When you’ve got Fred Astaire, Eleanor Powell, Cole Porter, and the mammoth MGM moviemaking machine working together, the results can’t help but be something memorable, and that’s what you get in Norman Taurog’s Broadway Melody of 1940.
The Production: 4/5
The Broadway Melody franchise came to a grand and glorious end with Broadway Melody of 1940, the fourth in the series of backstage musicals featuring the life and loves of Broadway performers who contribute blood, sweat, and tears as they sing and dance their way to stardom on the Great White Way. Norman Taroug’s entry in the series had two particular things going for it that the other three didn’t have: a new Cole Porter score and the addition of Fred Astaire to the cast: the medium’s greatest male tap dancer paired for the first and only time with its greatest lady tapper, Eleanor Powell.
Johnny Brett (Fred Astaire) and King Shaw (George Murphy) are a dance team who have had a singular lack of success in New York. Producer Bob Casey (Frank Morgan) is impressed with Brett’s fancy footwork and imagines him as the new partner for Broadway dancing sensation Clare Bennett (Eleanor Powell), but in the kind of mix-up that can only happen in the movies, King is offered the audition with Clare and is cast as the leading man in her next show. Johnny is heartbroken, not only losing the job but also the chance to court Clare Bennett with whom he’s smitten. But King’s ego gets the best of him during rehearsals, and Johnny finds himself covering for his pal and insinuating himself into the production without actually meaning to.
The screenplay by Leon Gordon and George Oppenheimer was based on a story by Jack McGowan and Dore Schary, a love quadrangle and buddy comedy all rolled into one supplanted by some Cole Porter originals (two of which became standards: “I’ve Got My Eyes on You” and “I Concentrate on You”) and one that was already a standard “Begin the Beguine.” The Norman Taurog-directed, Bobby Connolly-choreographed movie gets off to a lively start with Astaire and Murphy hoofing amiably through “Please Don’t Monkey with Broadway” (which given their talent doesn’t make sense that they haven’t yet been discovered) and Eleanor Powell tapping and tumbling through a nautical number “I Am the Captain.” It’s clear that she and Murphy don’t have much terpsichorean chemistry in their “Between You and Me” number, but the pairing of her with Astaire is dancing dynamite. We’re teased with a quickening tap number in an Italian bistro, but producer Jack Cummings saves his big guns for the finale: “Begin the Beguine” where the two begin with a flamenco tap arrangement to the song, but its finale is the now-famous excerpt shown in That’s Entertainment where the two tap rings around the other for over six minutes reflected in a mirrored floor with thousands of lights in the background and in a tapping display never to be matched. Elsewhere the film bogs down a bit with Murphy’s drunken escapades but is enlivened by Frank Morgan’s running gag with an ermine coat and two weirdly dropped-in sequences that have nothing to do with the plot and bring the film to a standstill but are nonetheless amazing: juggler Trixie Firschke who shows her stuff in producer Ian Hunter’s office and opera comic Charlotte Arren who does her satiric take on “Il Bacio” that might have given Bea Lillie a run for her money.
Ever the nice guy, Fred Astaire’s Johnny Brett never reveals to pal King Shaw about the audition mix-up even though he finds out about it relatively early in the movie. While he and Eleanor Powell tap and twirl to a photo finish, in this his first film after his long and profitable pairing with Ginger Rogers at RKO, it was likely fortuitous the two expert tappers weren’t paired again since ballroom routines in which Astaire also excelled weren’t really Powell’s cup of tea (surprisingly, she does her solo “I Concentrate on You” en pointe for some of its length before Astaire joins her masqueraded as his incapacitated buddy). George Murphy, a stage and screen hoofer of many years, proves in the finale dance that while his dancing talent is formidable, he didn’t have quite the lightness of foot of his compatriots. Frank Morgan bumbles around in his best tradition while Ian Hunter plays Morgan’s more level-headed producing partner who also directs the shows.
3D Rating: NA
The film’s 1.37:1 theatrical aspect ratio is faithfully rendered in this 1080p transfer using the AVC codec. The greyscale is magnificent as blacks are inky and rich and white levels are pristinely clean. Sharpness throughout is outstanding except where photographers Joseph Ruttenberg and Oliver T. Marsh deliberately diffuse the image. There are no traces of age-related scratches, dirt, splices, or reel cues. The movie has been divided into 30 chapters.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono sound mix offers strong fidelity and a mostly appealing audio quality. There is some attenuated hiss in some of the quieter passages of the movie, but it is rarely a problem, and there is no flutter, crackle, or pops to distract from the enjoyable aural experience.
Special Features: 3/5
Cole Porter in Hollywood (9:43, SD): Peter Fitzgerald’s short documentary on the making of the movie hosted by Ann Miller.
The Big Premiere (10:34, SD): a 1940 Our Gang short featuring the gang chased away from a movie premiere and deciding to stage their own.
The Milky Way (7:58, HD): Oscar-winning animated short
Theatrical Trailer (3:31, SD)
When you’ve got Fred Astaire, Eleanor Powell, Cole Porter, and the mammoth MGM moviemaking machine working together, the results can’t help but be something memorable, and that’s what you get in Norman Taurog’s Broadway Melody of 1940. Warner Archive’s new Blu-ray release presents the classic musical in its best-ever light and comes highly recommended!
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