This month features a few theme nights that play into my strengths—namely, some Eleanor Powell and Bob Hope flicks. There’s a lot of other interesting stuff, featuring some of the biggest names in musicals, so let’s get to it!
When you settle in to watch a film called “Honolulu,” you might expect to see a lush, expansive musical with plenty of opulent sets and numbers, perhaps a sequence or two in Technicolor to highlight the natural beauty of the island and to wow the viewer’s imagination. But, lest you start to think that all of 1939’s films were big epics, that’s really not the case for MGM’s 1939 Honolulu—it’s a very small-scale movie, set mostly in the interiors of passenger ships and homes instead of tropical jungles and pristine beaches. Instead, we’re treated to some fun trick photography and several Eleanor Powell dance numbers, which may be a fair enough trade for some people.
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.
There are some nice treats this month on TCM, musical-wise, including some fantastic mainstream stuff both on TCM’s “Essential” birthday celebration (April 14), as well as a full two days celebrating MGM’s 90th anniversary (April 17-18). On the more obscure side, the programming also includes some rare treats featuring stars like Eleanor Powell, Nelson Eddy, Donald O’Connor, Leslie Caron, and more. For my That’s Entertainment-ing purposes, I’m also pleased to see Rosalie will be airing this month, as it’s one of the few remaining titles I’ve yet to track down.
Mario Lanza fans… this month TCM is really looking out for you. Although it’s a relatively light month otherwise, in terms of Not-on-Netflix musicals, September 18th brings a bounty of five rare Lanza musicals to TCM throughout the day. They’ve played a few of these in the past couple months, though I haven’t watched them …
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.