Broadway Melody of 1936 is the second of four Broadway Melody films. The first, simply called The Broadway Melody (1929) is likely the most famous, as it was the first musical and first sound film to win Best Picture. It was also M-G-M’s first all-talking picture, the studio’s first musical, and the highest grossing film of the year. It introduced classics often repeated throughout the series (and later, in Singin’ in the Rain), such as “You Were Meant for Me,” “Broadway Melody,” and “Wedding of the Painted Doll.”
Broadway Melody of 1936 isn’t any kind of sequel, and just picks up on the idea of folks wanting to be in a show, and it shows us the numbers as they are rehearsed or performed. In just a few short years, the studios, especially M-G-M—which ended up making the greatest American musicals—learned how to film their numbers, from large group efforts to individual performances. The film is packed with then-famous faces, including Jack Benny, Una Merkel, and Robert Taylor. But it is the newcomers that make the film worth watching, and one of them makes one of the most spectacular appearances as a newcomer that film has ever seen.
But first, the famous ones. Una Merkel is perfectly cast as the tough-but-tender wisecracker she often plays. Benny hadn’t yet become a legend, and he is almost in a separate film. Most of his scenes are with Sid Silvers, a comic second banana as an actor, but who as a screenwriter either contributed to or wrote the scripts for this film and the next two in the Broadway Melody series (“…of 1938” and “…of 1940”) as well as For Me and My Gal and even The Wizard of Oz. There’s a lot of Benny humor and physical comedy, and it doesn’t show the famous comedian at his best. If anything, Silvers might have the edge here.
Robert Taylor is one of the three actors of the time that the leads in Zoolander would have called “ridiculously good looking” along with Errol Flynn and Tyrone Power. Here he surprises, as he sings “I’ve Got a Feeling You’re Foolin’”, not the easiest song to sing. He doesn’t have much of a voice. It has little character, but he’s smooth and on key. This was a time when studios were stretching their dramatic and comic actors to see who might be a musical star. (Check out Jimmy Stewart…. https://www.dailymotion.com/video/x1l3co). Taylor has a nice natural voice, but he isn’t a singer.
The minor revelation is Buddy Ebsen, here in his first film with performing partner and sister Vilma, a dancing team that once billed itself as “The Baby Astaires.” For those who only know Buddy Ebsen in The Beverly Hilbillies or Barnaby Jones, his dancing is something to behold. It’s been described, as loose-limbed, rag-doll, and even “surreal.” All apply. He and Vilma sing a rather silly song called “Sing Before Breakfast,” which introduces the main star of the film. Ebsen’s voice is like his dancing. He sings around the notes, eventually hitting the pitch, but often just barely. (He’s a much better singer than Taylor, though.) Check it out: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VHsE9_A_YSE
Finally, the woman that most folks have forgotten. It’s the inimitable Eleanor Powell. She had a small part in George White’s 1935 Scandals, where she is uncredited but gives a small glimpse of her incredible talent. Here in Broadway Melody of 1936, she is given the star treatment, and puts on an incredible display of dancing talent that was unequaled. She’s not much of an actress, and she is weakest playing the main role as the character. But when her character is imitating Katharine Hepburn in her first Oscar-winning role in 1933’s Morning Glory (very funny) or pretending to be a French dancing star, she’s quite good. But when she dances, watch out. The film gives her a gradual unveiling of her talents. She dances with the Ebsens in a “Wow, she can really tap” moment. Then she gets the classical ballerina treatment (and dances beautifully, often en pointe.) in an overly lush scene that reminds one of the sets for A Midsummer Night’s Dream from a year earlier. Having established those credentials, she does a dazzling technical display of her footwork as the French star, and then at the end, the film gives her the ultimate musical treatment, allowing her to tap like crazy, bend over backward like few others could, and spin like the best ice skaters—except for longer. This last segment is breathtaking, and anyone with an interest in film should see it: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fEaklU6UyZg and start at 1:50.
Perhaps the greatest dance ever recorded on film came four years later, when Powell was finally paired with her only equal, Fred Astaire, in Broadway Melody of 1940. Powell could never be part of a dance couple, as Ginger Rogers was with Astaire. But the pairing of these two giants who shared a great respect for one another is extraordinary. The number is long and starts slowly, but here is what most folks remember when they talk about the number: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ti0FnSLBXSM.
I’d always thought of Powell as a machine-like technician, and a little on the cool side. But she has a glorious smile and a sweet demeanor on film. It’s just that she dances everyone (except Astaire that once) off the screen, and has acrobatic abilities that left even other dancers in awe.
The film, as a film, has its high points and low points. There is some interesting use of film technique, especially in the editing and use of double exposure. The downside of some of the Broadway Melody films is the awful tendency to showcase novelty acts that are out of place and generally annoying to the modern viewer. Here there is a recurrent character who does different kinds of snoring. Really. But this is what fast-forward was made for.
Powell was a unique performer, and she deserves to be more remembered than she is. One good look at her dancing should take care of that for one willing to give her a try.