By the mid-1930s few tap dancers – save Fred Astaire - were more securely ensconced in their film stardom than Eleanor Powell. Her willowy physical beauty, emblematically genuine smile and effortless maneuvers on the dance floor made Powell MGM’s foremost challenger to Astaire’s agility and prowess with Ginger Rogers at RKO. In fact, in 1940, MGM would pair Astaire with Powell for the only time in a final installment of their Broadway Melody series.
Though Powell’s terpsichorean talents were indisputable, occasionally they were heavy-handedly mismanaged under MGM’s studio edict of providing lavish spectacle. Such is the case with Roy Del Ruth’s Born To Dance (1936), an overblown bon-bon suffering from studio elephantitus. Billed by MGM’s publicity as the valiant successor to their Oscar-winning The Great Ziegfeld (1936), Born To Dance isn’t so much better as it is big and lumbering throughout most of its running time.
Not since 1937’s Rosalie (another lavishly appointed, though infinitely more entertaining Powell vehicle), had MGM lavished so much glitz and kitsch on a single film even though its screenplay by Jack McGowan and Sid Silvers was suspiciously second cousin to MGM’s Broadway Melody of 1936.
Powell headlines as Nora Paige, a winsome ingénue whom sailor Ted Barker (James Stewart) first encounters at a lonely hearts club run by friends, Gunny (Sid Silver) and Jenny Sacks (Una Merkel). Ted’s rescue of a wayward dog belonging to Broadway sensation, Lucy James (Virginia Bruce) leads to a PR stint for the Navy with Lucy falling passionately for her canine’s hero. Ordered by his superior, Captain Percival Dingby (Raymond Walburn) to go on a date with the starlet, Ted breaks a pressing engagement with Nora – thereby also breaking her heart. As sublime revenge, Nora becomes Lucy’s understudy. However, when Nora proves more adept at a dance routine than the star, Lucy predictably has Nora fired.
Big on music, short on plot but ultimately blindingly all-star, particularly in its gargantuan ‘Swingin’ The Jinx Away’ finale that has Powell sliding down a pole and tap dancing across the art deco main deck of a patriotic battleship, Born to Dance delivers the sort of mindlessly appealing fluff and nonsense that – despite its obvious affectations – continues to delight for the sheer size and spectacle of the exercise. MGM may not have always produced the most thought-provoking movies, but it certainly created many that continue to immensely entertain. The title says it all ‘Born to Dance’ and Ms. Powell certainly was!
The same cannot be said for Norman Z. Leonard’s Lady Be Good (1941) – a lugubrious film adaptation of the long-running Broadway smash. It should be pointed out that much of the chagrin, angst and musical ‘comedy’ offered up in the screenplay by Jack McGowan, Kay Van Riper and John McClain is stifled by a fairly literal adaptation of the original Broadway show material. The plot is thus more episodic than cohesive with the characters providing vignettes that merely substitute for an otherwise disjointed narrative structure.
Our story opens in the courtroom of sympathetic magistrate, Judge Murdock (Lionel Barrymore) where Dixie Donegan (Ann Sothern) is attempting to plead her case of irreconcilable differences in the divorce of her husband, songwriter Edward Crane (Robert Young). Dixie’s good friend, Marilyn Marsh (Eleanor Powell) appears in court as Dixie’s support to offer her own testimony. From here, the narrative regresses into a series of flashbacks clumsily strung together that chart Dixie and Edward’s love affair: its ‘cute meet’, success in the music business, their lamentable waning of mutual interests and finally, disillusion of marital and professional partnerships.
The wrinkle: Dixie continues to harbor full-blown love interests in Edward almost from the moment the ink on her divorce decree is finalized. Thereafter, Dixie plots how to win Edward back – or that is, Marilyn plots on Dixie’s behalf and Dixie just goes along for the ride. The central problem with the script – apart from providing nonsensical reasons for the couple’s split in the first place – is that its central characters are not terribly engaged in the narrative structure, but rather moved about as backdrop until a suitable moment when they can predictably be reunited.
The story loses our interest and respect almost immediately - especially when the musical offerings, that otherwise might have sprung naturally from the subtext are instead suppressed by it at every conceivable turn. As example: it takes forever for Dixie and Edward to compose their first hit tune.
MGM – a studio generally known for its ability to mine musical talent to perfection – misses most of its opportunities herein. As example; apart from Eleanor Powell’s ‘Fascinating Rhythm’ finale – lavishly staged by Busby Berkeley - the tap queen only appears in one other bizarre musical sequence that is both brief and uninspired and with a hyper dog jumping through her legs and over her arms no less. The best song in the film is not the title track, but rather The Last Time I Saw Paris – poignantly sung with a residual note of sadness by Ann Sothern, but tragically deflated by MGM’s superbly garish glamour treatment. In the final analysis, Lady Be Good does not live up to our expectations on so many levels that it proves a huge disappointment instead.
Warner Home Video’s DVD is fairly impressive. The B&W image on both films has been given a considerable upgrade – particularly Born To Dance. Lady Be Good contains a hint more age related dirt and slightly lower contrast levels with a very subtle hint of edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details. Contrast levels are nicely realized. Blacks are deep and solid. Whites are pristine. Fine detail seems more evident throughout on Born to Dance than Lady Be Good. The audio is mono but has been restored with minimal hiss. Extras are limited to a few short subjects and theatrical trailers.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
Born To Dance 3.5
Lady Be Good 2.5
Born to Dance 3.5
Lady Be Good 3