Here’s a question for the people reading this; a rhetorical question, but a question nonetheless: Ever heard of Eleanor Powell? For me, I hadn’t until I saw this film, Broadway Melody of 1936. To put things in perspective, the studios of the time, and MGM in particular, generally considered big Broadway revues to be the height of talent and stardom and what audiences mostly liked to see, with dancing, singing, and a little bit of comedy thrown in. Film studios had been trying desperately to bring the gaiety of Broadway revues to the screen, while still having all the things films were known for like plots and characterization, and to do that they would try and put together productions like this one, filled with singing, dancing, comedy, and yes, a little plot and character to tie everything together. And to populate films like this, they’d bring in new and old stars who could sing and dance and smile with the best of them, hoping to make them film stars as well. Now, getting back to my initial question, and in keeping this knowledge of film-musical/Broadway-revue productions in mind… how the hell have I never heard of Eleanor Powell before watching this film?
The plot actually gets quite complicated by the end of it all, so I’ll do my best to simplify. Powell is Irene Foster, a young performer hoping to make it big on Broadway in New York. She has the perfect in; her high school sweetheart, Robert Gordon, is a big-time producer of Broadway revues, and she hopes she can use their connection to get him to cast her in one of his productions, as well as rekindle their old flame perhaps. Problem is, Gordon’s financier for his new production, a young widow, wants the lead herself, and so Irene, along with Robert’s personal assistant, hatch a plan to make use of Robert’s persistent newspaper foe Bert Keeler’s outlandish headlines about Gordon bringing in a made-up French starlet for the show to their advantage, in order to show Robert that Irene is not only perfect for the show, but also for him as well. Daww, you just know they’re made for each other after reading that, and you probably won’t be surprised in the slightest to see how things all work out in the end. But, if the resolution isn’t what to watch this film for, what is a good reason to? Two words, my friends, two words– well, not really words, but a name, a first and last name: Eleanor Powell. I did some looking into Powell after watching this film and being thoroughly impressed by her and her tap dancing skills, and I found quite a few mentions of rumors floating about during the 1930s and 40s that Fred Astaire, ‘the’ premier tap dancer of all filmdom, considered Powell to be the only female tapper to be his equal; more than that, when they starred together in a film for the first time, he was actually intimidated by her talent and was afraid her tapping would upstage his own. That’s how good she was, and that’s how good she is in this film. Now, the rest of the film is only okay in general, but it had such a flair for presentation and such an insistent quality toward trying to make the ‘magic’ of the silver screen come across to the audience that it was hard not to be taken by the film’s charms; hard, but not impossible. It took an unusually long time to get to the actual plot, which made for an initially confusing watch as I had no idea where they were going with things or why certain things were even included to begin with, but everything does end up resolved by the end, even though I felt the ending was considerably rushed, as if the film’s running time was an exact quota they had to fill and go no further on. There’s also a supporting character who goes around in various scenes giving lectures on different types of snoring that I found entirely superfluous, and if indeed he was supposed to be a running gag, I can say the humor of his gag wears thin in the first 30 seconds of his screentime, and he reappears throughout the film, which got mildly annoying as the film went on.
I was a little confused as to why I didn’t enjoy this as much as I felt like I should’ve. After some consideration, I think it boils down to the simple fact that the film is some 80 years old; once again, I’m watching it in the modern age, and not in the 1930s, and despite my attempts to watch classic films in the mindset of their release dates, this one kept nagging at me in a way that I’m sure it wouldn’t have to a 1930s audience. I alluded to this with my ‘magic of the silver screen’ comment in the previous paragraph; it’s hard to resist this film’s charms, but it’s not impossible, and I seem to have managed a way to do it somehow, though I couldn’t tell you exactly how I managed to do it. Still, this is worth seeing for Powell alone, as well as some knowhow regarding the film’s running gags (save the one about the snoring expert), so there’s at least some value in this to be had.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10