance move, the perfect 'you-lead-I-follow' partner. Rogers' elegant submissiveness in those mobile embraces was a classy substitute for romantic sex, albeit more aesthetically glorious than anything sex could offer. For depression-era audiences, watching them must have been like witnessing the mating habits of Godlike superhumans.

Powell and Astaire are much more the Professional team, generating sparks with their million-dollar smiles (hers was especially winning). Together, they're almost too refined to suggest the Astaire-Rogers' heat ... this is more like champion racehorses doing their miraculous stuff in syncopated tandem. MGM often had the perverse notion that their studio's roster of stars was one big musical chair fantasy, with executives trying to figure out which pairings would pull the right strings with audiences. Matching musical stars must have been an even tougher game ...

The story here begins with a strong hook. We watch Fred passed over for the Big Opportunity, find out it was supposed to be his in the first place, and yet still behave like a saint while his less-honorable brother misbehaves and disgraces himself. George Murphy somehow got himself into a lot of movies, while rarely doing anything memorable. Here he plays the doltish secondary talent whose only crime is not having the halo of Mr. Right on his forehead ... oh, and he lacks dedication to his work as well. The plot sort of stalls to make room for second-rate comedy from Frank Morgan, the casting doofus who mixed up the brothers in the first place. His sorry dating technique of using an ermine coat as bait is carefully set up, but doesn't pay off. Billy Wilder would worked the coat into a stinger joke by having it run over in a mud puddle or something.

Also awkward are a couple of vaudeville acts jammed into the storyline as filler. A juggler named Trixie Firschke is pretty amazing, but the comedy team of Carmen D'Antonio and Johnny Broderick make are hard to sit through. She's Fanny Brice act-alike who makes fun of high-toned opera.

Just about the time Astaire and Powell are beginning to notice one another, the movie goes on automatic pilot, with rote twists like one brother secretly replacing the other on stage, the second brother feigning drunkeness to 'do the right thing' and be a swell guy, etc. The showmanship of the big finish comes to the rescue and makes the picture memorable.

The movie opens with Powell doing a good stage routine, and there are a few nice tap moments in the midsection, but it looks as if all of MGM's attention and money went into the socko final number. As nicely documented on the DVD's featurette, the studio poured its own glass dance floor, creating a huge shiny black stylized desert oasis, with curtains that must be three or four stories tall.

Of all the MGM musical numbers, this one seems an attempt to outdo the signature Polglase-D'Agostino look from Astaire's RKO years. It's little more than an epitomized dance floor for the two Gods to twirl on, but that's enough. Astaire and Powell perform in two parts, with a costume change to match a switch from tap to ballroom technique. Cole Porter's Begin the Beguine was already a huge swing hit (where did all the clarinets go in pop music?), and moviegoers must have thought they had died and gone to heaven.


Warners' DVD of Broadway Melody of 1940 will probably not sell as well as its sister releases, but it has a magic quality that later kitschy entertainments like High Society and Silk Stockings sorely lack. The transfer sparkles in crisp black & white, and the mono track has been cleaned to sound like new. Ann Miller returns to host the featurette, which provides a number of interesting production facts. Also included is an amusing Our Gang short subject, The Big Premiere, and a trailer. There's an additional track in French, and subs in French, Spanish, & English.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, Broadway Melody of 1940 rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Featurette: Cole Porter in Hollywood: Begin the Beguine, Our Gang short subject, trailer
Packaging: Snapper case
Reviewed: May 3, 2003


Footnote:

1. This is a pretty unnecessary comment, but I always wanted to write a movie trivia quiz, where all the questions would be idiotically conceived - "For 10 thousand dollars, in what year did MGM make Broadway Melody of 1940?




DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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