Film Reviews

Broadway Melody of 1936

My first exposure to the Broadway Melody series was the fantastic Broadway Melody of 1940, starring Eleanor Powell alongside Fred Astaire, so I was thrilled to catch the 1936 edition on TCM this weekend–especially as it’s not available on Netflix, which has become my primary source for musical rentals. Compared to the Gold Diggers series (which I also love), I think the Broadway Melodies tend to be a little more technically focused on the business of being musicals, and they certainly deliver.

I mean, Eleanor Powell is incredible. Her style is kind of the definition of “making it look easy”–her feet look like they’re barely moving, yet they’re producing such incredible beats. I love the cheeky hand resting on her chin to emphasize this point towards the end of the number. It’s so effortlessly charming. And I’ll note that I was already composing this effusive recap of her incredible dancing in my head around this number, and then the ballet number begins and she’s suddenly en pointe, and making THAT look just as easy–and I was completely floored.

The numbers overall tend to be a little on the long side, and somewhat disjointed from the rest of the story, but most of them are good enough to overlook this. There’s a lot of experimentation with camera techniques and special effects throughout the dance sequences–in one particular number, they use a film overlay, rear projection, and even a split screen at one point. It’s really quite inventive, and I always love when sequences staged are particularly for the cinema, using the unique techniques available to them. In particular, I loved the first musical number (linked above) in which the bandmaster conjures up objects with a tap of his wand. It’s very charming and a great, unique way to stage the choreography.

The basics are that Irene (Powell) is an old childhood friend of Robert (Robert Taylor), who’s now a Broadway producer–which works out because she wants to be a Broadway actress. However, he doesn’t believe she can really cut it in the theatre world, and sends her off packing to their hometown so she doesn’t get hurt. Luckily though, his secretary (Una Merkel) has faith in Irene’s talents, and conspires to hide her in the city. They have her begin to impersonate a French actress, La Belle Arlette, who was actually the creation of a gossip columnist (Jack Benny) trying to scoop out more info on Robert’s production.

The stuff with Arlette (based on Arletty, perhaps?) is quite funny, especially as she’s initially portrayed in truly heinous drag and ridiculous French falsetto by Sid Silvers. I especially love that he continues to wear her extravagant costume even as he simply answers the phone, as though he needs the costume to do the fake accent (“She iz bizzay… very bizzay… reh-hair-seeng!”).

Buddy and Virginia Ebsen are great as Irene’s brother-sister neighbor duo here, though when they first appeared I’d apparently already forgotten the opening credits, and was astounded at how they found a lady to sing and dance beside Buddy who looked so much like him. Well, duh.

One of the reasons I’ve liked the Broadway Melodies so much so far is their heavy emphasis on tap work, though surely that’s in large part Ms. Powell’s influence. The tap here is crisp, clear, and machine-gun quick. 1936 also feels on quite a smaller scale than some of the others, with many of the numbers done as solo or small group pieces. It’s a very charming picture, and while “You are My Lucky Star” is rightly its longest-reaching memory, there’s a lot of other great stuff in here too.

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