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Sunday, April 20, 2008

Weekend Marquee --- Born To Dance

There’s something spooky about a lot of old radio programs. That trick of closing your eyes and being there put me right under the footlights as master of ceremonies Dick Powell supplied (eighty years ago) play by play for the Grauman’s Chinese premiere of Born To Dance. The broadcast is just awkward enough to seem totally authentic. What we hear during surviving remnants of an hour’s program (included as audio extra with Warner’s DVD) is Powell narrating Grauman’s lavish prologue that preceded the feature in November 1936. It’s as close as we’ll get to a hop back for the opening itself, and a vivid reminder of what genuine events movie premieres once were. The ancient recording trips over songs and interviews while voices trail off into ghostly distance as if captured, then released, from some parallel sphere wherein such happenings are relived night after night. An audience of 2700 is heard applauding, while Louella Parsons and Ken Niles on remote greet celebs in attendance. Radio in 1936 wasn’t the slick operation it became within a few years, so there’s a happy sense of wandering amongst this crowd and overhearing what unrehearsed remarks archaic mikes pick up. Were the sound quality better, I’d feel less engaged, for it’s that outer limits struggle to listen in that made it seem I’d at last dreamed my way back to heady days Greenbriar dotes upon. MGM was gearing up a second wave of musicals with Born To Dance. Much of the prologue celebrates that studio’s song and dance legacy, one we now realize was still aborning. Charles King appears onstage to reprise The Broadway Melody, a musical already primitive in hindsight by 1936. Powell hopes Charlie will be back in Metro harness soon. Charlie would like that too, but we know it’s not in the cards, any more than another round of Lawrence Tibbett operettas, despite recognition of those as outstanding MGM achievements. Born To Dance was a major advance on early sound musicals, but their act still wasn’t together. Big numbers looked to Busby Berkeley’s example at Warners. Long term personnel were just settling into Metro’s music department and kinks remained to be ironed out. Standards developed so quickly as to make efforts like Born To Dance an eventual embarrassment of bad taste for creator-arranger Roger Edens. By the mid-forties, a musical just ten years old seemed to beckon from a considerable creative distance, just as those from the fifties would raise bars from the decade before.

James Stewart joked over Born To Dance in That’s Entertainment and led us to believe he was the world’s worst singer. I found him good enough as to wonder why he didn’t do more musicals. Straight-ahead actors and even he-men at Metro occasionally suited up for song-and-dance. Gable in Dancing Lady stood by and watched others perform, but Robert Taylor lent voice to several Broadway Melodies. It was range welcomed and expected of players doing three and more shows a year. Stewart implied his participation in Born To Dance was something aberrant, but studio records reveal plans to double his light tenor (with a baritone!) were scuttled in favor of the actor’s own voice, and it’s said that composer Cole Porter hand-picked Stewart for the lead. Roy Del Ruth was credited director on Born To Dance. He’d been at the helm of song-and-dancers since talkies came. Some of the earliest, though not necessarily best, were signed by him. Other than Busby Berkeley and Lubitsch, when he did them, most directors credited on musicals were there to guide book sections while others took care of numbers staging. There’s a group shot of some cast and crew from Born To Dance in the excellent booklet that comes with the Rhino CD soundtrack. Clarence Brown is standing with Stewart, Eleanor Powell, Del Ruth, and others. Was Brown visiting the set, or had he pinch-hit for the credited director? There were many instances at Metro of uncredited work among staff helmsmen filling in for days, sometimes weeks, due to scheduling or other conflicts. It’s near impossible to trace auteur footprints through most MGM musicals. Our modern perception of them was largely shaped by the sock reception for 1974’s That’s Entertainment and urgency it created to go out and see the old films. Great as they looked in Metro’s compilation however, few were available in worthy presentation elsewhere. I recall rushing home from a college beach trip to see Channel 9’s afternoon broadcast of Singin’ In The Rain, only to find they’d removed the Broadway Melody section in toto. Opportunity was missed when then-distributor United Artists failed to repackage musicals in special groups for syndication. Titles came scattered among feature offerings and little was done to make them more accessible. As with pre-codes, a lot of smaller musicals along the lines of Born To Dance had to wait until the emergence of TCM before fans could really enjoy them again. DVD release did the rest. Warner’s Classic Musicals From The Dream Factory series has been the fulfillment of dreams for fans who’ve waited lifetimes to see these favorites truly showcased as they deserve.

I don’t recall Eleanor Powell having much to do with revival bandwagons that began rolling with That’s Entertainment. Her tap performance with Fred Astaire from Broadway Melody Of 1940 was far-and-away the highlight of the 1974 compilation for many viewers. Most were amazed they’d never heard of this artist or her films. Powell is one old name that still dazzles when watched anew. Her fan following occupies a niche, but it’s dedicated. She’d wisely ducked talk and variety overexposure in the seventies. Younger musical alumni still had careers to pursue and used That’s Entertainment to extend time in the limelight. Powell’s tap successor, Ann Miller, submitted to biz realities of the coarsened seventies, and it was disconcerting to see greats like Astaire and Gene Kelly wearing wide ties and lapels so peculiar to that cheesiest of decades. The wonderful DVD set of all three That’s Entertainments, especially with its extras, has as much value as a time capsule of that more recent period when nostalgia began to reveal itself as a marketable commodity. Finally seeing something like Born To Dance complete makes you realize how truncated musical numbers were in That’s Entertainment. What we got in those compilations were bite-sized souvenirs not unlike comedy bits trimmed to the bone by Robert Youngson for his slapstick collections. Swingin’ The Jinx Away is the extravaganza that finishes Born To Dance with fifteen minutes of song, dance, reprise, and back again. The patriotic fervor comes a little unexpected of a peacetime musical, though examination of any number of mid-thirties releases, in several genres, sees flags flying as though we were gearing up for the next conflict. Preparedness pics have been identified from the two or so years preceding Pearl Harbor, but you could argue Hollywood was calling us to arms long before that. 1936 audiences clearly liked their show stoppers going on and on. I numbed out at times, but repeat viewings of highlights made me glad for having access to routines finally complete. Chapter stops make convenient jukeboxes of all these great musicals, and I’ve been lured back by more than one number from Born To Dance (just what is the magnetic appeal of Virginia Bruce singing Love Me, Love My Pekinese?). Accounts indicate the picture had a negative cost of $1.4 million and took domestic rentals of 1.6, with foreign bringing $781,000. There was a final profit of $141,000.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, John: Very nice piece. I've always thought that "Born to Dance" was the probably the most watchable of Elanor Powell's Metro musicals -- in part because of it's absolutely-terrific Porter score (I've often wondered how many people, when they hear Sinatra and other saloon-singers warble "I've Got You Under My Skin" actually realize it was written for this picture? The logical answer: probably none -- and probably fewer care)."Born" is virtually the only one of her films that I can recall seeing on television when I was a kid, and I liked it alot. I certainly remember when "That's Entertainment!" opened -- it played out here at a theatre called The Beverly (later, it became a bank, and now even the original structure is gone) in downtown Beverly Hills, and it was considered a Very Big Deal at that time. I remember being so bowled-over by it, that I went several times. Two-things stand out in my mind: When Buster Keaton appeared, in that long-tracking shot at the famous MGM luncheon, the audience breaking out in spontanious-applause, and EVERYBODY afterward talking about Ms. Powell, and what a revelation she was! (possibly, because unlike Garland, Astaire, Kelly, her films had been buried for so long, and exposure to what the lady had accomplished, somewhat forgotten). Particularly nice, as she was still alive at that time. I think, John, you may be mis-reading the intent behind the "Swingin' the Jinx Away" number -- I don't think it had anything to do with military-preparedness at all, but heralding the fact that we were finally coming out of the depression, and The New Deal, etc. (don't forget, this was being released the same year Roosevelt was running for a second-term). Similarly, I think Metro's big-push with Powell and this film, was doubtless inspired by the huge grosses RKO was then taking-in with Astaire & Rogers at the box-office. Finally, it's not hard (at least for me) to divine the allure of "Love Me, Love my Pekingese" at all- it's Cole Porter at his campiest -- and wittiest -- with all kinds of fun couplets lyrically, like "Spite of your antipaties/if you want to cultivate me/gotta love chi-chi" --or, at least, something like that!And any musical-number that can fold the always-wonderful Ray Walburn into the spread certainly has my respect! Keep 'em comin' John, outside of the bar next to our office, Greenbriar has become my favorite drop-off point at the end of a hectic day! Talk with you soon. Take care. R.J.

11:50 PM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Hi, John -- Thanks for the posting. As you probably know, Jimmy Stewart did do at least one other musical, "Pot o' Gold," in which he sings the forgotten wartime novelty "When Johnny Toots His Horn." This may not be one of Jimmy's shining hours, but it was well received by critics in 1941. Jimmy's singing still goes over well today; I screened this picture for an audience a couple of weeks ago and the viewers were pleasantly surprised.

"That's Entertainment!" was actually announced by title on national television, two years before it was released. At the time, as the months passed with no word of "That's Entertainment!," I thought it might have died on the drawing board. When it finally did make its premiere, I was there on the first day (and I stayed for three shows!).

12:09 PM  
Blogger David K. said...

Thanks John. Nice piece. I've been able to watch B.M. of 36 and 38 and am looking forward to Born to Dance and Lady Be Good. I'd never seen Eleanor Powell in a movie before last weekend and BOY, she dominates the screen. And not just when she's dancing. I have a lot of actresses that I'd put in my "Favorites" for a variety of reasons, but I don't recall any actress literally GLOWING on the screen like Eleanor Powell. I wish she'd done more films, but I'm grateful for the ones she did. Keep up the great work!

5:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The MGM pre-48s were largely absent from Boston TV for almost a decade until 1974,when WCVB-TV showcased them in a series they called "The Great Entertainment", hosted by former Bozo Frank Avruch.There they were, all the movies I'd read about but hadn't been able to see(save some trips to revival theatres)spilling out to the airwaves in a kind of MGM/UA horn of plenty.But I was bummed because I had to miss most of them-I was going to private school, and couldn't stay up for the 11:30 movie, and other kids at my school(the sweathogs,lets face it)didn't want to watch most of the afternoon airings.For the record, the inagural movie was "Three Musketeers" with Gene Kelly.'CVB's package was missing many pre-codes and b's, but another Boston station got some of those about 5 years later.

1:02 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

That IS Buddy Ebsen in a couple of those photos, isnt it?

8:28 PM  
Blogger John McElwee said...

Yep, that's him.

9:35 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

R.J. is probably right about Born to Dance, and he's definitely right about Cole Porter's score: it's one of his masterpieces, equal (on its own scale) to Anything Goes and Kiss Me, Kate. Myself, though, I've always sorta preferred Broadway Melody of 1940 -- mainly because of the presence of Fred, especially in that dazzling "Begin the Beguine" marathon. I think the reason Ms. Powell was such a revelation in That's Entertainment! was that her heyday at MGM had antedated the advent of the Technicolor musical; once color TV took over the nation's living rooms, what station manager would go for Born to Dance or Rosalie when they could get Anchors Aweigh or Take Me Out to the Ball Game?

It's easy now to overlook the tremendous splash That's Entertainment! made in 1974. I think it may even have given an important nudge to the film preservation movement; even as Liza Minnelli gushed "Thank God for film!", those in the know were beginning to realize that film uncared-for was no more permanent than Renaissance frescoes.

3:31 PM  

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