Fred Astaire seemed like he had the corner on the whole top-hat-and-tails thing, but he had an equally strong counterpart in Eleanor Powell, who also rocked that particular form of evening attire. Only hers were often trimmed with sequins. Powell’s dancing was gutsy, athletic, and precise. One of the roles she tapped her way through was that of Nora Paige in the 1936 film, Born To Dance.
There’s a plot, but as is often the case with non-integrated musicals, not much of one. The film starts out with a Navy sub pulling into New York Harbor, and all the sailors on board are getting ready to go on shore leave. One especially, Gunny Sacks (!) (Sid Silvers) is looking forward to seeing his wife, who he hasn’t laid eyes on since joining up. He convinces his friends, Ted (James Stewart) and Mushy (Buddy Ebsen) to provide moral support.
Meanwhile, Nora Paige (Eleanor Powell) comes into the lobby of the Lonely Hearts Club with a suitcase to see if she’s got any mail. The clerk behind the desk, Jenny (Una Merkel) is slightly annoyed, but then thinks better of it and comes over to talk to her. Nora is a dancer, of course, and she’s trying to break into show business. Jenny has her dance for the crowd to see if she’s the real deal, and everyone is delighted.
Jenny invites Nora to stay with her until she gets on her feet, and it just so happens that Jenny’s apartment is right behind the front desk of the Lonely Hearts Club. It also just so happens that Jenny has a small daughter, Sally (Juanita Quigley) by her marriage to Gunny. Yes, Gunny. The two of them married after partnering at a dance marathon. Then Jenny accused Gunny of not contributing to the world, so he joined the Navy, where he’s been for the last four years. She never told him about Sally, either.
Gunny, Ted and Mushy show up at the Lonely Hearts Club so that Gunny can reunite with Jenny, and while that’s going on Mushy chats up a waitress, Peppy (Frances Langford) and Ted meets Nora at the soda fountain. Gunny and Jenny hit it off, as in Jenny socks Gunny, but in the end they all group up to sing “Hey, Babe, Hey.”
One thing to remember about this film: It was one of the few times in James Stewart’s career when he had to sing and dance. He was very new in the movie business in the mid- to late thirties, and MGM was trying to figure out what niche best suited him. That same year, in the Jeanette MacDonald-Nelson Eddy vehicle, Rose Marie, Stewart also played Marie’s brother, John, who’s escaped from prison, where he’s been doing time for murder. Yeah, the role seems a bit improbable for a guy like Jimmy Stewart. Nowadays, we know him as being a classic everyman with depth, but it took MGM execs a while to see that. In Born To Dance, Stewart was really put forward as a heartthrob–a telephone operator in one scene says Ted has “a smile like concentrated vodka.”
Here’s a sample of Stewart’s song-and-dance act, as well as that of the rest of the ensemble:
Getting back to the plot, the sub crew gets a visit from Broadway start Lucy James (Virginia Bruce), who parades around like a queen. The sailors are dazzled, but Lucy is not easy–the way to her heart is through her Pekingese. So much so that when her darling doggy falls overboard, the entire crew dives in after it. Ted is the lucky guy (or not?) to grab the dog, and Lucy calls him later to make a date with him. It is good publicity, after all. Ted goes, but it means standing Nora up. She’s heartbroken, especially the next day when she sees Ted and Lucy’s picture in the paper.
Jenny, Nora, and Sally go visit the guys on their sub, and Nora gives Ted the cold shoulder. As if that isn’t enough, she passes off Jenny’s daughter as hers and tells Ted she’s married. Jenny still doesn’t want Gunny to know he’s a father anyway, so there’s that.
Ted keeps on dating Lucy, but his heart isn’t in it, because he’s really in love with Nora. His dalliance with Lucy means he has a little fame, though, and he plies that into talking producer James McKay (Alan Dinehart) into letting Nora understudy for Lucy in his new show. Only he doesn’t want Nora to know about it.
It’s a good thing, too, because Lucy is most definitely a prima donna. It’s not a shock, because it’s practically a law in movies like this that the established star has to be really horrible so as to make room for the new leading lady. One guess as to who that is.
The way this film winds up isn’t a shock either, but it’s a lot of fun getting there. The music in Born To Dance was written by Cole Porter, and many of the songs became hits.
The dance routines are equally charming. Buddy Ebsen gets in quite a bit of what they used to call “eccentric” dancing, which basically amounts sometimes to a silly walk set to music. He spends much of his screen time with Frances Langford, whose character somehow goes straight from the Lonely Hearts Club to a featured singing role in Mr. McKay’s show.
Eleanor Powell was a treat to watch as well. One of the things I enjoy about her style of performance is that she was not only a very limber and precise dancer, but her face wasn’t frozen in a smile the whole time. She made faces and hammed things up, playing to her costars and having a ball. Born To Dance came on the heels of her previous smash hit, The Broadway Melody of 1936, and at that time she was a huge star. Ann Miller said in an interview that Eleanor Powell helped put MGM in the black, and after watching her early film work, it’s easy to see why.
All in all, Born To Dance has a lot of classic elements, and is a great example of the MGM musical coming into its own. It must have been a blissful escape for late-Depression audiences, and I found it was the same for me as well.
Okay, all, here’s what’s coming up in May:
Anyone who wants to get in on a blogathon or two can visit one of these fine establishments:
- Maddy Loves Her Classic Films
- Silver Screenings
- Classic Film & TV Cafe
- Realweegiemidget Reviews
- Return To the 80s
All righty, thanks for reading, everyone! More posts coming next week…