Monday, February 06, 2017

OVP: Born to Dance (1936)

Film: Born to Dance (1936)
Stars: Eleanor Powell, James Stewart, Virginia Bruce, Una Merkel, Sid Silvers, Buddy Ebsen
Director: Roy Del Ruth
Oscar History: 2 nominations (Best Dance Direction, Original Song-"I've Got You Under My Skin")
Snap Judgment Ranking: 4/5 stars

While the rest of America was watching the Super Bowl, I was instead trying to find a bit more room on my DVR for more of 31 Days of Oscar (side note: I know that I'm going to hear a lot of "greatest game of all time" today but I can't really watch football be played anymore without thinking about how cultural icons like Tom Brady and Russell Wilson eventually will succumb to CTE at some point in their lives, and how this sport really needs to be retired alongside of boxing, so it's not even fun for the commercials now, though Lady Gaga killed it at halftime, which I did watch).  Anyway, the movie I chose as my side note was an early hit in the MGM stable of movies, so early in fact that not only does Jimmy Stewart star in a musical here, but he does so without top billing.  The film, your standard "romance while dreaming of stardom" film, is light and spry even as it's highly predictable, and was a wonderful Sunday evening treat.

(Spoilers Ahead) The film follows Ted (Stewart) a sailor on leave from the Navy (he's just about to finish up a tour of duty), who along with two of his buddies Gunny (Silvers) and Mush (Ebsen), are going on-shore trying to find a little bit of action with some NYC women.  There they each find a bit of romance, with the film's focus primarily being on Nora (Powell), Ted's romantic partner, and then later on a Broadway star Lucy James (Bruce) who tries (in vain) to win Ted away from Nora.  In the meantime, we get a lot of musical numbers and some wise-cracking from Jenny (Merkel, because who else are you going to pick as a wise-cracking sidekick to a female lead in 1936?).  The film, while formulaic, moves along at a deeply brisk pace for 106 minutes of movie (usually movies of this era felt shorter, but this one doesn't need to be as it's so quick), and we get some wonderful movie moments.

It's hard to imagine this, but at one point Cole Porter classics were, in fact, originals, and we get that here with "Easy to Love" and "Swingin' the Jinx Away" being performed for the first time.  Best of all is "I've Got You Under My Skin," which would become a Sinatra standard late in his career, but here is sang oddly enough for the first time by Virginia Bruce.  Bruce is a brilliant vocalist and all, but I don't recall ever seeing an Oscar-nominated song sang by "the other woman" when you aren't expected to feel anything for her (this isn't really an Eponine situation-Bruce eventually tries to get our leading lady fired).  It gives a strange aura to a song you know is a classic-it makes it seem more like a naughty seduction rather than a straight-forward love song, and considering at that point in the movie you want Stewart to end up with Powell, it's just odd.  The song and the moment are still great, but it's not what you'd expect, and considering we all know this song by heart, it's fascinating to look at where it came from originally.

The movie's other Oscar nomination was in the now defunct "Dance Direction," a category that only existed for a few years in the 1930's before largely being forgotten (choreographers never again getting their due outside the random Honorary Award to Michael Kidd).  The dancing, considering both Powell and Ebsen are amongst the cast, is sublime-the final number, including some bizarre but brilliant moves from Ebsen and then a show-stopping, heart-pounding number from Powell (who makes up for a rather routine leading woman charm with moves that would make Ann Miller say "wow"-particularly her tapping through a wave of trombones), is a particular highlight.  This is in the same era as Astaire-and-Rogers, so I make no promises in terms of who ultimately wins the OVP, but know that this is in the running.

Other than that, it's a charming, delightful film and it's fun to see Stewart, who was headlining films at this point but wasn't a "headliner" (if that makes sense) being forced into some positions we aren't used to seeing him (dancing, singing, and occasionally being a slight horndog).  All-in-all, I'd highly recommend it, and pronounce both of its Oscar nominations more than well-earned.

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