Born to Dance
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In a film career that spanned less than a decade and consisted of leading roles in a scant dozen films, dancer Eleanor Powell left an indelible impression. As an actress, Powell was adequate at best. She lacked the versatility of Ginger Rogers, the personality of Ann Miller, the glamour of Cyd Charisse. But Powell's footwork was dazzling. From Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, who called her "the ablest feminine tap dancer in the world, " to Fred Astaire, who said she was "in a class by herself," her fellow dancers agreed Powell was the greatest.
Powell began dancing professionally in her early teens. By the age of 17, she was on Broadway. In 1935, she made her first two film appearances, in George White's Scandals at Fox, and in Broadway Melody of 1936 at MGM. After a brief return to Broadway, Powell was offered a long-term contract by MGM, and she returned to Hollywood permanently. Among the provisions of the contract was that Powell, who had always choreographed her own numbers, would have 12 weeks per year to create her routines and rehearse them (dancers rarely did their own choreography; Fred Astaire was one of the few who did). The meticulous Powell would also perform her routines silently, on a mattress, during recording of the music, so the orchestra would have the correct tempo. When the number was shot, she danced to a recording of the orchestra, but the film was shot silent, and she dubbed the taps later.
Born to Dance (1936) would be her first film under the new pact, and was the first time Powell was billed above the title. The film is typical of most of Powell's vehicles. She plays an aspiring dancer, this time working in a lonely hearts club. Her first number in the film establishes her as a talented hoofer waiting to be discovered. Romance comes into her life in the form of James Stewart, playing a sailor on shore leave. There's the falling-in-love number, set in a park, with Stewart (improbably) crooning Easy to Love, and Powell dancing. And there's the huge, elaborate finale, which takes place aboard a battleship, in which Powell's character dances her way to stardom.
Born to Dance went through many changes before the film finally made it to the screen. Cole Porter had been signed to write the score even before the script was written. The film had originally been planned for British dancer Jessie Matthews, who was to co-star with Robert Montgomery. However, the British studio which had Matthews under contract refused to loan her for the film. Once Powell was cast, and the comic supporting characters were written in, Montgomery realized the leading man didn't have much to do and backed out. Allan Jones was then chosen to play Powell's love interest, before being replaced by James Stewart. A very young Judy Garland was at one time considered to play one of Powell's pals at the club, but the role went to Frances Langford, who had originally been set for the part of the musical star (a part eventually played by Virginia Bruce).
Cole Porter himself was responsible for the casting of Stewart. The gangly young actor was still in his apprenticeship period, having been signed to an MGM contract the previous year. Born to Dance was his sixth film, and his first as an MGM leading man (he'd been loaned out to Universal for 1936's Next Time We Love, opposite Margaret Sullavan). In a diary entry, Porter noted that he'd suggested Stewart for Born to Dance, and MGM had agreed, as long as Stewart could prove he could sing. "He sings far from well, although he has some nice notes in his voice, but he could play the part perfectly," Porter wrote. Stewart's singing was underwhelming, yet oddly charming. One critic wrote that it reminded him of "the hired man calling in the cows for supper. They come in with a smile, but they look rather surprised....Stewart is very much like the rest of us average guys. Only, our singing, like his, should be reserved for the shower." The reviews were more enthusiastic about Porter's score, which included another song which would become a standard, I've Got You Under My Skin. The song was nominated for an Oscar®, but lost to The Way You Look Tonight, from Swing Time. And while the critics admitted that Powell still wasn't much of an actress, they agreed that as a dancer she was sublime. The Hollywood Reporter wrote that her dancing "seems more magical each time one sees and hears it."
Director: Roy Del Ruth
Producer: Jack Cummings
Screenplay: Jack McGowan, Sid Silvers, based on a story by McGowan, Silvers, & B.G. DeSylva
Cinematography: Ray June
Editor: Blanche Sewell
Costume Design: Adrian
Art Direction: Cedric Gibbons
Music: Cole Porter
Principal Cast: Eleanor Powell (Nora Paige), James Stewart (Ted Barker), Virginia Bruce (Lucy James), Una Merkel (Jenny Saks), Sid Silvers (Gunny Saks), Frances Langford (Peggy Turner).
BW-106m. Closed captioning.
by Margarita Landazuri