Friday, 25 November 2016

Film Friday: "Broadway Melody of 1936" (1935)

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.

Theatrical release poster
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 goes after young Broadway producer and songwriter Bob Gordon (Robert Taylor). Gordon's new musical, Broadway Rhythm , is getting its backing from heiress Lillian Brent (June Knight), who also wants to star in the show, and Keeler's column won't leave them alone. Gordon resorts to punching Keeler in the nose several times, but as the paper's circulation, and Keeler's salary, rise he keeps at it.

During rehearsals, Bob's childhood sweetheart, Irene Foster (Eleanor Powell), comes to his office, but he doesn't 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 isn't for her. She dreams of being a hit in his show, but Bob won't give her a chance and instead buys her ticket to go back home. Meanwhile, Lillian has gotten Bob to agree that if he doesn't find a prominent star for the show within two weeks, she can play the lead. As a gag, Keeler has been planting phony stories about a French musical star named Mlle. La Belle Arlette, and when Kitty uncovers the ruse, she helps Irene assume that identity. As Arlette, Irene wins Bob's enthusiastic approval to star in his show, despite Lillian's anger. Just as Irene's dreams are about to come true, however, Keeler calls, knowing that she is an impostor, and reveals that there is a real Arlette who is planning to sue the paper if the publicity does not stop. Irene convinces him to help her, though, and they go to Bob's cast party. When Arlette never shows up, and Irene dances, Bob realizes they are one and the same and that Broadway is where he and Irene belong.

Bob Gordon: 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. In the fall of 1927, while still a teenager, Powell 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. She continued to audition for shows, but discovered that she needed to become a tap dancer in order to find work. As formal training, she signed up for a package of ten lessons at 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 new show, Follow Through (1929), which was a huge success and led Powell to being 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 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 MGM studio chief Louis B. Mayer, who 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

Eleanor Powell, Robert Taylor and June Knight
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 opportunty 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 the film 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 received additional nominations for Best Picture and Best Story. It lost Best Picture to Mutiny on the Bounty (1935) and Best Story to The Scoundrel (1935). 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 () | American Classic Screen Profiles edited by  John C. Tibbetts and James M. Welsh () | Grand Design: Hollywood as a Modern Business Enterprise, 1930-1939 by Tino Balio () | Hollywood Musicals Year by Year by Stanley Green (1999) |

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