The “Broadway Melody” films that MGM released between 1929 and 1940 are a series of four pictures that have nothing in common except for their name. They are, typically speaking, low on plot and high on musical talent. They also were extremely successful. The second of the four, “Broadway Melody of 1936” (1936), was the first of three to star Eleanor Powell, and also receives a boost from Jack Benny in a comic relief supporting performance. The plot, however, is nothing too exciting, and leaves the audience begging for more dancing…and Eleanor Powell.
Irene Foster (Powell) is an aspiring musical performer who travels to New York City to see a big time theater producer, Robert Gordon (Robert Taylor), who also happens to be an old friend from high school. He is against Irene trying to be a performer, but his secretary (Una Merkel) teams with Irene to prove her talents to Gordon. It seems that everybody except for Gordon is anxious to get Irene dancing. There is the brother/sister dance team (real life brother and sister Vilma & Buddy Ebsen), who become Irene’s friends, and she even convinces a gossip columnist (Jack Benny) and his slap-stick side kick (Sid Silvers), to lend a helping hand.
Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed put together a handful of decent songs for this picture, most of which are more remembered today as being recycled in the more popular “Singin’ in the Rain” (1952). In fact, “Broadway Melody of 1936” was well received upon its initial release and was nominated for three Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Story (I don’t get that one), and my favorite (forgotten) category, Best Dance Direction, which it won! An even more impressive feat when you consider the tough competition from “Top Hat” (1936).
It’s a good thing that this film does have such marvelous dancing, because the rest kind of falls short. Jack Benny and Sid Silvers are funny, but aren’t given enough screen time to make a significant impact. This movie (like so many 1930’s musicals) is really just about the dancing anyway. And that my friends, is where Eleanor Powell is allowed to shine. She is absolutely amazing in dance after dance, scene after scene. Her movements are an inspiration, and when she really gets going in her highlighted dance number, Powell becomes the very definition of sexy. She’s a breath of fresh air every time she starts moving, and the overall picture could have benefited significantly from more of her and less of everything else. If she is the only reason you watch “Broadway Melody of 1936”, believe me, that is reason enough. She gets ★★★★★, and the rest of the film only gets ★★.