Before Vertigo, before The Philadelphia Story, and before Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, James Stewart was, like so many actors of the time, an MGM contract player, toiling away in quickly churned-out comedies and romances for $350 a week. Though he’d ultimately garner more acclaim for his later dramatic roles, Stewart also appeared in a handful of musicals in these early days—sometimes in smaller supporting roles, like as the fugitive brother in Rose Marie—but MGM was also testing him out as a leading man, harnessing his talents in musical features like Born to Dance. It’s a bit of a strange situation seeing Stewart hoofing it and belting out Cole Porter tunes, but with a cast that also includes Eleanor Powell, Una Merkel, and Buddy Ebsen, it’s a fun flick—albeit, perhaps, indicative of why Stewart didn’t ultimately pan out as a musical star.
Stewart leads a group of sailors on leave in—where else?—New York City, and at the Lonely Hearts Club, he meets the radiant Powell, who is town trying to make it as—what else?—a dancer. She’s already dazzled the crowd in the lobby by doing a tap number under the prodding of the club maven (Merkel), who is conveniently married to another of the submarine’s sailors (Sid Silvers), though she hasn’t seen her husband, nor introduced him to their daughter, since he enlisted four years ago. To complicate matters a little bit further, Stewart ingratiates himself to a famous actress (Virginia Bruce) by rescuing her beloved Pekingnese, “Cheeky,” and she promptly sets her sights on winning him for herself. Much to Powell’s chagrin, Bruce has the advantage of getting all their supposed dalliances printed in the newspapers, but Stewart uses this to his advantage when he needs Bruce to exit the big show, leaving the performance up to her understudy: Powell.
Eleanor Powell is, of course, one of the—if not the—greatest tap dancers ever committed to film, so to be kind, I’ll say that perhaps it’s just in comparison that Stewart’s movements seem a bit awkward and unconfident. In general, I’d imagine it would be hard to command his lanky frame, so they don’t challenge him too much dancing-wise, mostly keeping his focus on being the charmingly romantic lead with two feet planted firmly on the ground. He does sing a few numbers, where his average voice was benefitted by the catchy and clever Cole Porter lyrics. Porter himself actually championed casting Stewart in the role, writing: “He [Stewart] sings far from well, although he has some nice notes in his voice, but he could play the part perfectly.” I can see why Stewart didn’t become a singer in his career, but luckily for him his other talents shone through, and musicals weren’t required to be his bread-and-butter.
The final number, which would become one of Powell’s signatures, is truly stunning, taking place on a battleship-inspired stage and featuring the kaleidoscopic kick lines evocative of the time. Powell taps along to a percussive, military drum beat, and wows with sky high kicks and backward bends, all the while making it look so incredibly easy. I always love her facial expressions, which seem to convey a vaguely disbelieving look, as though she’s saying: “Can you believe what I’m doing? Me neither!”
This movie is a great example of one of the advantages of the contract system, offering some interesting footnotes in actors’ careers as the studios tried different tactics to groom these commodities into their perfect mold. I doubt that MGM would’ve bothered leasing Stewart had he been under contract at another studio, or cast him had it been an open call—where they probably could have gotten some who could play the part well and sing amazingly—but MGM was predisposed to use their own stable of actors, so Stewart got the gig. It’s a charming picture, and fun to see a different side of Stewart’s capabilities as an actor, though it’s really worth it for Powell’s always-stellar dance performances and a great, and very funny, supporting cast.