The semi-sweet smell of excess
Have you got a yen for understated elegance and class? Then keep on truckin’, dude, because this 1940 M-G-M black-and-white monster/masterpiece ain’t for you.
M-G-M always had more money than taste, and they never let you forget it for a second. The studio crammed its fourth “Broadway Melody” with seven blockbuster numbers, which range from obscene to exceptional, including the super-duper quadruple-scooper finale “Begin the Beguine,” perhaps the most deliciously overripe concoction ever to hit the silver screen. As if that wasn’t enough, the producers also shoved in three specialty numbers, which range from atrocious to abominable, with a stop-off at abysmal along the way. So strap on your seatbelts, kids, it’s going to be a bumpy flight.
Fred Astaire, fresh from seven years of triumph at RKO, sometimes rode triumphantly atop the M-G-M juggernaut and sometimes was crushed beneath its wheels. Fred was definitely the new kid on the lot. The film also starred tap specialist Eleanor Powell, who had appeared in both Broadway Melody of 1936 and Broadway Melody of 1938,1 and song-and-dance man George Murphy,2 who worked with Eleanor in the 1938 Melody. Cole Porter, who did the scores for Powell’s Born to Dance (1936) and Rosalie (1937), wrote the words and music.
The film starts off with a jolt: Fred’s getting married! But the jolt’s a joke. He’s not getting married, he’s just giving away the bride! Fred (and George) work in a big Manhattan dance hall where couples who want something a little different can get a formal wedding with all the trimmings.3
Once the gag’s done, Fred and George get down to business, a snappy patter ‘n’ tap number, “Don’t Monkey with Broadway.” The lyrics, while no match for Porter classics like “Anything Goes” and “You’re the Top,” are funny enough, and the boys dance smartly.4
Fred and George are small-time hoofers, dreaming of making it on the Great White Way, currently ruled by Clare Bennett (Powell, of course). Once they get off work, Fred decides to check out Clare’s act and bathe in her reflected glory, and so we see Powell and a chorus of sailors in “All Ashore.”
It’s not a pretty picture. Eleanor Powell was the most famous female dancer in Hollywood, next to Ginger Rogers, but she lacked entirely Rogers’ sex appeal. Powell, like a number of other female musical comedy performers, had a distinct masculine air about her. Martha Raye was probably the leader of the dyke brigade, followed very closely by Betty Hutton, with June Allyson trailing far behind.5 Because they didn’t meet conventional standards for femininity, these performers were forced to “prove their womanhood” in crude and obvious ways.
“All Ashore” is a particularly gruesome example of this bizarre ritual. Powell is brutally man-handled by the male chorus and spends literally half the number with her skirt over her ears.6) The wise viewer will fast-forward through this travesty with averted eyes.
Once the nightmare is over, we’re back to more agreeable matters. Through standard musical comedy serendipity,7 George is given an audition opposite Clare! And he thinks they’re falling in love!
Their duet, “Between You and Me,” is sort of an M-G-M version of a Fred & Ginger number without Fred or Ginger. There are frequent lurches into serious bad taste, particularly the “super slide” sequence at the close, but it’s all in good fun.
Beneath the good times, however, there’s tragedy. Fred’s really the one who’s in love with Clare! He’s sacrificing himself for George, who’s getting a swelled head now that he’s a star.
Fred expresses his secret love in an excellent solo number, “I’ve Got My Eyes on You.”8 Later, he and Powell join forces in a terrific tap duet with the mundane title of “Jukebox Dance” (it’s an instrumental). But then the picture stumbles from casual triumph to artsy folly–the hideous “I Concentrate on You,” one of the few Astaire numbers that’s a complete disaster from start to finish.
It was probably Fred’s presence in the picture that led to this foray into mind-numbing excess. Powell had extensive ballet training, which she never got to use because none of her previous partners could keep up with her.9 Unfortunately, she was a good ten pounds past petite10 and looked ridiculous en pointe. Furthermore, the choreography for “I Concentrate on You” seems designed to emphasize her every weakness.
Fred, somehow, manages to be even more absurd than Eleanor, dressed in a skin-tight harlequin outfit that makes him look like a scrawny fool. In faultless evening dress, Fred looked faultless. But he was entirely a man of gesture rather than action. He required simplicity if not severity in his dress to anchor him. He couldn’t play the dandy. Any sort of affectation in his appearance pushed him into Franklin Pangborn territory – not effeminate, really, but weak and fussy and useless.11
As soon as the curtain opens on “I Concentrate on You,” the wise viewer of Broadway Melody of 1940 will press grimly on the fast forward button once more and perhaps sample a glass of bourbon until reaching the glorious “Begin the Beguine” number that brings the film to a throbbing close.
Cole Porter wrote “Begin the Beguine” for the 1935 Broadway show Jubilee. It holds the curious distinction of being the longest popular song ever written.12 The tune was not really a hit until 1938, when clarinetist Artie Shaw recorded a swing version that swept the nation and can still be heard today. This tune has inspired many today to pick up a professional clarinet.
The number begins in an ultra-languorous manner, with the sensuous and sultry Carmen D’Antonio undulating in harem garb as she sings (actually, she’s being dubbed by Lois Hardnett).13 The camera backs away to reveal a chorus of harem girls, clad in silver costumes and dancing on a set that’s all-black except for the occasional silver palm tree.
As D’Antonio/Hardnett works her way through the tempestuous lyrics (“What rapture divine, what passion serene”14), Powell makes her entrance, also wearing a harem outfit, including a bikini top that shows us just how small her bust was, something we really didn’t need to know.
Powell does a number of high kicks to demonstrate her technique and then dances away from the chorus until she’s alone on a bare stage made entirely of black glass, including the floor. A curious white shape appears behind her, the shrunken figure of a man. All of a sudden Fred enters stage left. It was his reflection that we were seeing.
Like Eleanor, Fred is seriously costume-challenged, wearing a Spanish outfit that features both sequins and tight pants, two things he definitely did not need. It’s frustrating that they’re both poorly dressed, because the number is excellent, essentially a near-endless series of turns snapped off with perfect precision. There’s no real development or story, just the pleasure of watching two great performers executing an impossibly demanding routine without the slightest hesitation or error.
As they finally click off stage we think Broadway Melody has shot its bolt, but in fact things are just getting started. The Music Maids, four bouncing babes clad in Scottish plaid,15 come strutting out to usher in the swing version of the Beguine.
The music here is amazingly good, a clarinet and vibraphone lead that draws its inspiration from Benny Goodman rather than Artie Shaw.16 The girls get our motor running, and then out come Fred and Eleanor once more. They’re changed costumes, fortunately (white on white to go with the all-black stage), and they’re ready to push tap as far as it can go, including a cutting contest that is, as we say, smokin’.
When that’s done, we’re still not done, because George (remember him?), is standing by applauding their triumph. I forgot to tell you that about two thirds of the way through the picture he realizes he’s being a jerk, so he sabotages his own career so that Fred can get the job and the girl! What a guy! So Fred and Eleanor pull him out onstage for a reprise of “I’ve Got My Eyes on You.” And that’s the Broadway Melody.
“Fredastaire.net” is a near-exhaustive site dedicated to Fred that even includes Fred Astaire jokes! (Just one, actually.) There’s a very nice Eleanor Powell site and an excellent Cole Porter site.
- The 1938 Melody is perhaps best-known for featuring a 15-year-old Judy Garland singing “Dear Mr. Gable” (“You Made Me Love You”), while the 1936 film is notorious for trying to pass Jimmy Stewart off as a singer. The original Melody, which won “Best Picture” in 1929, has its moments, but functions basically as a period piece. [↩]
- As Murphy’s screen career faded, he became increasingly active in Republican politics in California and was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1964, suggesting to at least one acute observer that the public can still love you even when the camera doesn’t. [↩]
- Where are their folks? How are they paying for this? Didn’t people get married in churches back then? Don’t ask. It’s a movie! [↩]
- The song’s tongue-twisting introduction, or “verse,” is particularly nice:
“Due to landscape gardeners gifted,
Father Knickerbocker’s face is being lifted so much,
You’d hardly know it as such,
Every street is being dressed up
So before they ruin Broadway I suggest up you go
To the city fathers and say ‘Whoa!'” [↩]
- Allyson could slide from ballerina to butch in the twinkling of an eye, but Eleanor, Martha, and Betty never looked very comfortable on stage. [↩]
- Male performers known more for elegance than muscle, like Cary Grant and Fred himself, were often put in similar situations. In Bringing Up Baby, Cary very unconvincingly captures a wild leopard. In Carefree, Fred’s such a wimp he can’t even bring himself to punch out Ginger. (In real life, she probably would have kicked his ass. [↩]
- A team of eleven writers, including both Dore Schary and Preston Sturges, labored to produce Broadway’s insipid script. Doubtless none of them busted a gut. [↩]
- A hidden Eleanor sees enough of “Eyes” to guess that Fred’s thinking of her (he dances with both her picture and her powder puff). [↩]
- In her earlier pictures, Powell had to content herself with semi-pros like Buddy Ebsen. She usually worked solo. [↩]
- Strangely, she refused to starve herself for her art. [↩]
- In his prior films, Astaire committed only one sartorial faux pas, the tight turtleneck sweater he wears for his “Music Makes Me” solo in Flying Down to Rio. [↩]
- Most popular songs written prior to the advent of rock and roll were 32 bars long. “Begin the Beguine” stretches out for 108, too long even for this lengthy production number, which omits one of the choruses. [↩]
- It’s never been very clear to me where they actually begin the Beguine, but Spanish Morocco seems like a good guess. It sure isn’t Cleveland. [↩]
- To sample the spell cast by the Beguine, go here. [↩]
- In his magisterial Astaire Dancing, John Mueller describes the Maids as “bepompommed.” I can’t top that. [↩]
- The Benny Goodman quartet, which in its original format featured Goodman on clarinet, Teddy Wilson on piano, Lionel Hampton on vibes, and Gene Krupa on drums, was one of the wonders of the Swing Era. Many CDs featuring the work of Goodman’s small groups are available, and they’re almost all terrific. Naturally, it’s not Goodman that we’re hearing here, but M-G-M didn’t bother to credit the real musicians. [↩]