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Film Friday: «Born to Dance» (1936)

This week on «Film Friday» I have decided to bring you «MGM's dazzling succesor to Great Ziegfeld.» Incidentally, this film had its premiere exactly 79 years ago today.

Original window card for Born to Dance
Directed by Roy Del Ruth, Born to Dance (1936) opens as sailors Gunny Saks (Sid Silvers), Ted Barker (James Stewart) and Mush Tracy (Buddy Ebsen) return to New York after four years at sea. At the same time, aspiring dancer Nora Paige (Eleanor Powell), who has just lost out on a Broadway show, enters the Lonely Hearts Club and quickly befriends receptionist Jenny Saks (Una Merkel), Gunny's wife. Jenny hastily married Gunny after being his partner in a twenty-eight day dance marathon and has not seen him since he shipped out. Unbeknownst to Gunny, they have a young daughter named Sally (Juanita Quigley).

When Gunny arrives at the club to rekindle his relationship with Jenny, Mush flirts with singer/waitress Peppy Turner (Frances Langford), while Ted falls instantly in love with Nora. The next day, famous Broadway star Lucy James (Virginia Bruce) goes aboard the sailors' submarine with her pet pekinese under her arm. During a photo session with Captain Dingby (Raymond Walburn), the dog falls into the water and Ted is the one who eventually rescues it. The incident reaches the papers and Lucy's press agent, James McKay (Alan Dinehart), immediately plots to cook up a romance between Ted and Lucy to generate publicity for her new show. The gossip about Ted and Lucy's dinner date hurts Nora, who has just been hired as Lucy's understudy. Meanwhile, Lucy begins to truly care for Ted and tells McKay that she will walk out on the show if another word about her and the sailor is printed in the papers. Learning this, Ted calls the press and plants a story that Lucy is going to marry him after the show opens. The following morning, a furious Lucy leaves the show and Nora takes her place on the stage. Although Nora is a sensation, she is heartbroken over Ted until Jenny, who has known about the plan all along, tells her about his scheme. Ted and Nora are then happily reconciled and Jenny finally tells Gunny that they have a daughter. Because Jenny was so secretive, however, Gunny believed that she had been cheating on him and, in desperation, he signed up for another four years in the Navy.

Ted Barker: [singing] Hey babe, hi babe. Why not give me a try, babe? Maybe I'll make you
mine, babe, 'cause I'm nuts about you.

With her precise footwork and innovative rhythmic phrasing, Eleanor Powell was the first female dancer of the American screen to have vehicles built around her as a showcase for her unique talents. A trained ballet and acrobatic dancer since childhood, Powell was «discovered» at age thirteen by the entrepreneur Gus Edwards, who offered her a summer job at the Ambassador Hotel in Atlantic City. In the fall of 1927, she headed to New York to try her luck on Broadway and soon landed a small part in Melville Gideon's The Optimists (1928), a musical revue that ran for only 24 performances. Powell continued to audition for shows, but constantly met with rejection because she did not have enough tap dance expertise. She then decided to learn to tap and by the end of ten lessons — the only lessons in tap she was ever to take — she was already top of her class. Shortly thereafter, Laurence Schwab and Frank Mandel gave her a specialty number in their new show, Follow Through (1929), and she was an instant sensation, named «The World's Greatest Feminine Tap Dancer» by the Dance Masters of America.

In mid-1933, while touring in the roadshow of George White's Scandals, Powell was approached by the producer with the idea of appearing in motion pictures. Noted for his countless editions of the Scandals on Broadway, White was planning his second film version of the same name and felt that Powell would be perfect for a specialty number in the picture. Her apperance in George White's 1935 Scandals (1935) was undistinguished at best, but her extraordinary dancing skills caught the attention of Louis B. Mayer, who soon offered her a part in MGM's upcoming musical extravaganza, Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935). The film was a huge success, reportedly saving MGM from bankrupcy, and Mayer immediately signed her to a long-term contract with the studio. Powell's first assignment as an MGM contract player was Born to Dance, which reunited her with her Broadway Melody of 1936 director, Roy Del Ruth, and co-stars Una Merkel, Buddy Ebsen, Sid Silvers and Frances Langford.

James Stewart and Sid Silvers
Initially titled Great Guns!, Born to Dance was written by Silvers and Jack McGowan, who conceived it for the English dancer Jessie Matthews, in what was supposed to be her Hollywood debut. However, Matthews' home studio, Gaumont-British, refused to loan her for the film and Powell was cast instead. Once the comic supporting characters were added, original co-star Robert Montgomery realized the role of the leading man had been considerably reduced and withdrew from the project. Allan Jones was chosen to play Powell's love interest, before being replaced by James Stewart.

According to most accounts, it was composer Cole Porter who persuaded Mayer to cast Stewart in Born to Dance. «You don't sing too good, but I've heard far worse. The thing is, you're just the right 'type' for this part. Any guy watching the picture who sees you woo Eleanor Powell will believe he can be successful in love,» Porter told Stewart. A former member of the summer stock company University Players, the gangly 28-year-old actor was still a newcomer in Hollywood, having been signed to an MGM contract the previous year. Born to Dance was his sixth film and his first as a Metro leading man — he had just been loaned out to Universal Pictures to play the male lead opposite his close friend Margaret Sullavan in Edward H. Griffith's Next Time We Love (1936). The studio wanted to hire baritone Jack Owens to dub Stewart's voice, but Porter convinced Mayer against it. «Stewart got a squeaky kind of singing voice, but it goes with his squeaky kind of speaking voice [...] and those long, lanky legs,» Porter said.

James Stewart and Virginia Bruce
As one of the most successful Broadway composers and songwriters, Porter was signed to write the score for Born to Dance, his first Hollywood assignment, even before the script was completed. One of Porter's most celebrated songs, «Easy to Love,» was sung in the film by Stewart. Originally written for the stage musical Anything Goes (1934), the song had to be rewritten for Born to Dance because of the strict censorship enforced by the Hays Production Code. As a result, the original lyric «So sweet to awaken with, / So nice to sit down to eggs and bacon with» was changed to «So worth the yearning for, / So swell to keep ev'ry home fire burning for.»

«I've Got You Under My Skin» is another of Porter's songs from the film that has now become a standard. Commenting on the song, a number of Porter's acquaintances claimed that the composer was alluding not only to sex, but also to drugs, which were popular among some of his «café society friends.» Performed in the film by Virginia Bruce, in a role initially intended for Frances Langford (who, in turn, replaced Judy Garland), «I've Got You Under My Skin» peaked at number 3 on the radio program Your Hit Parade in early 1937 and went on to become one of the most recorded tunes of the pre-rock era. In 1966, The Four Seasons reached the top 10 on the Billboard Hot 100 with their own recording of the song, while Frank Sinatra's iconic 1956 version was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998.

Eleanor Powell performing «Swingin'
the Jinx Away»
The musical highlight of Born to Dance was probably the finale, in which Langford and Buddy Ebsen sing «Swingin' the Jinx Away» to support Powell's energetic dancing. Set on a lavish Art Deco battleship, the number features the athletic Powell sliding down a metal fire pole with a happy grin on her face and then tapping her way around the big guns at high speed, ending up with a front flip and a snappy close-up salute. The routine was so hugely popular that the ship set, as well as much of the choreography, was used again in Vincente Minnelli's musical I Dood It! (1943), starring Powell and Red Skelton.

As «virtuosic» as her dancing was, Powell was never considered glamorous. After she signed with MGM, she was treated to a beauty makeover, complete with ultraviolet light freckle-removing treatment, capped teeth and a curly, more feminine hairstyle. Though the studio made no secret of the fact that her voice was dubbed by professional singer Marjorie Lane, they did allow Powell to have full control of her on-screen image as a rhythm tap dancer. A perfectionist and a workaholic, she made an effort to learn all of the behind-the-scenes workings and coreographed all of her own routines, which she would rehearse up to twelve hours a day on the empty soundstages. She would then perform them for the studio orchestra silently, on a mattress in the sound room, so that it could record the music with the correct tempo. Once the number was shot, the background recording was played, but the filming was silent. Finally, she performed the routine again in a sound studio, wearing earphones and watching a film of her number, while she dubbed the taps on a maple mat, thus ensuring the best sound quality.

James Stewart and Eleanor Powell between takes
Commentators called the plot of Born to Dance «gob-meets-girl» and the film itself «a mammoth musical.» Indeed, Born to Dance was one of MGM's biggest productions to that date. The combined soundstages on which it was shot were 200 feet (60 meters) long, 80 feet (24 meters) deep and 100 feet (30 meters) high. More than 3,000 people were involved in the making of the film: 1,000 carpenters, painters and steel workers constructed the set; 50 men cleaned and repolished it; 100 wardrobe workers assisted costume designer Adrian and another 50 kept the costumes in good condition; 100 make-up artists and beauticians were employed, as were 125 electricians, 25 prop men and 75 camera men, not to mention such specialists as glass blowers, who were part of the production staff, and the 300 chorus dancers. The «grand» proportions of Born to Dance are partly explained by the studio's wish to make the film a worthy follow-up to the aforementioned Broadway Melody of 1936 and Robert Z. Leonard's hugely successful Best Picture winner The Great Ziegfeld (1936).

Premiering at the Capitol Theater in New York on November 27, 1936, exactly 79 years ago, Born to Dance was an immediate critical and commercial success. Variety, for instance, described it as «corking entertainment [...] Cast is youthful, sight stuff is lavish, the specialties are meritorious, and as for songs, the picture is positively filthy with them.» In addition, The New York Times deemed it «full of pleasantry and gayety» and praised Porter's seven compositions, asserting that «most of them [were] destined to a good measure of the ephemeral fame of modern song hits.» After the preview, MGM telegraphed Porter: «Your score applauded from beginning to end and when your name appeared on screen the ovation accorded you topped everything.» At the 9th Academy Awards, the film received a nomination for Best Dance Direction and «I've Got You Under My Skin» was one of the six titles nominated for Best Song. The Great Ziegfeld ended up winning Best Dance Direction, while «The Way You Look Tonight,» written by Jerome Kern and Dorothy Fields for RKO's Swing Time (1936), was named Best Song.

James Stewart, Eleanor Powell, Sid Silvers, Una Merkel, Frances Langford and Buddy Ebsen

I lo
ve Born to Dance. It is such a cute little film and one of the best musicals I have seen so far. The cast is excellent and the musical numbers are nothing short of spectacular. Eleanor Powell might not have been the greatest of actresses, but she sure was the greatest of dancers. The way she kicked her leg up in the air right alongside her chin and then bended backward all the way to floor seems almost physically impossible. Una Merkel and Sid Silvers are an absolute delight to watch. She was an expert commedienne (and a rather underrated one, in my opinion) and her scenes with Silvers are little pieces of comedy gold. Also, he says the most wonderful things in the film. For instance, when Buddy Ebsen asks him why he joined the Navy, he replies: «On account of a woman — my wife. Two days after we were married she told me I wasn't a man of the world. So I joined the Navy.» Another one of my favorites is: «Did you know that marriage is a national institution and that 50% of the married people are women?» And then, of course, there is that little dork called James Stewart. He is just so adorable in this film. He was not the best singer in the world, but his rendition of «Easy to Love» will warm the coldest of hearts.

American Classic Screen Profiles edited by John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welsh (The Scarecrow Pres Inc., 2010)
Cole Porter by William McBrien (Vintage Books, 1998)
Hit Songs, 1900-1955: American Popular Music of the Pre-Rock Era by Don Tyler (McFarland & Company Inc., 2007)
Hollywood Musicals Year by Year by Stanley Greene (Hal Leonard Corporation, 1999)
Jimmy Stewart: The Truth Behind the Legend by Michael Munn (Skyhorse Publishing, 2013)
Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History by Constance Vallis Hill (Oxford University Press, 2010)
TCM's article on Born to Dance
IMDb's trivia on Born to Dance
The New York Times review by J. T. M.
Variety review by the Variety staff


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