Friday, January 19, 2007

BROADWAY MELODY OF 1940 (MGM 1940) Warner Home Video

Norma Taurog’s Broadway Melody of 1940 is really a finale of sorts. On the one hand, it marks the end of MGM's lucrative series that began with the Oscar-winning Broadway Melody (1929/30). On the other, it's the last of the big B&W movie musical spectacles that - in mood, tone and production values - harks back to its two predecessors (Broadway Melody of 1936/38) rather than looking toward the real golden age of the MGM musical that would dominate the 1940s and, arguably, reach its zenith with Meet Me In St. Louis in 1944. Coincidentally, Broadway Melody of 1940 is also the last truly memorable musical to feature MGM's 'tops in taps' leading lady, Eleanor Powell. Although Powell would continue to trip the light fantastic until the mid-1940s as a novelty act in films like Thousands Cheer, hers was a style - that like the film itself - would pass its prime shortly thereafter.
But Broadway Melody of 1940 also marks a first. It is the first movie Fred Astaire made after his separation from Ginger Rogers at RKO (an absence with only one reprieve; their reunion in The Barkleys of Broadway 1949). Astaire was hardly a stranger to MGM. He had made his debut there opposite Joan Crawford in Dancing Lady (1933). His tenure with Ginger notwithstanding, rarely has Astaire been so ideally paired as with Powell - a powerhouse who could hold her own. Eleanor Powell - what a gal: beautiful, talented, smart and funny - a total package who blazed a lightning streak of peerless perfection in musicals throughout the 1930s.  And it is saying much of Ms. Powell as an actress too that despite the strange similarities in all of the Broadway Melodies, she manages to retain some of that world-wise/wholesome faced innocence and excitement that kept this series alive and vital. Powell is, of course an alumni of all but the original film, cast in remarkably similar parts that put little strain on her acting prowess, but gave her ample room to tap up a storm.
Leon Gordon and George Oppenheimer's screenplay for Broadway Melody of 1940 won't win an awards for originality, but it's serviceable and with plenty of opportunity for both Astaire and Powell to do what they so obviously love doing best - dance.  On this occasion, Powell is Claire Bennett – a girl already in a show but also in search of a partner to accompany her, step for step, across the Great White Way. Claire’s new leading man is King Shaw (George Murphy) – a small time operator working with Astaire who gets his big break, then makes the least of it by slipping on the good life and into alcoholism. The wrinkle is, of course, that producer Bob Casey (Frank Morgan at his best) has mistaken King for Johnny Brett (Astaire). While Johnny flounders to support himself in mediocre dance halls, King begins to realize that he's actually ruining Johnny's chances to hit the big time. So King fakes another bout of alcoholism, forcing the company to make a last minute substitute and thereby give Johnny his big break.
Gordon and Oppenheimer use this rather trite and threadbare narrative as a springboard for various comedic gems; as when Bob repeatedly makes overtures to young beauties, each believing he is about to make her a star. Morgan, not Murphy, is the real third star of this film; bumbling, caustic, easily befuddled and thoroughly misguided - in short, Frank Morgan. One of the things I miss most in today's movies is the absence of such 'character' actors like Frank Morgan or S.Z. Sakall. One glimpse of Morgan and we know immediately that we're in for a very funny good time.  Apart from Morgan, Broadway Melody of 1940 would have very little to recommend it if not for its mesmerizing dance sequences. Astaire does 'Please Don't Monkey With Broadway' a featherweight pas deux with George Murphy, but is at his most brilliant with Powell during 'The Jukebox Dance'  - a competition dance, and later, in disguise for 'I Concentrate on You'. If nothing else, Broadway Melody of 1940 is justly famous for its spectacular finale to Cole Porter's evergreen, Begin The Beguine.
The song begins with a sultry Latin rumba styled serenade sung by Charlotte Arren that gives way to a Powell solo. Backed by a shadowy chorus line of lovelies and silhouetted palms reflected in an impossible glossy mirror floor made of poured glass, Powell bedazzles us with her glycerin movements. Astaire appears in waist coat, joining Powell for her whirls and twirls before the pair momentarily spin off backstage. This transition clears the way for a change of beat, from Spanish rumba to pompous swing. The Music Maids break out with an infectious pop version of Begin the Beguine. Astaire and Powell re-emerging from the wings, this time dressed in contemporary clothes. What follows is a hypnotic few moments of undiluted tap dancing magic. At one point even the music falls silent so that we hear nothing except the strong clear clickety-clack of Astaire and Powell’s magic feet striking their rhythms on that poured glass floor. Each whirls around the other before both come to a full stop in unison, Powell’s billowy skirt defying the moment with a pirouette of its own around her lissome body. Broadway Melody of 1940 is fondly and justly remembered today for this one flawless moment of peerless perfection and it remains a wonderment to behold. The rest of the film pales by comparison, but the structure of the narrative ensures that we leave the theater with nothing but Begin the Beguine fluttering about our minds.
Warner Home Video’s DVD suffers from an inconsistently rendered picture. The opening credits are clear as a bell. So is the opening musical number Please Don't Monkey With Broadway. But then we get scene upon scene of low contrast, flickering images with more than a hint of edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details. Contrast levels are particularly bad during Astaire's solo I've Got My Eye On You as well as Murphy and Powell's pas deux, I Concentrate On You. Thankfully, the image snaps back into shape for Begin the Beguine; smooth, sharp and nicely contrasted. The audio is mono, but well represented with minimal hiss and pop. Extras include a toss-away featurette hosted by Ann Miller and a theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)

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