Sunday, February 09, 2003


This series of musicals seems to have been MGM's answer to Warner Brothers' GOLD DIGGERS series. The first one, BROADWAY MELODY, released in 1929, was the second film to win the Best Picture Oscar. I've never seen it, though from descriptions, it sounds like the typical "putting on a musical" movie with production numbers and backstage drama (and comedy, undoubtedly). Certainly that's what the later movies in the series are like (and the GOLD DIGGERS movies as well). There's nothing wrong with the MGM musicals, but they lack the spark of the early Warner Brothers musicals, and they certainly weren't predictors of the MGM Golden Age musicals of the 40's and 50's. The production numbers are glossy and generally fun to watch, but often feel too forced in a way that even the most mannered of Busby Berkeley's numbers did not.

In BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936 (released in '35), Robert Taylor plays a Broadway producer trying to get backing for his new show. June Knight is the socialite willing to put up money in exchange for a leading role. Eleanor Powell is an old friend of Taylor's from back home who arrives in NYC to see him and, more or less on a whim, decides to try out for the show. She impersonates a French singer in an attempt to build some buzz and falls in with Buddy Ebsen and his real-life sister Vilma, dancers with a country bumpkin routine who are also trying out for Taylor's show. Jack Benny is a columnist (think of Walter Winchell), Sid Silvers is his sidekick, and Una Merkel is Taylor's secretary. I missed the presence of Allen Jenkins and Joan Blondell, who, if this had been done at Warners', would have been perfect as the sidekick and the secretary (Silvers is so-so, though Merkel is fine as always). Some of the songs here, including "I've Got a Feeling You're Fooling," "You Are My Lucky Star," and "Broadway Rhythm," were used to better effect much later in SINGIN' IN THE RAIN.

BROADWAY MELODY OF 1938 (1937) is inferior, as the law of sequels would lead one to expect, although it does contain one famous sequence, the young Judy Garland singing "You Made Me Love You" to a picture of Clark Gable. Taylor and Powell are back as producer and star, as is Buddy Ebsen, here a little less hayseed and a little more "street." Sophie Tucker has a rare movie appearance as Garland's mother, herself a retired vaudeville star, and she gets to sing a thinly disguised autobiographical song. Binnie Barnes is the rich bitch and Raymond Walburn her dotty husband (coming off as a second-rate Guy Kibbee). Robert Benchley is funny in a sidekick role, and a novelty performer named Robert Wildhack does a short and weird bit as a sneezer (he did a snoring routine in the '36 MELODY). The best songs here are Tucker's "Some of These Days" and a nice dance number called "Follow in My Footsteps" with Powell, Ebsen, and George Murphy. The movies are fine, but Taylor and Powell don't quite have the oomph to make them special.

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