Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Born to Dance; Speedy

“Born to Dance” (1936) is oodles of fun to watch, 105 minutes of terrific Cole Porter songs, dancing, comedy and luscious production design in the best M-G-M style. There’s a lot of exuberance on display here, which translates into good will for the audience.

Eleanor Powell was one of the great female dancers in the movies, and she’s shown to her best advantage here. The final number is a little ditty called “Swingin’ the Jinx Away” set on the deck of a mock battleship. It runs more than 10 minutes along, boasts seemingly a hundred or so extras, but Powell commands center stage and is amazing to watch. She sports a huge grin throughout the whole number, and golly, I think she means it. In her numbers she looks like she’s having the time of her life as she taps away. With other dancers, sometimes the smiles look forced, like Ray McDonald in the “Hoe Down” number from “Babes on Broadway” (1941). But dancers like Powell and Rita Hayworth seem to attain a special glow when dancing and it’s a lot of fun to watch.

Equally enjoyable is James Stewart in one of his first movies. He exhibits a pleasant singing voice as he croons “Easy to Love” to Powell and joins the cast and crew in the exuberant “Hey, Babe, Hey” number. He kicks up his heels in the number, and appears astonished, and pleased with himself, that he’s keeping up with professional dancers like Powell and Buddy Ebsen.

The trailer on the DVD is interesting, because it highlights selections from the Porter score, but does not highlight the song that has stood the test of time, “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” Not the swinging version known thanks to Frank Sinatra, the song here is sung at a more languid tempo by Virginia Bruce. I love the look she gives Stewart as she finishes the song, a long lingering close up of her over a champagne glass. That inviting look says more than pages of dialogue could.

“Born to Dance” is probably the best sounding of the 1930s M-G-M musicals, thanks to Alfred Newman’s musical direction. He was freelancing at this point in his career before deciding on a long-term contract with 20th Century Fox in the late 1930s. It’s fun to think what he could have bought to M-G-M, but with Lennie Hayton, Johnny Green, Conrad Salinger and others in the future, the M-G-M musical was in more than capable hands. But there’s no denying the extra oomph that Newman brings here.

There’s a riotous scene after the “Easy to Love” number when a suspicious cop (Reginald Gardiner) spies Powell dancing while Stewart air conducts the orchestra. Gardiner stops the proceedings, holds up his hands, and then proceeds to air conduct the music in a manner befitting a symphony conductor, with the music taking on the flavor of a vast symphony. Gardiner’s facial expressions are priceless here, and his great mop of hair is flying every which way as he conducts the music to an ever faster pitch.

The scene must have been popular with audiences, since the next year in the delightful Astaire musical “A Damsel in Distress” he does a similar scene, only this time with grand opera.

Any movie with Raymond Walburn as a dimwitted admiral is OK with me. There’s also an astonishing number Virginia Bruce called “Love Me, Love Me Pekingese” which has to be seen to be believed, and I mean in a good way. This love song to her favorite pooch, with accompanying approval from the lads of the U.S. Navy, is one of the many highlights of this most enjoyable movie.

Rating for “Born to Dance”: Three stars.

I also watched “Speedy” (1928), Harold Lloyd’s last silent feature, and a wonderful time capsule of a movie. Filmed on location in New York, there’s a marvelous sequence where Harold takes his girlfriend (Ann Christy) to the Coney Island amusement park for a day. It looks like a wonderful place to spend the day. I’ve heard relatives speak of the fun they used to have at Chicago’s version of Coney Island, Riverview, and think it must have been something like the Coney Island on display here.

There’s a fun cameo by Babe Ruth too, as cabbie Harold gives The Babe a cab ride from Hell. What fun to see a true baseball legend.

“Speedy” ends with a big chase scene and while it doesn’t contain the laughs and thrills that Harold gave us in “Girl Shy” (1924) or “For Heaven’s Sake” (1926) it still astonishes us with its stunt work, especially since it was filmed on actual New York streets. No soundstage work here.

What I like about a lot of Harold’s movies is he knows how to leave us laughing. Many of his films have a final scene or image that gives the audience one final laugh, sending us out on a grinning high. “Speedy” is no exception and its last image is one of Harold’s best.

Rating for “Speedy”: Three stars.

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