Broadway Melody of 1940 (1940)
Ginger Rogers is rightfully Fred Astaire’s most famous partner. Together they possessed the perfect mix of skill and chemistry. The pairing of Eleanor Powell and Astaire in Broadway Melody of 1940 is another matter. It is an explosive match of talent; the two best dancers in Hollywood delighting in each other.
George Murphy is game as the guy who hoofs with Powell until the magical match-up. We get a taste of Astaire and Powell’s high-stepping energy together in a couple of numbers, but the stunner is the climactic Begin the Beguine. Tapping across a highly-polished glass floor, they match each other move for move, with well-practiced precision, looking as if they are prancing among the stars, weightless and vibrant. To top it all off, they perform to the best Cole Porter tune in a film full of winners. It’s simply one of the best moments of classic Hollywood.
Special features on the disc include Cole Porter in Hollywood: Begin the Beguine, Our Gang short The Big Premiere, the cartoon The Milky Way, and a theatrical trailer.
All I knew of this lesser-known musical before I pressed play was that it starred two of my favorite stars from the fifties: Jane Powell and Debbie Reynolds. This is a nice early venture for both of them, lightly entertaining, though without a single memorable original song in the mix.
They are sisters in a large, eccentric family that owns a health food store and houses a gaggle of muscle men in training at an enormous hilltop mansion. Louis Calhern, in full Colonel Sanders white, is Grandpa, the patriarch of the clan. Evelyn Varden is his spacy, but spiritual wife. Powell (Athena) and Reynolds (Minerva) are two of their six granddaughters, all of them with ancient Greek and Roman names and obsessed with astrology and healthy living. Their vegetarianism and rejection of cigarettes and alcohol were quirky to the extreme at the time, now it just looks like your typical Instagram post.
This film was my introduction to Vic Damone, a dreamy-eyed crooner who woos Minerva. He does a wonderful rendition of the Boy (Girl) Next Door from Meet Me in St. Louis for the film’s opener for an auditorium full of swooning teens. Edmund Purdom is an uptight businessman upon whom Athena sets her sights; he does a fine job injecting enough lightness into his persona from the beginning that you don’t wonder why this sparkling woman would want such a square. There are also a couple of stand-outs in the supporting cast. Steve Reeves, who was then best known for his Mr. Universe title, caught the attention of an Italian producer in his role here as one of the muscle men and was soon starring as Hercules in the series of films for which he would be best known. Linda Christian is also fabulously icy as Purdom’s fiancée, properly playing her role with the personality of a foundation garment. In a part that was meant to fade into the background, Henry Nakamura is especially charming and funny as Purdom’s servant.
Special features on the disc include a trio of musical outtakes, a menu of song selections, and a theatrical trailer.
The Tender Trap (1955)
Frank Sinatra sets an easygoing tone from the first shot of The Tender Trap. He ambles towards the camera across a wide, empty landscape, singing the title tune with his characteristic warmth, inviting you into his orbit. He plays a charming talent agent up to his eyeballs in women, but lacking fidelity or an understanding of true intimacy. An old friend (David Wayne) comes to stay with him on a break from his own marriage, Sinatra begins to think he might be more serious about a television orchestra violin player (Celeste Holm), and then suddenly he meets Julie (Debbie Reynolds), a singer who claims to have her dream life all mapped out.
It could all be a silly trifle good for passing a couple hours, but there’s a scene that elevates all the romantic nonsense. Sinatra watches Reynolds float through the title tune, without a hint of its meaning reaching her. He sits at the piano and puts the tune under his loving care, as he does, and she understands immediately what he is trying to communicate. It is the template for the rest of their relationship: he demonstrates that he is capable of emotional depth and she realizes that life and love can’t be planned out like a dinner party. According to Reynolds, that was precisely the way Sinatra himself approached a song himself and that as her friend he helped her to understand and more deeply absorb the feeling in lyrics.
Special features on the disc include the featurette Frank in the Fifties, which includes great commentary from Reynolds, two excerpts from the television show The MGM Parade, and a theatrical trailer.
Many thanks to Warner Archive for providing a copies of the films for review.