Escapism can take some funny shapes, and in 1944’s Broadway Rhythm it literally does. It was meant to be the latest installment in the Broadway Melody series, but L.B. Mayer decided to change it to a vehicle for up and coming singer Ginny Sims. It was also an adaptation of a Kern and Hammerstein musical called Very Warm For May, but the similarities are so subtle no one noticed or cared. According to the New York Times, Very Warm For May “wasn’t precisely a classic.”
On with the show.
Jonnie Demming (George Murphy) is from a showbiz family. His dad, Sam (Charles Winninger) is a famous song-and-dance man who plays the trombone. His sister, Patsy (Gloria DeHaven) prefers performing to school, sneaking down to New York with her classmate, Ray (Kenny Bowers) to perform in a nightclub. They’re doing very well although the place is a dive.
However, Jonnie isn’t thrilled about how talented his family is. He’s putting on a show and he doesn’t want his family anywhere near it. He thinks Sam is too passé and he wants Patsy in college. Jonnie won’t even look at the kids of Sam’s vaudeville friends, no matter how much of an A-game they can bring.
Oh no, Jonnie’s got his sights set on casting Helen Hoyt (Ginnie Sims), a famous Hollywood star who’s in New York for a bit of rest and a change of pace. She’s looking to get into a Broadway show somewhere because she’s secretly broke, and she wants to make sure whatever she’s involved in will be successful. Unfortunately, Jonnie isn’t a sure bet. During a rather contentious meeting with Jonnie at a nightclub Helen accidentally-on-purpose tips a glass of red wine all over Jonnie’s address book.
Helen tries another angle, disguising herself as a Brazilian chanteuse named La Polita, who’s supposedly hugely successful in Brazil and a famous diva. Jonnie’s bowled over, but the illusion evaporates pretty quickly. Jonnie doesn’t care much, though, and he and Helen get romantic.
However, Helen’s initial instincts were right. Jonnie’s show not only stinks, but it’s impossible to understand. She’s not the only one who knows it, either–Sam thinks Jonnie’s show is terrible and has his own show he wants to put on.
Sam and Helen team up with Patsy and Ray and rehearse at a farm upstate by Patsy’s school, starring all the people Jonnie wouldn’t look at. It seems to be going very well, but it’s missing something, and since nothing can go very wrong in a musical, it all ends with a smile.
Is that too big of a spoiler? Meh, no, we’re good.
Broadway Rhythm is pretty cliched. It’s fun, but it’s a backstage story that’s predictable from start to finish, and unfortunately there isn’t enough offstage verbal schtick to hide how weak the story is. Why would Helen go to the trouble of disguising herself as a Brazilian bombshell to get into Jonnie’s show if her heart isn’t really into it? It doesn’t take much for her to come clean, either, and it feels kinda blah.
Helen’s not the only one who doesn’t put up much of a fight when it comes to playing things. These characters are always engaging in mild ruses and finding each other out, but instead of bantering or blowing up or something, everyone smiles and chortles. It’s as if the thing is filling time until the next song or gag.
Despite being thin and pedestrian, Broadway Rhythm got the full MGM treatment. Wartime shortages? No problem. Leo the Lion spared no expense or at least acted like he didn’t. Bright Technicolor, lots of chorus performers, and plenty of music. Every star looked as beautiful as possible, even when dressed down.
Where the film really shines, though, is the musical numbers, which is where it seems to want to be anyway. Tommy Dorsey and his band provide a healthy number of the tunes, with an assist by Ziegfeld veteran powerhouse Charles Winninger. The film gets off to a great start with “National Emblem,” where Winninger slides around with his trombone and Dorsey in a drum major outfit leads the orchestra and makes faces. Ginny Sims is very charming even though she was better in Night and Day, but she gets by. Lena Horne sings “Brazilian Boogie” and “Somebody Loves Me,” in two all-too-quick appearances. Nancy Walker as Trixie has a respectably sizeable part, singing “Keep Those Milk Bottles Quiet” and joshing with Ben Blue, who plays Jonnie’s assistant, Leo.
The look of the film isn’t the only thing that shouts “MGM!” Gloria DeHaven and Kenny Bowers, who were both in their salad days as MGM players at the time, form the juvenile contingent. They were clearly meant to be either on the line of or successors to Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, with Kenny being goofy and Gloria smiling prettily. And just in case the link isn’t clear enough, they’re performing in a literal barn. However, their roles are too minimal to make much of an impression. Broadway Rhythm was their only movie together, as Gloria moved on to ingenue and romantic lead roles and Kenny Bowers would make one more film before finding tepid success in the music business.
My favorite part of the movie was Hazel Scott performing Chopin’s “Waltz In D Flat Major.” Chopin’s music is typically busy so it really lends itself to syncopation and innovation, and MGM really jazzed it up. The look of the sequence is cool too, with oversized shadows of the musicians against a plain gold background. It could be from a different movie and I wish it was. I was geeking out watching it, and I’m not even that big a fan of Chopin.
However, the movie also has moments that are face-pullingly weird. I mean, weird. While visiting the farm where Sam and Helen are rehearsing their show, Trixie sits down on a haystack and Dean Murphy pops out. Who is Dean Murphy, you ask? Well, I don’t know. I’d never seen him before and there’s little to no information about him. He made some TV appearances with Milton Berle, but his body of work is minimal. In Broadway Rhythm Murphy launches into a series of impressions of various MGM players and other celebs with unnerving speed. Joe E. Brown. Clark Gable. Jimmy Stewart. Eleanor Roosevelt. For starters. His energy is so explosive that Trixie can’t get away from him fast enough, and his scene is thankfully brief.
Dean Murphy is only the tip of the weirdness iceberg, though. That farmer Sam and Helen rent the barn from has three daughters who are such enthusiastic performers that the farmer locks them in a store room to keep them away from those wacky showbiz people. That doesn’t stop the guy from talking them up, though, and when Sam finally agrees to see them, the farmer bellows “Suh-wee!” as if summoning the family pig.
Out pop the Ross sisters, who harmonize on “Solid Potato Salad.” They don’t just sing, but they’re contortionists who twist themselves into shapes that would make Cirque du Soleil performers green with envy. They smile through it as if it’s no big deal, despite their stunts being so grotesque they defy description. Seeing as this was the Ross’ only film appearance, it’s a pretty safe bet 1940s moviegoers were less than enthusiastic about the sisters’ backbending abilities.
At the time Broadway Rhythm was released, no one thought it would be a classic and they were right. The only parts of this film that get any nods nowadays are the musical numbers, especially the Ross sisters, if only to illustrate how low MGM’s oddity threshold was. It goes to show that escapism doesn’t have to be good. As long as it helps people forget, it’s done its job. Too bad the bulk of Broadway Rhythm is too mediocre to be habit-forming.
Another review is coming on Saturday. Thanks for reading, all, and happy Thanksgiving to my American friends! Talk to you again soon…
Broadway Rhythm is available on DVD from Amazon.
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