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BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936/BROADWAY MELODY OF 1938

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Eleanor Powell, Robert Taylor, Jack Benny, Buddy & Vilma Ebsen, George Murphy, Sophie Tucker, Judy Garland, Robert Benchley
Director: Roy Del Ruth
Audio: English monaural, French
Subtitles: English, French
Video: Black & white, full-frame
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: Four short films, audio outtakes and radio spots, trailers
Length: 211 minutes
Release Date: April 8, 2008

You made me love you, I didn't wanna to do it, I didn't wanna to do it...

Films *** ½

The original Broadway Melody (1929) was one of the very first Best Picture recipients of the Academy Award.  As a musical, it was able to capitalize on the new Hollywood fad that was the “talkies.”  However, its relative paucity of songs, unimaginative camerawork, and the odd mixture of silent film techniques with primitive sound recording technology soon dated this early MGM film.  As movie sound technology advanced by leaps and bounds over the next several years, newer musicals would eventually surpass the original Broadway Melody in their sophistication.  By the mid-1930's, ritzy and glamorous musical extravaganzas were all the rage, thanks in great part to the dancing wizardry of RKO’s Fred Astaire & Ginger Rogers and the spectacular ensemble choreography of Warner Brothers’ Busby Berkeley.  MGM understandably wanted to restore its musical luster, and what more fitting way to do so than through a homage to the studio’s own award-winning Broadway Melody?

The studio would spare little expense in producing Broadway Melody of 1936, the first “sequel” in what would become a spectacular series of “Broadway Melody” musicals.  This new musical would feature stage dancing wonder Eleanor Powell in her first starring role.  The star-studded supporting cast would be comprised of established stars, talented new faces, and solid character actors.  There would be enough top hats, white ties, and tails, glamorous evening gowns, and art deco splendor to rival even the best RKO musical.  And a few chorus girls in flashy dance numbers to rival Warner Brothers’ various backstage musicals could not hurt, either! 

Indeed, the backstage musical storyline for Broadway Melody of 1936 is standard fare for a 1930's musical.  But why tinker with a sure-fire winning formula?  In this film, a talented young dancer, Irene Foster (Eleanor Powell), has arrived in town for her shot at the spotlight.  Her best hope is to convince a former hometown beau, Robert Gordon (Robert Taylor), now a successful Broadway producer, to cast her in his latest musical.  Gordon is initially reluctant to do take her on, but ultimately nothing can stand in the way of the determined and talented young woman!  Irene will even resort to impersonation and trickery before the day is done to gain Gordon’s approval.

Eleanor Powell isn’t the only dancing sensation in this film.  As a nod to Fred Astaire (who danced on Broadway with his sister Adele), Broadway Melody of 1936 offers its own “Baby Astaires” brother-and-sister vaudeville act in Buddy and Vilma Ebsen (in her only screen appearance).  The lanky Buddy Ebsen aptly demonstrates his own unique comic style of double-limbed, string-beaned dancing.  Further comic relief is provided by Jack Benny as an unscrupulous New York gossip columnist determined to undermine Gordon’s latest production just to sell a few more papers.  Benny is matched, however, by character actress Una Merkel who, in the grandest Joan Blondell style, hams it up as Gordon’s streetwise and wise-cracking secretary Kitty.

Popular radio star Frances Langford performs several of the film’s popular standards, including “You are My Lucky Star” and “I've Got a Feelin' You're Foolin'.”  Other standout tunes include a rendition of the original “Broadway Melody” and the delightful Buddy & Vilma Ebsen comic duet “Sing Before Breakfast.”  The showstopping finale “Broadway Rhythm” features everyone, including Francis Langford, Buddy & Vilma Ebsen, and naturally Eleanor Powell.

For a backstage musical, Broadway Melody of 1936 is a little unusual in that the film never actually advances beyond rehearsals.  However, like its predecessor, it was nominated for a Best Picture Academy Award and proved so popular that MGM would soon return to its new musical franchise a few years later with Broadway Melody of 1938, again starring the studio’s new dancing sensation, Eleanor Powell.

The film’s plot is essentially a variation on a theme.  Powell now plays Sally Lee, an aspiring actress who wants to make it on the Great White Way.  Robert Taylor is a successful Broadway producer, Steve Raleigh, looking for a new star for his show.  Buddy Ebsen returns as yet another goofy sidekick for Eleanor Powell.

Steve Raleigh needs money for his newest show “Broadway Melody” but his sponsor will only provide financial backing if an established star headlines the show.  Steve must choose between sticking to his instincts by casting Sally in his show or wilting to financial pressure and losing his new lady love.  There may be a solution to this delicate money dilemma, however - Sally's injured racehorse...it can ever heal up and win another race again! 

Broadway Melody of 1938 may not quite equal Broadway Melody of 1936 in its glamour and ritz, but the film still benefits from a great supporting cast.  A very young Judy Garland, in her first breakthrough role, sings “You Made Me Love You” to a picture of Clark Gable.  Vaudeville’s incomparable, come-hither “Red Hot Mamma” Sophie Tucker commands center stage with her signature song “Some of These Days.” Comic relief comes from Robert Benchley as Robert Taylor’s long-suffering righthand man and George Murphy as a hapless stablehand-turned-dancer.  Long-winded Robert Wildhack, true to his name, returns for a sneezing variation on his snoring specialty act from Broadway Melody of 1936.  Other notable tunes include the infectious “Everybody Sing” by Judy Garland, “Yours and Mine” with Robert Taylor and Eleanor Powell, and even a few opera excerpts from Carmen and The Marriage of Figaro sung by Charles Igor Gorin.

Of course, the raison d’être for this film is to watch Eleanor Powell dance, and she delivers the goods!  For instance, there is her comic “Follow in My Footsteps” song-and-dance with George Murphy and Buddy Ebsen and even a lame racehorse!  Powell’s rainy romp with George Murphy in “I'm Feelin’ Like a Million” seems inspired by a similar dance number in Fred Astaire’s Top Hat.  And the grand finale on opening night for “Broadway Melody” offers “Your Broadway and My Broadway” as sung by Sophie Tucker and danced by Eleanor Powell.

In truth, there can be little doubt that Eleanor Powell was the most talented of MGM’s dancing ladies.  She was a better ballerina than Cyd Charisse.  She could match the toe-tapping rapid-fire of hoofers Ann Miller and Vera-Ellen.  And if the dance required it, Powell could be every bit as graceful and alluring as Columbia’s Rita Hayworth or even Ginger Rogers in a romantic dance duet.  If Eleanor Powell had a weakness as a dancer, it was perhaps that she was too good and too versatile, and quite frequently her leading men were never able to keep up with her on the dance floor.  Frankly, during Eleanor Powell’s short film career, there was ever only one dancer her equal, her very famous co-star for Broadway Melody of 1940, the fourth installment in this MGM franchise.  But that, as the saying goes, is a story for another day!

BONUS TRIVIA:  The song “Broadway Rhythm” re-appears as the grand finale for another MGM musical, Singin’ in the Rain!

Video ***

Both films are presented in their original full-frame format.  Of the two films, Broadway Melody of 1936 looks the best.  While film stock is occasionally grainy and shows its age from time to time, the images are crisp and detailed, and the black & white cinematography is simply luminous!

Audio ** ½

English monaural tracks or French dubs are available.  The tracks are adequate for such old films as these.  Be sure to catch Eleanor Powell’s spot-on impression of Katharine Hepburn in Morning Glory.  Listen carefully to the soundtrack of Broadway Melody of 1938 and you will catch fragments of many of the tunes from Broadway Melody of 1936.  Coincidentally, Eleanor Powell’s singing voice was occasionally dubbed by Marjorie Lane.

Features ** ½

This release is a two-disc set and can be purchased either separately or as part of the Classical Musicals from the Dream Factory, Vol. 3 box set.

Disc One contains Broadway Melody of 1936, a pair of short films, an audio promo spot, and a trailer.  “Sunkist Stars at Palm Springs” (20 min.) is a bizarre look at a dude ranch, complete with bathing beauty starlets, for vacationing Hollywood actors.  Cameos include appearances by Frances Langford, Buster Keaton, Betty Grable, Walter Huston, and Johnny Weissmuller.  A few songs from Broadway Melody of 1936 - “You Are My Lucky Star” and “Broadway Rhythm” - are featured.  “To Spring” (9 min.) is a Harman-ising cartoon that emulates the style of Disney’s Silly Symphonies in this peek into the world of rainbow color-mining dwarves in the springtime.  The audio-only “Leo Is on the Air” is a radio promo (14 min.) for Broadway Melody of 1936 and includes numerous sound clips from the film, mostly involving musical numbers.

Disc Two contains Broadway Melody of 1938, two short films, audio recordings and radio spots, and a trailer.  “That Mothers Might Live” (10 min.) is an Oscar-winning short about one doctor’s true crusade to advance the concept of hospital hygiene.  “Pipe Dreams” (8 min.) is another Harman-ising cartoon, this time with singing toy monkeys and cigars in a tobacco shop.  The audio-only extras are alternate takes or outtakes (32 min.) for “Everybody Sing” with Judy Garland and ensemble, “Yours and Mine” with Judy Garland, unused “Your Broadway and My Broadway” renditions by Judy Garland, the deleted “Sun Showers” by Igor Gorin (what, not Judy?) and a demo recording by Judy Garland for “Feelin' like a Million.”  Judy Judy Judy, to paraphrase Cary Grant!  Extended archival radio spots from “Good News of 1938” and “Leo Is on the Air” feature promotional song clips and an audio tour of the MGM lot with guest appearances by Eleanor Powell, Buddy Ebsen, George Murphy, and Igor Gorin.

Summary:

The two Broadway Melody films in this two-disc set are among the finest MGM musicals of the 1930’s.  With all-star casts, both headed by the incomparable Eleanor Powell, these films are sure to delight all fans of vintage Hollywood musicals!

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