Dir. Roy Del Ruth. Starring Eleanor Powell, Jack Benny, Robert Taylor
I’m not usually a person who goes in for tedious humor, which is where a lot of the jokes in Broadway Melody of 1936 come from. Robert Wildhack is the movie’s primary vessel for this kind of joke, playing a man who is trying to get put into Gordon’s (Taylor) Broadway show on the basis of the number of snores he can perform. It’s a lot. It is almost certainly a double-digit number of snores. They sound very lifelike, and it’s impressive that this guy can do them on command while maintaining a basically normal facade. It is also, as is the case with real snoring, not particularly interesting, and the joke is that Keeler (Benny) and Snoop (Sid Silvers) have to sit through this snore-and-bore routine multiple times during the movie. Half running gag and half hoping to wear the audience down, there’s not much to recommend this professor of the soft palate; even Jack Benny can’t one-line his way into making those scenes appealing.
On the other hand, some of the more humdrum jokes in 1936 end up working based on sheer enthusiasm. The movie turns on Keeler’s plot to destabilize Gordon a smidge, who has been responding with physical violence to Keeler’s improved work ethic as a gossip columnist. Mademoiselle La Belle Arlette is not real, but Keeler intends to make her seem like a genuine French star who could anchor a show. Thus a gag where Snoop, in drag, is put in a hotel window to pretend to be Mademoiselle. Keeler then has Snoop, still in drag, practice answering the phone as Mademoiselle’s French secretary. “She is biz-zee. She is vairy, vairy biz-zee. Rehearsing!” It’s said enough that other people start to finish the line before anyone else can get it out, and after a while you kind of find yourself chuckling at it. It’s still not as funny as Keeler’s criticisms of Snoop’s accent work (“The other fifty million Frenchmen must be wrong” is the better line, though I like Snoop’s suggestion that he knows French based on his ability to say, “Si, si, senor”), which is miles off from the Streep standard, but it’s a tag that works because Sid Silvers puts his whole body into saying it every time, and that whole body is, inexplicably, still in women’s clothing. Hamstrung as it is by the genre of joke, it’s still one of the movie’s finer funny moments.
As a comedy, it’s easy to be indifferent to 1936, which owes more of what makes it funny to the dazed Silvers than Benny as the straight man. (Silvers has a writing credit on this movie, and one wonders how many of the choice lines he managed to sneak in for himself. More power to him for anything he carried off.) The two of them are sitting at a counter dunking their doughnuts, and Snoop drops his doughnut so completely that it probably bonked someone in China in the head. Keeler takes pity on him. Do you know what the hole in a doughnut is for? he asks. “Ventilation,” Snoop replies, with the same kind of dumb hopefulness that John Cazale put into “Wyoming” forty years later. As a romance, there’s even less going on. Robert Taylor is very handsome, but he lacks the energy of other impresarios from similar movies (Warner Baxter, James Cagney, etc.) and it’s tough to know what women see in him besides his very good looks. Irene (Powell), the Albany ingenue who dated Gordon when they were in high school, and Lillian (June Knight), the wealthy widow funding Gordon’s show and angling for the lead, have almost no screen time together. There is very little competition in this movie, romantically or professionally, and if there were more I’m not sure that Taylor would have been able to stand up to it.
Fortunately, the comedy and the romance are decidedly the B- and C-plots for 1936, because when it functions primarily as a vehicle for dance, it is difficult not to be blown away by it. I say this even though there are relatively few setpieces that compare to the hoofer madness of Busby Berkeley’s contemporaneous productions. Dave Gould is good, but there is very little grandeur in this movie. It peaks in the beginning during the “I’ve Got a Feelin’ You’re Foolin'” number, which belongs to Taylor and Knight. At one point, Taylor in tails bounces over seven or eight women like he’s on a pogo stick; it’s not dancing in the way someone like Powell does it, but I think it’s about as close as this number, and thus the movie, comes to something acrobatic or opulent. The dancing is on its highest level when it’s given to Eleanor Powell, who might be the best tap dancer I have ever seen in a movie. It doesn’t seem possible that someone’s feet could move that quickly, or that someone’s high kicks (which practically knocked me over from my vantage point on the couch) could be both rhythmic and surprising. The movie does a good job of giving Powell multiple ways to showcase that talent, beginning almost humbly before hitting knockout after knockout. Irene wanders across a dance pair, Ted and Sally (Buddy and Vilma Ebsen), who are making a late breakfast for themselves on their rooftop. It’s not a grandiose routine by any stretch, but that’s where the charm comes in. The dance is layered into the activity of getting coffee ready or, in one smooth kick, the way Ted pushes in Sally’s stool. Powell joins into it—not entirely modestly, as she finishes off her solo routine by doing that twirling thing that makes her skirt look like an upside-down champagne saucer—and in a choice that I dunno that I would have made but also admire a little bit, the end of “Sing Before Breakfast” cuts off Powell and the Ebsens from the waist down. We can see they’re dancing yet, but it’s the three of them smiling into the camera, the words taking precedence, the dancing taking a back seat. We’ve seen how good Powell is, but we haven’t been overwhelmed with her. She has a dream ballet to “You Are My Lucky Star,” which puts her ghostlike on the stage before yielding to the actual ritzy performance; at the end, ghostlike people clap for her. Again, the magic of that number is less Powell, who is still wonderful, but the double exposure, and the song as well. If there is a way where 1936 stands out from its competitors, it’s that the songs are better songs. I’m thinking of Footlight Parade, where the “Shanghai Lil” number is a wall of people and very impressive, but the song is definitely the backdrop as opposed to the star. “You Are My Lucky Star” or “Broadway Rhythm” are just better songs, more pleasing and more attractive, and what the movie loses in scope it makes up for in understated pleasure.
That overwhelming moment from Powell comes later, when Mademoiselle La Belle Arlette actually shows up to practice for Gordon’s show. Gordon’s kindly secretary, Kitty (Una Merkel), discovers that Snoop is Mademoiselle (as well as Mademoiselle’s prosaic secretary), and figures out a way to smuggle Irene into Gordon’s show after all. (Gordon has, at this point, sent Irene home; he doesn’t want her to get marred by show business, which is the kind of thing people still talk about now, but it is very interesting that this is the direction the movie goes in. There’s the “for me and nor for thee” stuff, obviously, but that’s less interesting than the romantic nostalgia that Gordon is holding onto now that he’s a bigshot producer. Irene is a woman and not a girl any longer, as he remarks to her in an empty theater, but the fresh-faced woman in front of him is not so different from the dreaming girl he knew before. When he sends her home without ever giving her an audition, it seems that he does it primarily to hang onto a calmer past which he can remember anew thanks to these few days with Irene.) Mademoiselle, who doesn’t actually exist, is the perfect cover for Irene to take her chance at the vacant lead role in Gordon’s show, even though Irene is not all that much more convincing as a Frenchwoman than Snoop would have been. Her first rehearsal does not begin auspiciously; she cannot get the piano player to strike the right musical tone for her to dance to, and in the end decides to perform without music. This is the purest expression of Powell’s talent, and although there’s the obligatory performance in the literal final ten minutes, I found this to be the true showstopper. Stripped of sequins and showtunes, without any reliance on unusual editing techniques or shoehorned narrative, there is drama and music just in watching her dance and hearing the melodic rat-a-tat of her perfect steps.