Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 12/12/06
I realize, before I even begin, that I am courting blasphemy. But I have never been one to shy away from blasphemy.
The Silver Screen legend of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers is as large as any to ever come out of Hollywood. Movies like Top Hat and Swing Time cemented their names (and feet) as the most beloved dancing duo ever paired. However, I would maintain that not only was Top Hat not Fred Astaire’s best film but that Ginger Rogers was not his best partner.
Broadway Melody of 1940 would have all the elements to make this Astaire’s best film and his perfect partner, Eleanor Powell. For this one film, the King and Queen of tap would shine their brightest. Even putting aside tap, Powell can out dance Rogers in every category. It has been often mentioned that Rogers could do everything Astaire could only she had to do it backwards and in high heels. Well, Powell can do everything Astaire can here forwards, backwards, in high heels, in the air, and far more than that. In fact, many times in Broadway Melody of 1940, she threatens to upstage him – something Rogers never came close to doing. But in this movie, they are not the only ones that can dance. The third member of their little group is George Murphy playing King Shaw who is half of an unsuccessful dancing duo with Johnny Brett (Astaire). Murphy also matches Astaire step for step however Astaire proves himself to be a more fluid dancer than either Murphy or Powell.
And if the dancing of those three weren’t enough to push this film into higher ranks, the songs were written for the film by the unrivaled Cole Porter. Broadway Melody of 1940 presents Porter at the top of his game. “Don’t monkey around with Broadway” is classic Porter wit.
“Put big floodlights in the park
and put Harlem in the dark
but please don’t monkey with Broadway.
Move Grant’s Tomb to Union Square
and put Brooklyn anywhere
but please don’t monkey with Broadway.”
With “I’ve got my eyes on you” Astaire takes center stage singing, playing piano, and dancing with true heart even going so far as to prove that the basic laws of gravity are forced to alter themselves to his rhythm.
It’s Eleanor Powell’s turn surrounded by sailors in “All ashore”. Here she is flipped and tossed as she taps in her legendary style. Watching this scene one has to wonder why her legs were not designated as a national treasure.
It’s during “Jukebox Dance” that Fred and Eleanor dance together for the first time and it’s immediate screen magic.
Another song, “I concentrate on you” became an instant American standard but it was “Begin the Beguine” that became the masterpiece of the film. “Begin the Beguine” was first written for the failed Broadway play, Jubilee. Porter allowed MGM to use it after Artie Shaw had made it popular with his swing treatment of it. “Begin the Beguine” became was the largest stage production in Hollywood history. The set taking eight weeks to build included 10,000 star lights and a 6,500 square foot, mirrored floor made by pouring molten glass into wooden frames.
The story is that of Johnny Brett missing out on his opportunity to make it big when King is mistaken for him by a producer (played by Frank Morgan) when Johnny, believing the producer to be a collection agent, momentarily switches identities with his partner. The storyline is entertaining and not just filler to offset musical numbers. The “screwball comedy” elements are as good, if not better, than any found in other Astaire films. However it is always difficult to watch Frank Morgan in any role other than the Wizard of Oz. No matter who he’s playing he’s still the Wizard and it takes quite a few scenes for the audience to be able to gather enough suspension of disbelief to accept him as anyone else.
The one thing that I cannot fathom is why this is the only time that Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell appeared together on film; they were admirers of each other, they had a good working relationship (even if Powell found Astaire’s practice routine to be exhausting), and they were both under contract by MGM (this was Astaire’s first real film after ending his RKO contract). With the enormous success of the film one would think that Hollywood would have set the machine in motion and turned out as many pictures as possible before either Powell or Astaire lost a step in their dance. Broadway Melody of 1940 shows the way of many opportunities lost.
In That’s Entertainment!, Frank Sinatra says of this pairing, “You can wait around and hope, but you’ll never see the likes of this again.”
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