Keep It Simple, Sweetheart

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Wikimedia Commons

We’re back on Broadway, people. Eleanor’s back. George Murphy’s back. Fred Astaire’s back…oh, wait. This was his first and only Melody, although he did dance on the real Broadway, so there’s that. After the rather confusing and lackluster Broadway Melody of 1938, MGM went for a less-is-more approach with what became the final film in the Broadway Melody series, The Broadway Melody of 1940.

Johnny Brett (Fred Astaire) and King Shaw (George Murphy) want to make the big time, but after five years the best they’ve been able to do is escorting brides to their prospective husbands at Dawnland weddings and doing a specialty number for no pay. The debt collector is on their heels and Johnny’s getting restless.

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One night Johnny gives King’s name to a guy he thinks is a debt collector, but who is actually Bob Casey (Frank Morgan) half of the prestigious production team, Matthews and Casey. Bob’s act is to ply his dates with a fur cape, which he always takes back at the end of the evening to pass on to the next woman. He invariably gets nervous when these ladies dreamily rub the cape because he’s worried it’ll look worn and blow his cover. However, Bob always gets another date, so whatever he’s doing must be effective. In a Production Code-worthy way, of course.

Right after Johnny shakes his supposed debt collector, he sneaks into a theater where Claire Bennett (Eleanor Powell) is performing. It’s members only, but he shows the doorman a debt collector’s business card and sneaks past. Here he catches the last number in Claire’s show, and he’s so enthused he pats a guy’s top hat as if it’s a conga drum.

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Bob calls King the next day thinking he’s reached Johnny, but he’s reached King, who he invites to come down to his office to talk about dancing with Claire. He’s a little confused when he sees King instead of Johnny, but long story short, King is in. Bob is not interested in Johnny because he only needs one guy to dance with Claire.

Bob’s partner, Burt Matthews (Ian Hunter) is dubious, but he agrees to give King a chance. He tells Claire to take King out on the town and get his picture in the papers, because King is now a hot commodity even though no one knows him.

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Johnny takes getting cut out kind of hard, but Bob assures him he’ll be his next discovery so he shouldn’t go too far. Johnny does better than that. He hangs around the theater watching rehearsals and giving King pointers in their apartment at night.

Unfortunately, King has a little drinking problem that grows bigger as Opening Night looms. Claire gets increasingly annoyed with his behavior, as does Johnny, who’s getting restless again. He and Claire happen to have great chemistry, much to Bert’s chagrin, because all of a sudden his show’s leading lady is taking long lunches with Johnny. Opening Night is coming, dangit, and everyone needs to get with it.

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The plot of this movie is a wee bit thin. The screenplay was written by Dory Schary, who had recently scored a big hit with Boys Town. Schary could write effective screenplays, but he had a reputation for minimalism. Sometimes this meant cutting corners or cutting budgets, but in this case it meant cutting a few elements that had been endemic to the Broadway Melody movies. Namely, there are considerably fewer novelty bits.

This works in the film’s favor, because there’s no Professor Wildhack, thank goodness. The previous two Broadways featured him sneezing and snoring, so one has to wonder what bodily function he would have showcased this time around. Well, we wouldn’t wonder too long or hard because the guy was annoying. Jack Benny was right to back away slowly in 1936.

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Instead, we get a Hungarian juggler named Trixie Firschke, who sits around waiting in the Matthews and Casey office to see those prestigious producers. She asks Johnny if he can juggle, and he says yes to get her off his back. Well, Trixie starts plying her trade, and she’s fantastic. She doesn’t let Johnny off the hook, either, throwing him plates and balls and anything else that can fly. Johnny has no choice but to throw things back at her and drop stuff. His embarassment gets worse and worse until Claire saves him by coming through the door and the secretary tells everyone to go home.

Oh yeah, and we get a soprano who auditions for Matthews and Casey’s show and doesn’t do much beyond making faces, scratching herself, and stomping on some unseen pestilence, which dies with a whimper when her accompanist finally shoots it. Fortunately, it’s brief.

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This installment in the Melody franchise is unusual for a few other reasons. The song, “Broadway Melody” isn’t heard once. In fact, there’s very little music at all up until the latter half of the movie, when Johnny and Claire start getting friendly and King gets more and more drunk. Maybe they were going for quality over quantity. Cole Porter penned what music is in the film, and the movie is known for furthering the popularity of “Begin the Beguine,” a song Artie Shaw had put on the musical map in 1938.

Most of the dancing in the film is superb, particularly the finale, which inevitably comes up somehow in anthologies whenever musicals, Fred Astaire, or Eleanor Powell are discussed because it’s just that amazing. Powell and Astaire danced on a glass floor that couldn’t look shinier and there’s a brief interlude in which the music rests and all that’s heard are their taps. It’s really an impressive piece of work.

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I’ve heard a lot of film historians and others talk about how people were concerned about Fred Astaire working with Eleanor Powell. It was Astaire’s first film after his last one with Ginger Rogers, as well as his first MGM film since 1933, and with his long history in the theater he had nothing to prove to anyone. However, he was intimidated by Powell because she was such a formidable dancer.

For his part, though, Astaire was just as formidable, and he was also a perfectionist, so he and Eleanor got along fine. A common criticism of the movie is that Astaire and Powell didn’t blend very well because Powell was such a strong performer, and while this is valid, they do match each other perfectly. Sure, they don’t say as much in their nods, looks, and glances the way Fred and Ginger did, but at least they don’t hate each other or make each other look bad.

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That dubious distinction goes to George Murphy, who, during “Between You And Me” does one of the most awkward lifts I have seen thusfar, holding Powell in front of his head for ten interminable seconds. Powell just keeps smiling prettily as if it’s no big deal while Murphy staggers around. Seriously. I had time to ask aloud, “Dude. What are you doing?”

At first I thought it was a shorthand way of showing how King and Claire didn’t have the best chemistry, but it was laughably bad, considering MGM liked showing the best sides of everyone who worked for them, even if a movie was a stinker.

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The Broadway Melody of 1940 isn’t one of those stinkers, however. I liked that the movie focused more on the characters, even though the plot is still minor. It’s a classy coda to a franchise that shows the progression of movie musicals over roughly a decade and there’s a lot to like.

A new Stage To Screen is coming on Wednesday. Thanks for reading, all…


The Broadway Melody of 1940 is available on DVD and Blu-ray from Amazon.

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