Sorry, Ann Miller, but Eleanor Powell was the Hollywood musical’s greatest female tap dancer. Ms. Powell, who died at 69 in 1982, would have turned 100 this November 21st. I’ll never forget seeing her for the first time, when That’s Entertainment! (1974) spotlighted her in two breathtaking dances from Rosalie (1937) and Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940). She, more than anyone else, was the revelation of this tribute to the MGM musical, the forgotten performer who knocked everyone’s socks off more than thirty years past her heyday. It’s probably her trio of Broadway Melody pictures for which she is now best remembered.
Powell became a star in 1935 with the release of Broadway Melody of 1936, which somehow got a Best Picture Oscar nomination despite being an ordinary and rather silly backstage musical. MGM musicals had no real identity at this point, and so the studio apparently was looking at Warner Brothers and Busby Berkeley for inspiration, with Powell on board as MGM’s answer to Warners’ Ruby Keeler. (Powell was both prettier and more talented than Keeler.) With her healthy wholesomeness and all-American high spirits, Powell was a natural for movie musicals. Noted for her acrobatic back-bending moves, extremely high kicks, and top-speed spins, she displayed footwork so dazzling and powerful that it never really mattered that she couldn’t act much or generate a presence beyond an appealing blandness. In this picture she dances on toe shoes in a dream ballet, does a mean a cappella tap routine on a bare stage, and a climactic “Broadway Rhythm” in a spangled top hat and tails. Robert Taylor is the handsome producer, Jack Benny a gossip columnist, with Una Merkel nailing the wisecracks.
Broadway Melody of 1938 (1937) managed to meld the backstage musical with the horseracing picture, meaning that it delivers not just an opening night but the big race! Robert Taylor is back as a producer (and songwriter), and Powell again taps brilliantly. George Murphy partners her and even manages to keep up with her. Two scenes will remind you of Singin’ in the Rain, which came fifteen years later: Powell, Murphy, and Buddy Ebsen in a “Good Morning” kind of trio to “If You Want to Learn to Dance,” and a rain-soaked Powell-Murphy park-set number, “Feelin’ Like a Million,” also featuring an umbrella and much splashing around in puddles. The overall movie is a stinker with bright spots, with even Powell running out of new things to show us. It’s 7th-billed Judy Garland who walks off with the movie, singing her classic “Dear Mr. Gable/You Made Me Love You” in a clear, open, strong voice, then hoofing delightfully with Mr. Ebsen. She’s terrific.
Broadway Melody of 1940 is the best of the three. Though it’s more of the usual backstage nonsense, the black and white is glorious, the sets impossibly shiny. And it’s got the exquisite “Begin the Beguine” tap duet between Powell and Fred Astaire, hands down (or is it feet?) the greatest tap dance in movie history. For Powell and Astaire, it was a meeting of the masters, with all their romantic chemistry below their necks, in movements that speak a language mere mortals observe with open-mouthed wonder and bliss. Their bodies are inspired by each other, challenged by each other, turned on by each other, and we’re grateful that they’re letting us watch! And their “Juke Box Dance” is perhaps the second greatest of movie tap routines. They even dare an admirable but failed attempt at something modern and balletic (with masks) to the tune of “I Concentrate on You.” The movie is more Astaire’s than Powell’s. He’s the bona fide superstar, while Powell is in that category only when dancing and smiling, when she’s so obviously thrilled to be sharing her extraordinary gifts with appreciative audiences.