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As photographed by Joseph Ruttenberg and Oliver T. Marsh, MGM's Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940) is one of the most visually arresting of all black-and-white film musicals. Ironically, the movie - which marks the only teaming of dancing legends Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell - was to have been shot in color. In his autobiography, Steps in Time, Astaire wrote of his disappointment that "the ominous state of world affairs," and the anticipation that the onset of World War II would mean the loss of revenues from European audiences, dictated the switch to black and white. But, with an abundance of sparkling sets in the best MGM tradition and camerawork by Ruttenberg and Marsh that glides in rhythm to a Cole Porter score, the move has a stylized appeal that color could hardly improve upon.
The glittering cinematography reaches its peak in a climactic, three-part production number built around Porter's "Begin the Beguine" that includes a female chorus, a jazz orchestra and an elaborate mirrored set with a glass floor that had to be kept at temperatures near freezing to guard it from cracking under the lights. The number's justly celebrated final passage, a competitive tap duet by Astaire and Powell, forms a highlight of That's Entertainment! (1974). Film historian David Thomson, in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, writes that he would choose this segment if he could have only one film clip to watch while sentenced forever to solitary confinement: "Black and white and a hard, reflective floor, a set that recedes into darkness. Fred in all white with a black bowtie. Eleanor Powell wears three-quarter heels and a dress that stops just below the knees.... I know of nothing as exhilarating or unfailingly cheerful, and maybe the loveliest moment in films is the last second or so, as the dancers finish, and Powell's alive frock has another half-turn, like a spirit embracing the person."
Broadway Melody of 1940 was important to Astaire because it marked his first starring role at MGM after his RKO successes with Ginger Rogers. Much publicity attended his filming with a new partner, and some fans resented his being "unfaithful" to Rogers. He and Powell, a bit awed by each other's ability, found themselves being almost too polite as they began working together. For weeks they addressed each other as "Mr. Astaire" and "Miss Powell." Afraid of seeming pushy, each held back and waited for the other to take the lead. Powell recalled finally saying to Astaire, "Look, we can't go on like this. I'm Ellie; you're Fred. We're just two hoofers." After that, the two perfectionists worked together smoothly - and so diligently that they exhausted their rehearsal pianist!
The plot of Broadway Melody of 1940, despite a plethora of screenwriters, is a simple one. Astaire and George Murphy play dancing partners who are separated when Murphy - in a mixup involving their names - is chosen instead of Astaire to star in a Broadway musical opposite Powell. When Murphy gets drunk on opening night, the self-effacing Astaire steps in, wearing a mask, to save the day. Later, of course, he gets his own chance to dance his way into the heart of his leading lady, not to mention the audience. Other songs in the Porter score include "I've Got My Eyes on You," "I Am the Captain," "Please Don't Monkey with Broadway," "Between You and Me" and "I Concentrate on You." Despite the celebrity of "Begin the Beguine," Powell chose another duet with Astaire, the "Jukebox Dance," as her favorite routine in films.
Producer: Jack Cummings
Director: Norman Taurog
Screenplay: Walter DeLeon, Leon Gordon, Vincent Lawrence, Albert Mannheimer, Eddie Morna, George Oppenheimer, Thomas Phipps, Sid Silvers, Preston Sturges, from story by Jack McGowan and Dore Schary
Art Direction: John S. Detlie, Cedric Gibbons
Cinematography: Joseph Ruttenberg, Oliver T. Marsh
Costume Design: Adrian, Valles
Editing: Blanche Sewell
Original Music: Cole Porter, Roger Edens (additional music), Walter Ruick (additional music) Principal Cast: Fred Astaire (Johnny Brett), Eleanor Powell (Clare Bennett), George Murphy (King Shaw), Frank Morgan (Bob Casey), Ian Hunter (Bert C. Matthews), Florence Rice (Amy Blake).
BW-102m. Closed captioning.
by Roger Fristoe