Saturday, April 4, 2015

Broadway Melody of 1936 (MGM, 1935/1936)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2015 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I showed Charles the movie Broadway Melody of 1936, which I’d just recorded off Turner Classic Movies and which I think was the only one in the series I hadn’t previously seen. Though it suffered from the typical flaws of MGM musicals in the 1930’s — they were good but the most creative films in the form were the Busby Berkeley extravaganzae at Warners and the Fred Astaire/Ginger Rogers vehicles at RKO (a problem MGM eventually rectified by luring both Berkeley and Astaire with the promise of bigger budgets) — Broadway Melody of 1936 turned out to be a messy but generally entertaining film with a higher dose of genuinely funny comic dialogue than usual in a 1930’s musical. True, the plot is virtually incomprehensible — gossip columnist Bert Keeler (Jack Benny at the start of his radio career, top-billed but still below the title), under pressure from his editor (Paul Harvey) to make his column more scandalous, seizes on young Broadway hotshot Robert Gordon (Robert Taylor), who’s rehearsing a show called Broadway Rhythm and dating wealthy widow Lillian Brent (June Knight), who as a sign of her affections agrees to provide the backing for the show and hopes her boyfriend will engage her as the show’s star as well. (The gigolo-ish aspects of their relationship are drawn surprisingly explicitly for a post-Code film — and were probably embarrassing to Taylor, who was all too used to critics who didn’t like him calling him a gigolo-type.) In the middle of his cattle-call auditions, Gordon’s old high-school girlfriend from Albany, Irene Foster (Eleanor Powell), comes a-calling and hopes to land a part in his show based on their old-school ties (in a weird glitch in the continuity she shows off the fraternity pin he gave her — did Albany high schools have fraternities in 1935?), but he doesn’t recognize her until later, when he finds the pin in his office where she lost it and then asks Bert Keeler to put it in his column that he’s trying to find his old friend.

Keeler does so but “spins” the item to make it look like Gordon is two-timing his horny widow backer with his old high-school flame, and Lillian’s revenge is to threaten to pull her backing from the show unless Gordon casts her as star. Gordon wangles a promise out of her to give him two weeks to find a legitimate star, in return for which he’ll cast her after all if he doesn’t find one by the deadline. Keeler, in order to rag him still further, plants an entirely fictitious story that a French entertainer named “Mademoiselle La Belle Arlette” is in New York looking for a vehicle for her American debut (he got the phony name from a box of cheap cigars). He goes so far as to dress his assistant, Snoop (Sid Silvers, who in a bit of unusual doubling for a 1930’s movies also got screen credit as one of the film’s writers: he and Jack McGowan worked up the script from an original story by Moss Hart, and Harry Conn, one of Jack Benny’s radio writers, contributed additional dialogue), in drag to attempt to pass him off as Arlette, but when he’s unable to produce the required falsetto voice Snoop instead assumes the guise of Arlette’s secretary, fending off all callers by playing a recording of the song “All I Do Is Dream of You” in French (the singer was unidentified but it sounded like Fifi D’Orsay to me) and telling them in a bad French accent that “Madame ees bee-zee rehearsing!” Alas, during one phone call from Gordon’s secretary, Kitty Corbett (Una Merkel), Snoop lets slip his real identity — and Kitty hatches a plot to get Irene Foster the starring role in Gordon’s show by passing her off as Arlette. (I could think of at least three other movies — Mae West’s Every Day’s a Holiday, the Groucho Marx-Carmen Miranda Copacabaña and Douglas Sirk’s Slightly French — in which an unknown non-French actress is passed off as French to get a career break.) Then Keeler’s paper receives a notice from a real French entertainer named Arlette threatening to sue if the items about her aren’t retracted, but in the end Irene attends the big promotional party Gordon is throwing at the rooftop nightclub where much of this film’s singing and dancing takes place and does a spectacular dance number to the “Broadway Rhythm” song that wins her the part — and Gordon’s love — in her own identity.

Despite a convoluted plot line even for a 1930’s musical, Broadway Melody of 1936 is full of wonderful things. It generated at least three hit songs for the writing team of Nacio Herb Brown (composer) and future MGM musical producer Arthur Freed (lyricist), “Broadway Rhythm,” “I’ve Got a Feeling You’re Fooling” and “You Are My Lucky Star,” and though Dave Gould, the film’s choreographer (and a refugee from the first two Astaire-Rogers musicals at RKO) didn’t have either Berkeley’s demented imagination or his sense of structure, the numbers are dazzlingly creative. They include a marvelous staging of “Fooling” at the rooftop nightclub, with Robert Taylor and Jean Harvey strolling through the club’s floor as pianos, tables and the like pop out from under the floor and assemble themselves (Thayer, a real stage magician, was a consultant on the number and helped produce these effects) — and Taylor sings the song himself in a surprisingly good voice, not one that would have kept Bing Crosby or Dick Powell awake worrying about the competition but still an appealing one (and far better than the rather croaking sounds Cary Grant and James Stewart made in other MGM musicals of the period — Stewart joked in the film That’s Entertainment! that Cole Porter’s song “Easy to Love” was so good it even survived him introducing it!); a lovely dream sequence to “You Are My Lucky Star” in which Eleanor Powell sits in the empty theatre dreaming that she is the star of a big show and is leading a dance with Albertina Rasch’s ballet troupe (and Powell’s work on point here is quite spectacular and belies the stereotype about her that all she could do was tap); and the “Broadway Rhythm” extravaganza at the end, which suffers by comparison with the even better staging of that song in Singin’ in the Rain but still showcases not only the virtuoso tapping of Eleanor Powell but also the appealing eccentric dancing of Buddy Ebsen and his sister Velma. The two were making their first film here (and in Velma’s case her last as well) after having risen through the ranks as a brother-and-sister dance team (as I’ve pointed out earlier, it’s interesting how many major movie dancers started in sibling acts: Fred Astaire with his sister Adele and Gene Kelly with his brother Fred) in vaudeville and, eventually, on Broadway: Louis B. Mayer offered them both contracts and Buddy accepted but Velma refused. (Velma Ebsen died just recently — on March 12; the Los Angeles Times ran her obituary March 20 — and so watching this film right now was at least in part an envoi.) Mayer supposedly told her she could be the next Myrna Loy, and she said, “I’m not Myrna Loy, I’m Velma Ebsen” — though the real reason she turned down his contract offer was her husband, Robert Emmett Dolan, was already established as a Broadway conductor and she didn’t want either to live apart from him or ask him to relocate.

The Ebsens are cast as a brother-and-sister dance team, and they’re very good — especially in the early number, “Sing Before Breakfast,” which they do with Powell on their own, proletarian rooftop (and which Judy Garland later interpolated in her performance of “Everybody Sing”) — and add a lot to the movie. So do the comedians; though Jack Benny here has the same problem as he did in a lot of his movies — whereas his radio writers managed to steer a balance between curmudgeonliness and lovability in his character that kept him a major broadcasting star for 30 years, his movie writers (except in his two greatest films, To Be or Not to Be and — despite its box-office failure and all his jokes about it — The Horn Blows at Midnight) tended to lose the balance and make him too unsympathetic. (He’s also the only one of the film’s principals who isn’t given a love interest; even Snoop and Kitty are paired off at the end.) Benny is more a foil for the richly amusing Sid Silvers than a laugh-getter in his own right, but that’s O.K. — and there are some nice comic sight-gags, like the papers blowing every which way throughout the newspaper office as Bob Gordon comes in to seek revenge on Keeler and Snoop for the latest outrageous comments about him in Keeler’s column. There’s also another comic-relief character, Robert Wildhack as “The Snorer,” with one of the weirdest acts in movie history: he imitates various types of snores, complete with commentary to differentiate them according to types, and fortunately director Roy Del Ruth and the writers keep his scenes short enough so they remain amusing instead of annoying. Though Broadway Melody of 1936 is a pretty obvious chip off the 42nd Street tree with admixtures of every newspaper film made to that time, and it had such a long, elaborate and convoluted production history MGM had to change the title from their original Broadway Melody of 1935, it’s still a lot of fun and also a good-looking movie, with Roy Del Ruth offering typically snappy-paced direction and cinematographer Charles Rosher (best known for convincingly making Mary Pickford look 12 even when she was actually 32) contributes absolutely luscious work that led Charles to comment afterwards that after all the cheap detective “B”’s from Columbia we’ve been watching lately, it was nice to be reminded how beautiful black-and-white could look in the hands of a master cameraman working on a major budget. — 3/30/07


The film was Broadway Melody of 1936, which was MGM’s attempt to take their original The Broadway Melody from 1929 — a blockbuster hit and the first talkie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture — and build a franchise around it on the order of the Gold Diggers films at Warner Bros. and the Big Broadcast movies at Paramount. They even got Jack Benny from Paramount to star, making Benny the only person I can think of who appeared in more than one studio’s musical franchise series (actually Benny didn’t appear in any of Paramount’s Big Broadcast movies but he did play parts in both Artists and Models movies, Paramount’s attempt to construct a second musical franchise but one which only lasted two films, as opposed to the five Gold Diggers, four Big Broadcasts and four Broadway Melodies) — and cast him as Broadway columnist “Bert Keeler” (the appropriation of the last name of Warner Bros.’ big musical star Ruby Keeler is just one of the cheeky gestures towards the competition in which this film abounds), obviously patterned on Walter Winchell, who in the opening scene is told by his irascible editor (Paul Harvey) — was there ever a 1930’s movie involving a newspaper editor in which he wasn’t irascible? — to lay off on the announcements of “blessed events” and other euphemisms both “Keeler” and the real Winchell to announce impending births, and instead give his readers the real “Broadway Thru a Keyhole” (a favorite slogan of the real Winchell and the title of a movie featuring a Winchell avatar for which Winchell actually wrote the story) gossip they’ll pay to read. Keeler fixates on producer Robert Gordon (Robert Taylor), and when he looks down from his newspaper office on the rooftop garden of Gordon’s penthouse suite and sees the producer canoodling with millionaire heiress Lillian Brent (June Knight), he immediately leaps to the conclusion that Gordon is romancing Brent just to get her to put up the money for his new show, Broadway Rhythm.

We see Gordon and Brent twirling on the penthouse roof’s dance floor to the Arthur Freed-Nacio Herb Brown song “I’ve Got a Feeling You’re Fooling” and as Gordon waves his hand over a rose bush, it suddenly blossoms and Gordon pulls off one of the roses and gives it to Brent. Chairs and tables appear from the floor, seemingly out of nowhere, as Gordon ushers Brent to a seat and the two of them have a tête-à-tête supper, and when a troupe of chorus girls joins in the song after Gordon and Brent have finished with it, with a wave of Gordon’s hands the black dresses the chorines are dancing in suddenly dissolve and change to white ones (a reversal of the magical effect in Lubitsch’s 1934 MGM film of The Merry Widow, in which to signal her coming out of mourning not only do Jeanette MacDonald’s black dresses turn into white ones but even her black lapdog becomes a white dog); though David Gould was credited with staging the film’s dance numbers, on this one he had uncredited help from stage entertainer Thayer the Magician. The next thing we see is Gordon sweeping into Keeler’s office to protest the item and demand a retraction — and as he walks through the hallway papers lift themselves off other people’s desks and blow by him in his wake (this film has more physically impossible gags than just about any supposedly realistic film of its time except the later Laurel and Hardy movies, in which Laurel indulged his love of the sorts of impossible gags his producer, Hal Roach, hated). Gordon belts Keeler in the jaw, sending him tumbling over his own desk (though I’m sure Jack Benny had a stunt double to do the actual pratfall), and Keeler and his sidekick “Snoop” (Sid Silvers) vow revenge. Their way of getting it is to keep up a barrage of items about the relationship (such as it is) between Gordon and his sugar mama, and when they learn that Gordon has promised Lillian Brent the lead in his show if he can’t find another star in two weeks (the script tells us she’s totally untalented, but from what we’ve seen of June Knight’s singing and dancing we get the impression she’d be perfectly fine in the part), they concoct an elaborate hoax and build up a nonexistent French chanteuse named “Mademoiselle Arletty” so Gordon will offer her the part. Of course, as we know well before the characters do, the right person for the lead has been under Gordon’s nose (and other parts) the entire movie: Irene Foster (Eleanor Powell, whose only previous film appearance had been an uncredited bit in the 1935 film George White’s Scandals), an old girlfriend of Gordon’s from their mutual home town, Albany, only Gordon didn’t recognize her when she came to his office looking for work in his show, and when he did recognize her he rather patronizingly told her to return to Albany before the Big Bad City corrupted her.

Needless to say, a plot is hatched by Keeper, “Snoop” and Gordon’s secretary, Kitty Corbett (Una Merkel in a blazingly funny performance that virtually steals the movie) to pass Foster off as the nonexistent “Arlette” — only a real French performer named Arlette materializes and threatens to sue. At the big party on Gordon’s penthouse roof Foster, as herself, dons a black sequined pantsuit and performs an elaborate routine to the song “Broadway Rhythm” which proves her worthiness both for Gordon’s show and his arms. The odd thing about Broadway Melody of 1936 is that unlike most musicals of its time and place, it’s at least as entertaining when the characters are not singing and dancing; it’s actually a fusion of musical and screwball comedies and the screwball elements are as much fun, if not more so, than the songs. Though it was written by a committee — “original” story by Moss Hart (probably something he just tossed off in an afternoon), script by Jack McGowan and Sid Silvers, “additional dialogue” by Harry W. Conn and uncredited “script polishing” by Joseph L. Mankiewicz and Edwin J. Burke — somehow the writers manage to come together and give off a mordant sensibility much like that of Hart’s former collaborator, George S. Kaufman, and the wisecracks and weird comic bits (like the character of “The Snorer,” played by Robert Wildhack, who has not only done an in-depth study of the various types of snores but can imitate any one of them on cue) make this one mid-1930’s musical that’s fun all the way through — even though it’s obvious MGM’s people were looking over their collective shoulders at other studios for inspiration, not only assembling chorus girls and maneuvering them in Berkeley-like formations but bringing on June Knight and Gordon’s dance director (Nick Long, Jr., played — like virtually all dance directors in movies back then — as a screaming queen) to do an Astaire-and-Rogers style dance duet in the second version of “I’ve Got a Feeling You’re Fooling.” Directed by Roy Del Ruth from the Warners machine, with retakes by MGM’s own resident speed demon W. S. “One-Take Woody” Van Dyke, Broadway Melody of 1936 ran way over schedule and budget (it was scheduled for four weeks, it actually took four months, and the film took so long its original title, Broadway Melody of 1935, had to be updated), but it was worth it: it made Eleanor Powell a superstar of musicals (despite the handicap of not having a singing voice — Marjorie Lane dubbed her here) and was a blockbuster relaunch of the Broadway Melody series that rained money into MGM’s coffers. — 4/4/15