Broadway Melody of 1940

  • Title: Broadway Melody of 1940
  • Director: Norman Taurog
  • Date: 1940
  • Studio: MGM
  • Genre: Musical
  • Lyrics & Music: Cole Porter
  • Cast: Fred Astaire, Eleanor Powell, George Murphy, Frank Morgan, Ian Hunter
  • Format: Black & White, Standard
  • DVD Format: R1, NTSC

“Say listen, we may never get anywhere, but if we don’t think so… I’d rather break it up, now.” — Johnny

“I think people can be platonic — and still be friends.” — Casey’s blonde

“The more you know about women — the less you know about women.” — King
“Maybe it’s time you found out they’re not all alike.” — Johnny

Johnny Brett (Astaire) and King Shaw (George Murphy) are struggling dancers making ends meet by walking brides down the aisle in place of the father-of-the-bride, and dancing (for .05 cents a dance) at the reception to make ends meet while they try to break into a professional Broadway gig. King is so fed-up and disgusted with their lack of success he’s about to give up. Johnny, keeps his partner’s spirits up, cheering him on. That night when the two perform their comedy-dance number at the hotel, they are spotted by a talent scout. The scout sees Brett and wants to offer him a chance to dance with Claire Bennett (Eleanor Powell) the biggest star on Broadway, and Brett’s secret crush. Brett, however, mistakes him for a bill collector – and gives him his partner’s name. So the agent calls King in, thinking he’s Brett, for an interview – which turns into an audition, which turns into a job.

King, is, somewhat torn that his big break is his big break – and he has to leave behind his partnership with Johnny; but he tells Johnny he was going to pass on the offer – both or nothing, so to speak.  Johnny talks him into it anyway.

The audition goes fantastically. Throughout the film, Johnny gives King tips and even improves steps from the show. Both King and Johnny fall for Claire. Claire’s in something of a relationship with her manager – but, despite his continued proposals, and her continued refusals, they are both married to their careers, and Claire, in particular, won’t give up the stage for marriage. (What a concept for a film from 1940 – a woman who chooses a career over marriage! ).

Meanwhile, the talent scout (Frank Morgan) runs into Johnny and tells him how bad he feels about the mix-up and says he wants to make it right. Johnny refuses. In the end, the scout promises to discover him next year and get him a job. Johnny shakes on that.

Claire catches Johnny playing “I’ve Got My Eyes on You” on the piano, tapping while sitting, then dancing with her photo. The two go to lunch, and end-up dancing together (a nicely done partner tap dance).

Finally, the first night of the new show rolls around. But King is drunk in his dressing room – he’s convinced that Johnny has stolen Claire from him. Johnny substitutes for King in the first number, and when he returns backstage, convinces King he fainted in the wings after the first number, but he was a sensation and gets him ready for the rest of the show. The next day, though, Claire sets him straight.

Though King and Johnny are now squabbling, King sets things right by faking being drunk and Johnny goes on instead. Astaire and Powell perform the stunning “Begin the Beguine” as the show-within-a-show. The number is fantastic – with two sections and a transition between them. Section 1 is a white and black set with Astaire in a Bolero outfit. The transition has four chorus girls in plaid. Then Section 2 has Astaire in a white tux and Powell in a floaty white dress – and has some very, very nice and accomplished partner tap dancing. (Partner Tap is side-by-side; as opposed to ballroom dance which is face to face). The second part set is a black set that’s so shiny the dancers are reflected on the floor. Also, the dances are full-frame, that is, we see the dancers from head to toe and the dance from start to finish without edits and cuts.

After the big finale dance – Johnny and Claire return back stage only to find that King was faking, and the three return “on-stage” for a threesome partner tap dance, which ends the film.

Broadway Melody of 1940 has a rhythm like a sine wave — the scenes between Astaire and Murphy are great, as are the dances — but whenever anyone else is talking, the plot is incredibly slow. I, frankly, could have done without the female juggler scene at the talent agency, or the hopeless bad “comedy” soprano.

The other thing is Astaire and Powell: she’s not Astaire’s best partner, who is, of course, Ginger Rogers; or even someone like Cyd Charisse who’s contrasting training provides a good counter-balance to Astaire. Whenever I watch a movie with Astaire and Powell — it feels, to me, like I’m watching two separate dancers – not a unit. Powell is a good tap dancer — and extremely athletic – her gymnastic maneuvers in “I am the Captain” are truly impressive – they take your breath away.

Whereas Astaire is extremely impressive on his own in “I’ve Got My Eyes on You” where he plays the piano, taps while sitting, moves effortlessly into a jazz/ballroom/tap dance with Claire’s portrait, and ends by tap dancing on a step — with one foot on one level and the other on a different level. Amazing. But it says something that the two do some of their best work alone – where their “partner” is merely watching and the dancer doesn’t even realize it. Even in “Begin the Beguine” – which is a fantastic number, with impressive tap dancing and partner dancing – it just feels like there’s an ice wall of separation between Powell and Astaire. Frankly, Astaire has better chemistry with George Murphy in this film — and I don’t think it’s Astaire’s fault.

List of  Musical Numbers

  • Please Don’t Monkey with Broadway — Murphy and Astaire
  • I am the Captain — Eleanor Powell
  • Between You and Me — Powell and Murphy (ballroom)
  • I’ve Got My Eyes on You — Fred Astaire
  • Jukebox Dance — Powell and Astaire (tap)
  • I Concentrate on You — Powell (ballet)
  • I’ve Got My Eyes on You — Powell and Astaire (Harlequin number) (Ballroom/jazz)
  • Begin the Beguine 1 — Astaire and Powell
  • Begin the Beguine 2 — Astaire and Powell

Recommendation: Actually not bad – see it.
Rating: 3.5 out of 5
Next film: Carefree