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Born to Dance (1936) – Eleanor Powell, Cole Porter, and Jimmy Stewart sings and dances…sort of

Born_to_Dance_-_1936-_PosterMy admittedly limited experience with Eleanor Powell musicals from MGM is that they are a mishmash of music, comedic routines, dancing numbers, general extravaganza and a dash of plot just to keep things interesting. Born to Dance, made in 1936 with songs by Cole Porter, is fairly typical of the genre. It was the second movie Eleanor Powell made with MGM and her first starring role, with her name above the title, even.

Eleanor Powell is possibly one of the finest tap dancers to appear in any Hollywood musical, ranking up there with Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire in sheer skill, though perhaps less adept as an actress. However, like Kelly and and Astaire, she did all her own choreography. As much as I enjoy her dancing, however, I’ve found that since she can’t be dancing all the time, my enjoyment of an Eleanor Powell vehicle depends somewhat on who the side characters are and the cast in Born to Dance is quite good: James Stewart, Una Merkel, Buddy Ebsen, Virginia Bruce, Sid Silvers.

Eleanor Powell is Nora Paige, who’s come to the city to find work as a dancer. She stumbles upon the Lonely Hearts Club, run by Jenny Saks (Una Merkel) who feels sympathy for a fellow female struggling in the big city and lets her stay…if she’ll do a dance or two. Also arrivning in New York City is a submarine with sailors Ted Barker (James Stewart), Mush Tracy (Buddy Ebsen) and Gunny Saks (Sid SIlvers), who’s married to Jenny Saks but hasn’t seen her for four years since he’s been in the navy and doesn’t know that Jenny has had his child.

Frances Langford, Buddy Ebsen, Eleanor Powell, James Stewart, Una Merkel, Gunny Saks

Frances Langford, Buddy Ebsen, Eleanor Powell, James Stewart, Una Merkel, Sid Silvers

All three men come to the Lonely Hearts Club and romances generally ensue, though Jenny doesn’t tell Gunny about his child yet because she is still not really sure if she wants to take him back after a four year absence. Ted and Nora fall in love, but complications come into their life in the shape of a Broadway star named Lucy James (Virginia Bruce), who sets her sights on Ted. And of course, Nora gets a job as Lucy’s understudy and one can see where this is going.

Having just seen James Stewart in Vertigo, I can’t think of a more different film than Born to Dance. Cole Porter chose Stewart for the role. He’d never been a leading man in an MGM film before – he wouldn’t be a star until Frank Capra’s 1938 You Can’t Take it With You –  and Porter thought that he could play the role well. And although Eleanor Powell’s voice was dubbed, surprisingly, Stewart does his own singing in the film and even introduces the great standard “Easy to Love.” He has a pleasant enough voice, though somewhat inadequate for Porter’s song. He can’t exactly dance, either, but at least he’s enthusiastic and good-humored in his attempts. Still, it was rather fun to see him at the beginning of his career in a genre that you don’t usually see him in.

Eleanor Powell

Eleanor Powell

The movie introduced two songs that would go on to be standards in The Great American Songbook: “Easy to Love” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and also other catchy ones like “Hey, Babe, Hey.” It seems that Cole Porter not only wrote the songs, but also the score for the film, though there were other people around to orchestrate and and arrange. The 1930s was an extremely fruitful decade for Porter, where many of his greatest songs were written.

The dancing and the songs are where the movie really shines. The plot’s a bit corny, but it’s never dull. And if you like dancing and songs, this is a good film to find it in.

This first video is of Frances Langford, Buddy Ebsen, Eleanor Powell, James Stewart, Una Merkel, and Sid Silvers singing and dancing in “Hey, Babe, Hey.” Buddy Ebsen and Sid Silvers are encountering more resistance than James Stewart in their attempts at wooing.

And a clip of Eleanor Powell dancing. She is still the understudy at this point, but one can tell she won’t be for long.

And James Stewart introduces “Easy to Love.” Cole Porter said, “…Stewart came over to the house and I heard him sing. He sings far from well, although he has nice notes in his voice, but he could play the part perfectly.”

Ella Fitzgerald sings “Easy to Love” a good deal better.

And Frank Sinatra singing “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” which was introduced in the film by Virginia Bruce, who sang it to Jimmy Stewart

 

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Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell Dancing to “Begin the Beguine”

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Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire dance in Broadway Melody of 1940

Broadway Melody of 1940 was the fourth Broadway Melody movie made at MGM, with the last three starring Eleanor Powell. The first she was in was Broadway Melody of 1936, her first starring role, and Broadway Melody of 1938. She is joined in 1940 by Fred Astaire and George Murphy and although many people have commented that Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire do not even remotely have the chemistry of say, Fred Astaire and Ginger Roger, they are both, without doubt, two of the finest tap dancers of their era and it is sheer joy to watch them dance together.

I don’t really remember much of the plot – it seems to me it’s pretty weak – but there is an absolute glut of dancing and the finest example is near the end, when Powell and Astaire dance on a floor that is actually a mirror, with a mirror behind them with light reflected in them. It is completely breathtaking. The song they dance to is called “Begin the Beguine,” written by Cole Porter.

Apparently the beguine is a dance, described as a slow rumba and a cross between French ballroom dancing and Latin folk dancing. It was popular in the ’30s and ’40s and, I read, came from places like Guadeloupe and Martinique. Cole Porter seems to have had his geography a little off, because he composed the song while on a cruise between Indonesia and Fiji. I have also read that it was while on the cruise that he heard a native rhythm that inspired the song.

The song was for his 1935 musical, “Jubilee,” which was extremely popular when it debuted and also contains the great song, “Just One of Those Things.” A fun bit of trivia: the “Jubilee” cast list contains such unexpected names as Melville Cooper (The Sheriff of Nottingham in Errol Flynn’s The Adventures of Robin Hood) and Mary Boland (Mrs. Bennett in the 1940 Pride and Prejudice) and even Montgomery Clift. I wonder if they sang?

“Begin the Beguine” is perhaps most famously played by Artie Shaw and his band, though the song has been recorded numerous times and is one of the great songs of the era. And without further ado, here is Eleanor Powell and Fred Astaire dancing to “Begin the Beguine.”

 
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Posted by on September 12, 2014 in Great American Songbook, Movie Musicals

 

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