Thursday, April 10, 2008

BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936/1938 (MGM 1936/37) Warner Home Video

The predigested and formulaic nonsense encompassed in the Broadway Melody franchise - first launched by MGM in 1930 as their ‘all singing/all dancing’ musical spectacle - should not diminish the many happy returns audiences have been reaping ever since. To be certain, the latter three films in this four film franchise gave MGM’s star tap dancer, Eleanor Powell a glorious reason to take to the floor and do what she did best – mesmerize us with the supple allure of her fluid body in motion.

The first and last installments in this series have long been available on DVD. Now, Warner Home Video gives us the middle two offerings in one 2-disc collector’s set. The plots are suspiciously alike. Roy Del Ruth’s Broadway Melody of 1936 casts Powell as whimsical charmer, Irene Foster. Irene’s an idealist and a dreamer whose one aspiration is to make a success of herself on Broadway. With practically no experience, her dreams seem impossible fancy at best.

Across town, director Robert Gordon (Robert Taylor) is having a heck of a time convincing potential backers that his new show is a winner. It’s a tough sell, all right…that is, until Bob’s ace in the hole materializes in the form of a rich young widow, Lillian Brent (June Knight) who takes an immediately non-professional interest in the handsome Gordon as potential husband #2. Lillian agrees to fund the exercise in its entirety with the caveat that she headlines the show on opening night. Bob agrees. After all, Lillian can both sing and dance – talents she proves in the delightfully insincere musical extravaganza ‘I’ve Got A Feeling You’re Foolin’ performed as a casino rooftop buck and wing with hoards of dancers.

In another part of town, newspaper hound, Bert Keeler gets wind of Bob and Lillian’s arrangement, taking his poisoned pen to task to deflate Bob’s dream show and expose their would-be romantic relationship that seems to hint a stage-door Johnny-isms yet untold. Irene proves to be the proverbial fly cast into this artistic ointment. A former classmate of Bob’s, Irene arrives with all the fresh-faced eager charm of an up and comer. 

Furthermore, she is ten times the musical talent that Lillian will ever be and Lillian knows it. Masquerading herself as a French star – for reasons so ridiculous it’s best left for the first time viewer to discover – Irene gets the show’s lead. But where will Bob be if Lillian decides to pull out at the last moment?

Blindingly all-star, with a spectacular finally to the tune ‘Broadway Rhythm’ – sung by Francis Langford and danced by practically everyone else, Broadway Melody of 1936 is gargantuan amusement. It should be seen and enjoyed for some time.

Roy Del Ruth’s follow-up, Broadway Melody of 1938 (released in 1937) is another matter. Coming as it did quickly on the heels of its predecessor, in content and style it seems a rather poor cousin by direct comparison; its one big standout being Judy Garland (who has absolutely nothing to do with the central narrative), whose two relatively minor production numbers create a very big impact. Garland, who had been signed by MGM in the early ‘30s, but relegated to minor effect until a loan out to 20th Century-Fox mid-decade, proved what a major talent she could be if marketed properly, necessitated her quick interjection into this otherwise pedestrian narrative.

Plot wise: producer Stephan Raleigh (Robert Taylor again) is set for a stage smash with financial backer, Herman J. Whipple (Raymond Walburn) and unknown starlet, Sally Lee (Eleanor Powell). Unfortunately for all concerned, Whipple’s sister, Caroline (Binnie Barns) insists on security for the project – hence, only a star talent at the helm will do.

Determined to help Steve produce his own show, Sally purchases a race horse that she trains for Derby racing with the aid of two ex-Vaudevillians; Sonny Ledford (George Murphy) and Peter Trot (Buddy Ebsen). The horse wins and, with the prize money accrued, plans are set into motion for Steve and Sally’s big Broadway debut.

A mixed bag of artistic offerings follows, the Jack McGowan screenplay digressing from this romance to showcase MGM newcomer Judy Garland; herein cast as the precocious Betty Clayton – a singing dynamo looking for her big break. Betty’s Aunt Alice (Sophie Tucker) is determined to see her niece a star. Indeed, at a public audition Betty wows the crowd with the showstopper; ‘Everybody Sing’. In truth, Garland gets the most plum part in the film, offering audiences one more great moment as she affectionately warbles the now standard, ‘Dear Mr. Gable/You Made Me Love You’.

True to the conventions of the series and the musical genre, happy endings all around with Steve and Alice falling madly in love by the final fade out. Initially, Garland was slated to reprise the ballad ‘Yours And Mine’ - heard earlier, presumably sung by Taylor and Powell (their vocals were actually dubbed) – for the film’s big finale. For reasons of time constraint, this reprise was excised and eventually destroyed. Garland does appear briefly in the show’s finale, tapping with Ebsen against a delightfully obtuse art deco backdrop depicting the Great White Way.

Warner Home Video’s DVD is fairly impressive. The B&W image on both films has been given a considerable upgrade since its old laserdisc release – particularly Broadway Melody of 1936 which appears to have had significant restoration work on both its video and audio: result – superior in virtually all respects to Broadway Melody of 1938, which contains more age related dirt and a less refined image throughout. Contrast levels are beautifully realized. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are pristine. Fine detail is evident throughout on BM ’36 and slightly less so on BM ‘38. Extras are confined to a few short subjects. The audio is mono but has been restored with minimal hiss. Recommended.

FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Broadway Melody of 1936 4
Broadway Melody of 1938 3

Broadway Melody of 1936 4
Broadway Melody of 1938 3.5


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