Thoughts From The Music(al) Man (2018) on… Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940)

Here we are again, to delve into the movie that teamed up the king of rhythm, Fred Astaire, and the queen of tap, Eleanor Powell (don’t look at me, that’s how the trailer referred to them), Broadway Melody of 1940. The movie also stars George Murphy and Frank Morgan.

Coming Up Shorts! with… The Big Premiere (1940)

(available as an extra on the Broadway Melody Of 1940 Blu-ray from Warner Archive Collection)

(Length: 10 minutes, 34 seconds)

When the “Our Gang” group are kicked out of a Hollywood premiere, they decide to hold one of their own! It’s one of the few “Our Gang” shorts that I’ve had the opportunity to see yet, and, although it’s one made after MGM took over the series from Hal Roach’s studio, there’s still some fun to be had here. The group are all a little older, but they still manage to be funny, as they hold their own premiere. Their movie is rather laughingly bad (in a good way), and their antics made me chuckle! I certainly look forward to seeing more of the series (especially from the earlier Hal Roach era)!

Coming Up Shorts! with… The Milky Way (1940)

(available as an extra on the Broadway Melody Of 1940 Blu-ray from Warner Archive Collection)

(Length: 7 minutes, 58 seconds)

When three little kittens are sent to bed without their milk, they decide to take a trip to the Milky Way. It’s an interesting, if somewhat predictable cartoon. The animation is the big plus, as the story doesn’t break any ground, with everything narrated in song. It won the Oscar that year for Best Short Subject (Cartoon), although some of the others nominated have since become better known (and more important) over time. That being said, it’s at least a fun eight minutes, that should leave you with a smile.

And Now For The Main Feature…

In this movie, Johnny Brett (Fred Astaire) and King Shaw (George Murphy) are a dance team at Dawnland Ballroom. There, they (or rather, Johnny in particular), are discovered by Bob Casey (Frank Morgan), a theatrical producer, but Johnny, thinking he was a bill collector, gives his partner’s name as his own. So Casey sells King Shaw to his associates as a new partner for their star, Claire Bennett (Eleanor Powell). They like King Shaw, and so use him (even though Casey had meant for the role to go to Johnny). On opening night, King Shaw is drunk and passes out, so Johnny goes on in his place. Nobody knows this except Claire, who is furious with King Shaw. So the question remains: will Johnny become the Broadway star he was intended to be?

At the time this movie was made, Fred Astaire was just coming off The Story Of Vernon And Irene Castle, then planned as his last film with Ginger Rogers (although they would reunite in 1949 for The Barkleys Of Broadway), and the last film on his contract with RKO Studios. Broadway Melody Of 1940 brought him back to MGM for the first time since he made his film debut in the 1933 musical Dancing Lady. One of MGM’s big musical stars at the time was Eleanor Powell, considered one of the few female dancers in the movies capable of out-dancing Fred. They were paired together for this film, although initially their respective reputations left them both nervous and timid as they started working together. However, after Eleanor finally decided they needed to get past that, they started working together with their usual fervor (if not more so, since they were both perfectionists). The movie itself was originally planned to be in color, but the war in Europe meant that the studio couldn’t count on foreign revenue, so they went with the much cheaper to film black-and-white photography.

In a number of ways, this movie is the oddball in the Broadway Melody series. The previous three movies, (1929, 36 and 38) had all featured music by the songwriting team of Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown. This time, the score was provided by composer Cole Porter, with a slight reference to the song “Broadway Melody” used for a brief portion in the opening credits. Of course, that change in composers is at least partly because lyric writer Arthur Freed had transitioned away from songwriting into being a film musical producer during the time between the ’38 and ’40 films. Another change here is that star Eleanor Powell, who had headlined the previous two films in the series (which both feature her as a Broadway newcomer trying to make it big in her first show), is now starting this movie as the “big Broadway star,” with Fred Astaire being the character trying to make it big.

There is a LOT of dancing in this movie, since all three leads were dancers. What makes it odd, is that this might be one of the few movies that Fred’s leading lady actually does MORE dancing in the movie than he does. They both have the same number of routines (and most of them are together), but for at least two routines, Eleanor starts off on her own while somebody else is singing, before being joined by Fred. Of course, I think just about all the dancing is fun to watch (and the music very fun to listen to). I enjoy some of the songs like “Please Don’t Monkey With Broadway,” “I’ve Got My Eyes On You” and “I Concentrate On You.” Of course, the most famous part of the movie is the “Begin the Beguine” song (which, incidentally, is the only song NOT written for this movie, as Cole Porter had written it several years earlier for the 1935 Broadway show Jubilee). With that routine in particular, we are treated to Fred and Eleanor proving their tap dancing abilities as some of the best ever in Hollywood.

In my own opinion, this is the best movie in the Broadway Melody series. Sadly, it was also the last one. A few years later, there were plans for another that would have teamed Eleanor with then newcomer Gene Kelly, but those plans fell through (although some stuff was filmed, including one solo routine for Eleanor that ended up being inserted into the Gene Kelly movie Thousands Cheer). So, I do very heartily recommend this movie if you get a chance to see it.

The movie is available on DVD from Warner Archive Collection.

What’s Old Is A New Release Again (2021) with… Broadway Melody Of 1940 (1940)

On April 13, 2021, Warner Archive Collection released Broadway Melody Of 1940 on Blu-ray, featuring a new transfer that came from a 4K scan of nitrate preservation elements. All I can say after seeing this transfer is “WOW!!” It’s a HUGE improvement over the previously available DVD. The clarity is much better, with the detail showing off the various costumes and scenery much better. The picture has been cleaned up of all dirt and debris, and there’s nary a problem in sight. In short, it’s a typical (great) transfer from the folks at Warner Archive, and is VERY much recommended as the best way to see this wonderful classic!

Film Length: 1 hour, 42 minutes

My Rating: 10/10

*ranked #1 in Top 10 Disc Releases Of 2021

**ranked #8 in Top 11 Movies Watched in 2018

List Of Actor/Actress Filmographies/Collections

The Story Of Vernon And Irene Castle (1939)Fred AstaireYou’ll Never Get Rich (1941)

Honolulu (1939) – Eleanor Powell

George Murphy – Little Nellie Kelly (1940)

The Shop Around The Corner (1940) – Frank Morgan – Casanova Brown (1944)

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