Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940)
“leanor Powell – Fred Astaire – In The Finest Broadway Melody Of Them All”
Director: Norman Taurog
Cast: Fred Astaire, Eleanor Powell, George Murphy
Synopsis: Johnny Brett and King Shaw are an unsuccessful dance team in New York. A producer discovers Brett as the new partner for Clare Bennett, but Brett, who thinks he is one of the people they lent money to gives him the name of his partner.
For his first movie with MGM, the studio partnered Fred Astaire with their dancing queen, Eleanor Powell. According to many, Powell was a far more accomplished dancer than Ginger Rogers, Astaire’s former partner at RKO, but this was to be their only movie together. Powell was always better when dancing alone — as can be seen in her opening dance number in this movie — but she also lacked the glamour and sex appeal of Rogers, and it’s an element that is sorely lacking in the dances she and Astaire share together here. Technically, they’re superb together, but in terms of screen chemistry there’s nothing there at all.
Astaire plays Johnny Brett, one half of an unsuccessful dancing duo of some duration with King Shaw (George Murphy). Each night, after performing their act, Johnny rushes to another theatre to see Broadway headliner Clare Bennett (Powell) perform. The boys’ act is seen by Bob Casey (the wonderful Frank Morgan), a theatrical agent whose partner, Bert Matthews (Ian Hunter) is Clare’s fiance — and who just so happens to be on the lookout for a new dancing partner for her. Mistakenly believing that Casey is a debt collector, Johnny passes himself off as King. Instead of resenting his friend’s good fortune when King receives an invitation to an audition from Matthews which he successfully passes, Johnny selflessly works to help him improve his performance. However, as opening night draws nearer King begins drinking heavily, a problem which is exacerbated when he realises that his love for Clare is unrequited and that she, in fact, loves Johnny.
Astaire’s performance is as polished as always, even working under the sometimes pedestrian direction of Norman Taurog, and his numbers are a joy to watch, even for those (like me) who aren’t great fans of musicals. He was always instantly transformed from a somewhat goofy-looking leading man into a creature of elegance and grace the moment he stepped onto a dance floor, and you don’t need any kind of technical knowledge of dance to instinctively sense that he was one of a kind. Gene Kelly had the athleticism, but always lacked Astaire’s finesse and versatility. It’s a shame, though, that MGM didn’t seem sure of just how to make best use of his talents for his first movie for them. He barely performs any numbers in the movie’s first half and some of the costumes he’s forced to wear are less than flattering. His tap duet with Powell in the Begin the Beguine number is truly sublime, however, and it’s worth watching the movie for this sequence alone. It’s a sequence that cries out for colour, but otherwise the number’s as close to perfection as a Hollywood musical has ever been.
(Reviewed 25th August 2013)