In honor of Eleanor Powell's 104th birthday, which was on Monday, this week on «Film Friday» I bring you the first of her films that I ever saw.
Directed by Roy Del Ruth, Broadway Melody of 1936 (1935) begins when newspaper and radio columnist Bert Keeler (Jack Benny) is told by his managing editor (Paul Harvey) that he has to stop writing about «Blessed Events» and start digging up dirt. He decides to go after young Broadway producer and songwriter Bob Gordon (Robert Taylor), whose new musical, Broadway Rhythm, is being financed by heiress Lillian Brent (June Knight), who also wants to star in the show. Keeler starts writing about Bob and Lillian, which leads the producer to punch him in the nose several times. But as the paper's circulation and Keeler's salary rise, he keeps at it.
During rehearsals for Broadway Rhythm, Bob's childhood sweetheart, Irene Foster (Eleanor Powell), comes to his office, but he does not recognize her. She goes away, but when he finds the fraternity pin that he once had given her in his office, he tells his secretary, Kitty Corbett (Una Merkel), to find her. She auditions for his show, but, even though he is attracted to her again, he tells her that Broadway is not for her. She dreams of being a hit in his show, but Bob will not give her a chance and instead buys her a ticket to go back home.
Meanwhile, Keeler has been planting false stories about a French musical star named Mlle. La Belle Arlette, and when Kitty uncovers the ruse, she helps Irene assume that identity. Posing as Arlette, Irene wins Bob's enthusiastic approval to star in Broadway Rhythm, much to Lillian's anger. However, just as Irene's dreams are about to come true, Keeler — knowing she is an impostor — reveals that there is a real Arlette who is planning to sue the paper if the publicity does not stop. After Irene convinces Keeler to help her maintain her cover, they go to Bob's cast party. When Arlette does not show up, and Irene dances, Bob realizes they are the same person and realizes that Broadway is where he and Irene belong.
BOB GORDON (Robert Taylor): I'm going to Hollywood. I'm going to find a star for this show if I have to steal Garbo!
Born in Springfield, Massachusetts in 1912, Eleanor Powell began taking dance lessons at the age of eleven, learning ballet and acrobatics. Two years later, she was discovered by vaudevillian and entrepreneur Gus Edwards, who gave her a summer job in one his revues at the Ritz Grill of the Ambassador Hotel in Atlantic City, New Jersey. In the fall of 1927, while still a teenager, Powell headed to New York City to try her luck on Broadway and soon landed a small part in Melville Gideon's short-lived musical revue The Optimists. She continued to audition for shows, but discovered that she needed to become a tap dancer in order to find work.
As formal training, Powell signed up for a package of ten lessons at the dance studio of Jack Donahue, who tied two sandbags around her waist to force her to resist her natural impulse toward high-stepping. (As incredible as it may seem, these were the only formal tap lessons she had during her entire career.) On her own, Powell shaped her precise and innovative footwork by dancing to boogie-woogie records. After the completion of her lessons, Laurence Schwab and Frank Mandel offered her a specialty number in their 1929 musical comedy, Follow Thru, which was a huge success and led Powell to being named «The World's Greatest Feminine Tap Dancer» by the Dance Masters of America due to her machine-gun footwork.
|Eleanor Powell as Irene Foster/Arlette in Broadway Melody of 1936.|
In mid-1933, while touring in the roadshow of Scandals, Powell was approached by producer George White 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 revues and felt that Powell would be perfect for a specialty number in the picture. Her appearance in George White's 1935 Scandals (1935) was undistinguished at best, but her extraordinary dancing skills caught the attention of MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer, who signed her to a contract and offered her the female lead in Broadway Melody of 1936. Taking its name from Metro's Best Picture winner The Broadway Melody (1929), the new backstage musical was Mayer's response to the successful Warner Bros. Gold Diggers series.
Broadway Melody of 1936 was designed to show off Powell's unique talents. For instance, «You Are My Lucky Star,» conceived as a dream sequence, gave Powell a rare film opportunity to show off her early training in ballet. The number begins with Powell (dubbed by Marjorie Lane) singing the song in an empty theater and imagining herself the star of a production that also features the Albertina Rasch Ballet. The ballerinas reportedly were forced to remain on point for such long periods during filming that blood was seeping through their slippers. Between takes they took off their shoes and put on ice on their feet — although Powell refused to do this because she feared she would not be able to force her swollen feet back into their slippers. Apparently, Powell lost four toenails on her right foot during the filming.
Broadway Melody of 1936 premiered in New York City on August 25, 1935 and in Los Angeles on September 18. Critical reviews were largely positive. Andre Sennwald of The New York Times, for instance, described it as a «reliably entertaining song and dance show,» praising Powell as «a rangy and likable girl with the most eloquent feet in show business.» The film was also hugely successful at the box-office, earning $1,655,000 in the US and Canada and $1,216,000 elsewhere. At the 8th Academy Awards held at the Biltmore Hotel in Los Angeles in March 1936, Broadway Melody of 1936 won the Oscar for Best Dance Direction and was nominated for Best Picture and Best Story. The popularity of the film gave way to two sequels, Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937) and Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940), both of which starred Powell.
A to Z of American Women in the Performing Arts by Liz Sonneborn (Facts On File, Inc., 2002)
American Classic Screen Profiles edited by John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welsh (The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2010)
Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930-1939 by Tino Balio (University of California Press, 1995)
Hollywood Musicals Year by Year by Stanley Green (Hal Leonard Corporation, 1999)