Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Eleanor Powell centenary

Eleanor Powell in Born to Dance (1936)

Today marks the 100th anniversary of the birth of tap-dancing actress Eleanor Powell. TCM is spending the day with Powell by showing a bunch of her movies, but somewhat surprisingly, they're not showing Born to Dance. Thankfully, it's gotten a DVD release (although I get the impression it's out of print), so I have no qualms about recommending it to you now.

James Stewart plays Ted, and Sid Silvers plays Gunny, a pair of Navy men on leave in New York City. Gunny's wife Jenny (Una Merkel) runs a "lonelyhearts" club where people from out of town can go for some eats and a dance, which is also where Nora (Eleanor Powell) works. Gunny, having been deployed with Ted for almost four years, hasn't seen his wife in that time, so is eager to see her. Unfortunately, Jenny doesn't find Gunny as appealing as he was before he went out to sea; complicating matters is that when he left years earlier, Gunny also left her pregnant. But Born to Dance is a musical comedy, so none of this is too serious. Nora dances at the club, but really wants to dance on Broadway. Ted meets her and immediately falls for her.

That might be enough for a thin story, but there's a little more here. The Navy's public affairs department has arranged for famous Broadway star Lucy (Virginia Bruce) to visit the ship on which Ted and Gunny are deployed. When she does, her dog accidentally falls overboard, and Ted falls into the harbor to save the dog. The Navy thinks this is great publicity: play up a relationship between Ted and Lucy. Even though Ted really prefers Nora, duty requires him to accompany Lucy, which understandably leads Nora to believe Ted no longer cares for her. Ted gets a bright idea, though: get Nora a part in Lucy's latest show, which will surely bring the two back together.

Born to Dance is a musical, which as I've mentioned a couple of times in the past isn't my favorite genre. The quality in Born to Dance, however, is quite apparent, and it's a very well-made movie even if it's not necessarily my cup of tea. I think one of the problems with the genre is that in a musical comedy like this, you pretty much know how it's going to end. The characters sing (including Stewart, who is entertaining even if he's not much of a singer), they dance, and the two leads are bound to end up together after the final musical number which defies reality: I don't think any Broadway stage could hold these things. Powell dances -- boy does she dance -- and the secondary characters provide the requisite comic relief. To be fair, it's a formula that even some not-so-musical romantic comedies used; I just always find breaking into song and dance as musical characters do unrealistic. As fot the music, that's a treat in and of itself. The lyrics were written by Cole Porter, and include what is now a classic song, "I've Got You Under My Skin".

As I mentioned at the beginning, Born to Dance has gotten a DVD release, or actually more than one. Amazon lists a two-movie set which appears to be out of print, while the TCM shop sells a six-DVD box set which is obviously more price. If you like musicals, Born to Dance is a treat.

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