Thursday, June 18, 2020

Broadway Melody of 1938

MGM, 1937
Starring Eleanor Powell, Robert Taylor, George Murphy, and Buddy Ebsen
Directed by Roy Del Ruth
Music by Nacio Herb Brown and others; Lyrics by Arthur Freed and others

Within a year of the release of Broadway Melody of 1936, Eleanor Powell became MGM's biggest dancing star. She first went into the similar Born to Dance and operetta-backstage hybrid Rosalie, then rejoined Ebsen and Taylor for the third entry in the series. Newcomers George Murphy and Judy Garland and beloved singer Sophie Tucker were added to the cast, and Binnie Barnes was borrowed from Universal. How does this odd hybrid of horse race comedy and backstage tale look today? This time, we begin on the street, as former vaudevillians Sonny Ledford (Murphy) and Peter Trot (Ebsen) take a job working for a rich horse-rearing couple that just happens to have bankrolled a Broadway show...

The Story: Peter and Sonny are hired by wealthy Herman J. Whipple (Raymond Walburn) and his spoiled former showgirl wife Caroline (Binnie Barnes) to take care of their race horses. Horse trainer Sally Lee (Powell) is especially interested in one horse, Stargazer, that her family used to own. She sneaks onto a train to be with him and make her way to New York, which is how she meets Sonny and Peter. She's upset when she finds out that Caroline intends to get rid of Stargazer after he injures himself in a race and ends up buying him at auction, despite the high cost.

Meanwhile, she also meets talent agent and producer Steve Raleigh (Taylor) while on the train. He's smitten by her and insists on putting her in his new show, despite the Whipples insisting on known talent. Steve puts up the money for Sally to buy Stargazer but gives it to Sonny to hand to her, claiming he doesn't want her to think it's charity. Sally ultimately leaves the show to focus on Stargazer and prevent friction between the Whipples and Steve. Now all they have to do is let Stargazer win a race...but it'll take some help from the residents of their boarding house, especially the opera-singing son (Charles Igor Gorin) of a Greek shopkeeper (Billy Gilbert), to make Stargazer a winner.

The Song and Dance: Well, they get points for originality. I know of maybe one or two other musicals that cross race track antics and backstage hustle. Garland steals the film with her big "Dear Mr. Gable" and "Everybody Sing" routines. Murphy and Ebsen are also charming, and Murphy partners Powell quite well. Tucker handles her short, sentimental role with relish, and Barnes makes a slightly more interesting spoiled rich woman than June Knight did in '36.

Favorite Number: Murphy, Powell, and Ebsen "Follow In My Footsteps" together as they get to know one another on the train to New York. The big spectacular finale is "Your Broadway and My Broadway." It starts with Sophie Tucker describing the changes in the Broadway theater over the years and ends with Ebsen dancing with Garland and Powell first dancing with the guys, then with the chorus, incorporating several hits from other MGM movies on the way.

Despite her limited screen time, Garland gets the movie's two best numbers. She performs "Everybody Sing" to show off what she can do in Raleigh's office and is so bubbly and energetic, everyone else in the office gets into it. "Dear Mr. Gable" is a Roger Edens re-write of the standard "You Made Me Love You" as Garland sings a letter she's writing to then-major MGM hunk Clark Gable. The song itself still sounds like something a typical 15-year-old girl would write if she e-mailed or contacted her favorite idol, and Garland is natural and adorable performing it.

Trivia: Edens originally wrote "Dear Mr. Gable" for Garland to sing at Gable's birthday party. Producer Louis B. Mayer loved it so much, he had it rushed into Broadway Melody.

What I Don't Like: The movie may have boosted Garland's career, but she doesn't have much to do beyond her two big songs and the finale. "Dear Mr. Gable" has nothing whatsoever to do with the rest of the movie, and it's pretty obvious it was dropped in just to give Garland her big opportunity. The plot may be original, but it's also even more ridiculous than the last movie. In fact, it feels like we have two different films here, A Day at the Races without the Marx Brothers and a Warners-esque backstage story with kids and grandmothers.

Not to mention, other than the re-written "Dear Mr. Gable (You Made Me Love You)," Brown and Freed's score isn't nearly as memorable as their music for the first two films - the big "Your Broadway" finale is especially dull despite its flash.

The Big Finale: Only necessary for major fans of Garland or 30's musicals; cute time-waster on TCM for anyone else.

Home Media: Same deal as Broadway Melody of 1936. It's on DVD from the Warner Archives and can be found for streaming on Amazon Prime.

Amazon Prime

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