Thursday, April 23, 2015

Broadway Melody of 1938 (MGM, 1937)

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

The other movie we watched was Broadway Melody of 1938, third of four in the MGM series (equivalent to the Big Broadcasts at Paramount and the Gold Diggers at Warners) and in the history books as Judy Garland’s first appearance in an MGM feature. The stars were Robert Taylor (in a musical? Well, at least they didn’t have him attempt to sing, as they did to James Stewart in Born to Dance) and Eleanor Powell, with George Murphy and Buddy Ebsen in supporting roles and a delicious performance by Billy Gilbert as a Greek barber-shop owner who is trying to collect $800 Murphy and Ebsen owe him. The plot is a convoluted fusion of 42nd Street and A Day at the Races, with a surprising number of borrowings from the MGM Marx Brothers film the year before — including the ingenue being a race-horse owner (though desperately poor and relying for horse feed on Ebsen, who’s stealing it from the stable he works for) and some of the gags in the final scene in which the heroine’s horse can only win the race if he hears the sound of a particular voice (in this case Gilbert’s son, Igor Gorin, doing “Largo al factotum” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville over the racetrack’s P.A.) and he does a totally impossible come-from-behind finish to win the big race that will bail out Our Heroine and her boyfriend financially. (These gags worked beautifully in A Day at the Races, from which many of them were cribbed, but in this context we would have wanted to see Eleanor Powell’s horse win the big race in a physically and dramatically credible way.) The plot of this film (script by Jack McGowan from a story by McGowan and Sid Silvers) involves Taylor as a young theatrical producer and songwriter (“Taylor was wasted in it, as by this time he was a major star, obviously more suited to drama or comedy or straight-plot situations than to musicals,” wrote Lawrence J. Quirk in The Films of Robert Taylor. “Since he could neither sing nor dance, his presence was quite superfluous, but MGM doubtless felt it would bolster the box office, as none of the other personalities matched his drawing power”) who has persuaded Raymond Walburn and his ex-showgirl wife Binnie Barnes to back his show — and insists on casting Powell, an unknown who came from a rich family that lost all its money and had to sell its race horses (the one she buys later in the movie came from her family’s stable), in the show’s lead. She does a quite charming dance number with Murphy and Ebsen when they catch her stowing away in a train — and it’s while she’s doing this routine that Taylor discovers her — only to find at the end that he loses his backers over his unwillingness to cast a major star in the part. (Well, really he loses his backers because he won’t go to bed with Binnie Barnes — though that’s only obliquely hinted at in this Production Code-era movie.)

As for Garland, she’s billed seventh, given disappointingly little to do — only a big song called “Everybody Sing” in the show’s casting office at the beginning and her famous version of “You Made Me Love You,” altered (by Roger Edens) to be a birthday greeting to Clark Gable, which she was actually given to sing at the real Gable’s birthday party on the MGM lot and which so impressed Louis B. Mayer that he insisted that Judy have a chance to do the routine in this film. Good for Louis B. Mayer; it’s the film’s best sequence! After that all she gets to do is a short dance number with Ebsen in the film’s big finale (she does not get another chance to sing, and Judy was never that great a dancer though she had the actress’s knack of making herself look like a much better dancer than she really was) — and the only other time we hear her is in a brief snippet of the song “Yours and Mine” over the opening credits. (Billie Holiday recorded “Yours and Mine” along with another song intended for Garland to sing in this film, “Sun Showers,” which alas hit the cutting-room floor — though I think the pre-recording was dredged up for a later Garland film, Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry.[1]) The big production number at the end was staged by Dave Gould — dully — and earlier there was a scene in the park with Murphy and Powell dancing together that’s almost a direct copy from Top Hat, down to the rainstorm that descends on them from the heavens in mid-number and their seeking shelter (and continuing the dance) under a gazebo. — 10/12/98


Charles and I watched Broadway Melody of 1938, an MGM musical production that, despite its title, was actually released on August 20, 1937 (obviously MGM didn’t want it to seem dated in the few theatres that would still be showing it after the new year, but they also made the advance dating a selling point: the tag line on the original posters read, “So New It’s a Year Ahead!”). It was enough of an explicit follow-up to the previous series entry, Broadway Melody of 1936 (which was actually filmed in 1935), that it carried over the same two leads, Robert Taylor and Eleanor Powell, and cast them similarly: he as a Broadway producer trying to create a new show, Broadway Melody, and she as the unknown girl from the sticks whom he picks and grooms to play the lead. It also has some of the same triangular bedroom (or as close to the bedroom as the Production Code would allow) shenanigans. Steve Raleigh (Robert Taylor) has taken his production money from the Whipples, ice-cream sucker king Herman Whipple (Raymond Walburn) and his ex-chorus girl wife Caroline (Binnie Barnes). Herman Whipple himself has risen from humble origins — “I remember when he was a barker at Coney Island!” say Raleigh’s two assistants, dancers and horse trainers Sonny Ledford (George Murphy) and Peter Trot (Buddy Ebsen) — and they’ve bought enough horses to equip a racing stable. The star of their stable is Stargazer, who formerly belonged to the family of Sally Lee (Eleanor Powell) until they lost all their money. Sally is convinced Stargazer is a potentially winning horse but is being mistreated by the Whipples and forced to run too often, and when the horse pulls up lame in a race at Pimlico the Whipples decide to auction her off. Sally wins the horse for $1,250, which of course she doesn’t have, so Steve Raleigh — who has met her on a train, seen her do a dance with Sonny and Peter, immediately discerned her as the true talent of the trio and fallen for her both professionally and personally — borrows the money from Herman Whipple, putting up his half of the show as collateral.

Of course it turns out that Caroline Whipple has the hots for Steve herself and that’s the only reason she got her husband to put money into Steve’s show — she sees Steve and Sally rehearsing a love scene from the show’s script, puts two and two together and forces Herman to withdraw his backing unless Raleigh agrees to fire Sally and replace her with an established star. Raleigh refuses, and there’s a quite fascinating Slavko Vorkapich montage sequence showing Raleigh being turned down by all the other potential co-producers. Raleigh is willing to put the show on with Sally anyway, but she slinks off and disappears, and when he finally tracks her down she’s training Stargazer to run in a steeplechase with the assistance of Sonny (who, at Raleigh’s insistence, lied to Sally and told her he, not Raleigh, put up the money to buy the horse), Pete (who’s still working at the Whipples’ stable and is stealing feed from them to give to Stargazer, until he’s caught in one of the funniest sequences of the film, with Buddy Ebsen plumped up to gigantic proportions because he’s full of dried corn and looking something like a role he was supposed to play, the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz; later he and Ray Bolger switched parts and Ebsen was cast as the Tin Man, only he inhaled some of the aluminum dust used for the Tin Man’s makeup, got too ill to continue in the film and was replaced by Jack Haley) and Nicki Papaloopas (Charles Igor Gorin), an aspiring opera singer and son of George Papaloopas (Billy Graham), who’s looking for Sonny and Pete to extract $800 they owe him on a bet they never made that Fast Asleep, a 40-to-1 longshot, would beat Stargazer at the handicap at Pimlico (ya remember the handicap at Pimlico?). Eventually Sally realizes that she can make enough money for Steve to produce his show if Stargazer can win the big steeplechase at Saratoga, and though Stargazer can only jump if Nicki Papaloopas is singing opera in his general direction, she arranges for him to sing over the racetrack’s P.A. as the race is going on, Stargazer stages a spectacular come-from-behind finish to win and Steve’s show is a hit.

As if this uneasy mix of horse-racing and Broadway-backstage clichés isn’t enough plot for one movie, writers Jack McGowan and Sid Silvers also sneak in Sophie Tucker (as Alice Clayton, now-retired Broadway star who runs a boardinghouse for aspiring theatrical performers) and Judy Garland (billed seventh, as her daughter Betty). This was Judy’s first feature at MGM — before this all she’d done were the musical short Every Sunday with Deanna Durbin at MGM (before MGM let Durbin get away to Universal) and a loan-out to 20th Century-Fox for the college football film Pigskin Parade — and she gets to sing two songs. One is “Everybody Sing,” a rehash of the “Sing Before Breakfast” number from Broadway Melody of 1936 but sung not on the rooftop (though the same rooftop set occurs elsewhere in the film) but at a radio studio where Alice Clayton sets up her daughter Betty to belt it out hoping Steve Raleigh will hear (which he doesn’t — the studio is soundproofed so nothing of Judy’s number leaks to his ears) but benefiting from the incredible energy (even that early!) of Judy’s performance. The other is “Dear Mr. Gable,” Roger Edens’ rewrite of the old James V. Monaco-Joseph McCarthy (not the same one!) song “You Made Me Love You,” a mega-hit for Al Jolson in 1923, with special lyrics added to pay tribute to Clark Gable at a time when he was MGM’s biggest star and number two at the box office for the entire industry (number one was, you guessed it, Shirley Temple!).

Edens wrote it for Judy to sing at one of the big ceremonial events for Gable’s birthday — a sort of “official” birthday party the down-to-earth Gable glumly sat through because he knew it was part of the dues he had to pay for his MGM star gig. Louis B. Mayer was so stunned when he heard it he insisted it be shoehorned into Broadway Melody of 1938, so McGowan supplied a scene in which Alice Clayton catches her daughter mooning over a photo of Gable and tears it up. “I paid a quarter for that!” Betty protests, and when Alice withdraws and leaves Betty alone in her bedroom she gets out her scrap book (spelled as two words on its cover instead of the customary one) and sings the song to another photo of Gable she’s pasted therein, breaking off in the middle to deliver a long spoken section turning the song into an explicit tribute and then coming back in to sing an altered (again by Edens) version of the final eight bars of the original. (The words “Gimmie, gimmie, gimmie, gimmie what I cry for/You know you’ve got the kind of kisses I would die for” were changed to “I don’t care what happens, let the whole world stop/As far as I’m concerned you’ll always be the top.”) As things turned out, the number was such a sensation it advanced Judy’s career big-time — and Mayer loved it so much she had to sing it at every one of Gable’s birthday celebrations after that until Judy Garland left MGM in 1950. Then Gable went up to her and told her how glad he was she was leaving, and when she rather tearfully asked why, he said, “Because now I won’t have to hear that goddamned song anymore! I hate that goddamned song!” Judy’s only subsequent appearance is as part of the big final number, in which Eleanor Powell does a spectacular tap dance, Sophie Tucker delivers a stentorian tribute to Broadway legends of the past (various names of legendary performers are shown on the set, and midway through the number they all change to “Sophie Tucker” before changing back again at the end), and Judy is driven onto the stage in a small streamlined car, gets out, does a surprisingly good tap dance with Buddy Ebsen, and the final gag is the car is so small for him Ebsen can fit his body into it but his top hat has to go on the car’s roof.

Broadway Melody of 1938 isn’t much of a movie — it doesn’t have quite the wicked wit of Broadway Melody of 1936, and though actor Robert Wildhack, who did a virtuoso display of snoring in the earlier film, reappears here as a sneezer, the act simply isn’t as funny the second time around. Also, Billy Gilbert’s so-called “comic relief” really gets tired — in his films with Laurel and Hardy and his brief but marvelous appearance in His Girl Friday he’s genuinely funny, but in this movie he’s just oppressive — and one thing that’s odd is how many other movies this one evokes. At one point George Murphy and Eleanor Powell do a dance number in the rain which starts out as a stone ripoff of “Isn’t This a Lovely Day?” from the Astaire-Rogers musical Top Hat (and a later dance routine between them, with Powell clad in a chiffon gown and doing ballroom instead of tap, also evokes Fred and Ginger big-time), complete with a gazebo for them to dive under so they can dance without being drenched, but later it becomes a traveling number through the streets of the MGM backlot and anticipates Gene Kelly’s famous solo dance in Singin’ in the Rain, complete with artfully arranged puddles for them to step into as they move. And of course the horse-racing semi-finale is straight out of the Marx Brothers’ A Day at the Races, with the impecunious ingénue and the horse that needs a co-factor to win (in A Day at the Races it was the sight of the principal villain’s photo or the sound of his voice). It’s an O.K. movie, not as much fun as Broadway Melody of 1936 and suffering from too much of the portmanteau spirit of the age — back when the movie industry’s recipe for success was to cram as many disparate elements into a film as possible in hopes there’d be something in it for every audience segment, instead of today’s practice of “narrowcasting” films to draw out a specific audience even if no one else is particularly interested — but it’s still got some good songs, some great dances and an overall they-don’t-make-’em-like-that-anymore spirit. — 4/22/15

[1]  The history of “Sun Showers” is a bit more convoluted than that: here’s how it was explained in an “Trivia” entry for Thoroughbreds Don’t Cry:

In Judy Garland’s previous picture, Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937), Charles Igor Gorin’s rendition of “Sun Showers” (music by Nacio Herb Brown, lyrics by Arthur Freed) had been deleted. Then assigned to Judy in this horse-racing story, the tune failed again to be included in a movie. Miss Garland’s pre-recording is featured on the Rhino CD, “Judy Garland: Collectors’ Gems from the M-G-M Films.”