Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Minor MGM Musicals

Most film fans are familiar with the classic MGM musical extravaganzas from the Arthur Freed unit, but less so with some of their early predecessors and one or two of the overblown flops. In order to replace four black and white beauties that I had on beta tapes, I purchased a nine-disc box-set (the third volume of 'Classic Musicals from the Dream Factory') and I have been ploughing my way through them in my down time over the last few weeks.

Two of them are fairly quickly dismissable. The only movie in the set that I had never seen is "Hit the Deck" (1955) where gobs Tony Martin, Vic Damone, and little Russ Tamblyn romance Ann Miller, Jane Powell, and Debbie Reynolds whilst being pursued by the military police to the chagrin of Tamblyn's admiral dad, Walter Pidgeon. Despite some heavy-duty hoofing from Miller and a fair amount of crooning from the rest of the cast, this is fairly unmemorable stuff. The other "dud" from the same year, despite its high production values (this one was Freed-produced), is "Kismet". Directed by Vincent Minelli and starring Howard Keel in full throttle, this tale of shennanigans in Arabia was more fun and more interestingly handled in its 1944 Ronald Coleman/Marlene Dietrich non-musical telling. The production here is far too heavy-handed and ponderous; despite a selection of evergreen songs sprinkled amongst the dreary lesser ones, the movie is rather heavy going.

This brings me to the four movies that occasioned my purchase: "Broadway Melody of 1936" (1935), "Born to Dance" (1936), "Broadway Melody of 1938" (1937), and "Lady Be Good" (1941), the latter being the only other Freed-produced film in the set. The first three are showcases for the tapping talents of Eleanor Powell, pairing her with Robert Taylor in the 'Broadway' films and with James Stewart in the other. Her career was relatively short-lived, stretching from 1935 to the early 40s when she married Glenn Ford, and by the fourth film her role was demoted to 'best friend' to bickering, song-writing couple Ann Sothern and Robert Young, despite giving her two swell dance numbers. The first of these is particularly memorable; it has her rehearsing her stage role in the company of a winsome pet dog who makes an unusual and amusing acrobatic dance partner. Powell was normally a single act and her solid, muscular, syncopated tap is not something that one can watch until the cows come home; in fact, its appeal is best in little dollops. She was quoted once as saying that a tap dancer is really a frustrated drummer, but I believe that drum solos are best when brief.

The four movies do however have numerous compensations for a surfeit of Powell and their occasional longeurs and cliched storylines. Buddy Ebsen's goofy dancing features in the first three films and there is something ever so likeable about his gangly grace. It's a shame that his big screen career disappeared when he proved allergic to the tinman's metal make-up in "The Wizard of Oz". Fortunately we are spared any major musical efforts from love interest Taylor, but it is a sweet hoot listening to Stewart doing his best to sing a love ballad and to keep up with his co-stars' dancing talents when forced to do so. A fifteen-year-old Judy Garland makes her big screen debut in the second 'Broadway' film and the movie thrills to her unleashing her big, big voice, especially in tandem with singing legend Sophie Tucker. Then there is Sothern's Oscar-winning rendition of 'The Last Time I saw Paris' particularly timely during the German occupation and nicely rendered with a photomontage of the city in happier times. Other distractions include the deadpan singer Virginia O'Brien doing her thing and a sub-Nicholas Brothers act -- the three Berry Brothers -- amazing one with their energetic dancing splits. Mind you, Powell herself could split with the best.

That leaves me with three more films to watch and I somehow doubt that I will be writing about these later on: two minor efforts from 1950 "Nancy Goes to Rio" and "Two Weeks with Love", plus the 1954 Sigmund Romberg biopic "Deep in my Heart". I do hope that all three will produce at least some memorable moments in exchange for sitting through the more tedious sections which I can recall from previous viewings. I guess that's what the fast-forward button is for!
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