Musical Monday: Born to Dance (1936)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 600. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
Born to Dance (1936) – Musical #124

Studio:
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Director:
Roy Del Ruth

Starring:
Eleanor Powell, James Stewart, Virginia Bruce, Una Merkel, Sid Silvers, Frances Langford, Raymond Walburn, Alan Dinehart, Buddy Ebsen, Reginald Gardiner, Barnett Parker
Themselves: Georges and Jalna

Plot:
Nora Paige (Powell) is a dancer, hopeful to make it in New York City. She meets sailor Ted Barker (Stewart) while he’s on leave and visiting the Lonely Hearts Club. His pal ‘Gunny’ Saks (Silvers) is looking for his wife Jenny (Merkel) who works at the club, and who he hasn’t seen in four years. Ted and Nora meet at the club and fall in love. But around the same time, Ted is ordered by his captain (Walburn) to take Broadway star Lucy James (Bruce) on a date after Ted saves her dog when it fell over board on their ship. Nora is hurt by the fabricated romance, and also finds herself in the same Broadway show as Lucy James.

Trivia:
• Sid Silvers wrote the screenplay and also co-starred in the movie.
• American film debut for British actor Reginald Gardiner.
• First feature film where Jack Cummings was received credit as a producer.
• Marjorie Lane provided the singing vocals for Eleanor Powell.
• Songs written by Cole Porter
• Background was filmed in Santa Catalina Island, CA
• Singer Jack Owens recorded a version of “Easy to Love” to dub James Stewart, but this wasn’t used as Stewart’s non-professional singing voice was preferred, according to The Songs of Hollywood by Philip Furia and Laurie Patterson.
• Cole Porter wrote the song “Easy to Love” for the show “Anything Goes,” but it wasn’t used. He took the song to Hollywood and producers loved it. Porter was the one who suggested that non-singer James Stewart perform the song, according to Philip Furia and Laurie Patterson.
• Virginia Bruce turned down a role in “Come and Get It” in order to film “Born to Dance,” according to her biographer.

Eleanor Powell and James Stewart dance together in “Born to Dance”

Highlights:
• James Stewart singing and dancing
• Eleanor Powell’s dance numbers, especially the finale, “Swingin’ the Jinx Away”

Notable Songs:
• “Easy to Love” performed by James Stewart and Marjorie Lane dubbing Eleanor Powell
• “Rolling Home” performed by Sid Silvers, Buddy Ebsen and James Stewart
• “Hey, Babe, Hey” performed by James Stewart, Sid Silvers, Buddy Ebsen
• “Entrance of Lucy James” performed by Raymond Walburn and Virginia Bruce
• “Swingin’ the Jinx Away” performed by Frances Langford
• “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” performed by Virginia Bruce

Eleanor Powell in the finale, “Swingin’ the Jinx Away” in “Born to Dance”

My review:
This week’s Musical Monday holds a unique distinction: it’s actor James Stewart’s only musical Monday.

Sure, he drunkenly sings “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in “Philadelphia Story” and dances the Charleston in “It’s a Wonderful Life.” But in “Born to Dance,” his singing in dancing serves the purpose of moving the plot along (which is the definition of a movie musical). And his dance partner is none other than Eleanor Powell, who I personally consider to be one of the best tap dancers to ever grace the silver screen.

In “Born to Dance” (1936), Powell plays, Nora, a dancer who has moved to New York City hoping to hit the big time. Stewart plays Ted, a sailor on leave in New York City. The two meet and fall in love – but it’s not all that simple. Their romance is threatened when Ted becomes entangled in a publicity stunt for Broadway star, Lucy James, played by Virginia Bruce.

Lucy visits his ship, and when her Pekingese falls overboard, Ted rescues it. The two are then thrown together and Ted’s captain orders him to visit a nightclub with Lucy, causing him to stand up Nora for a date. In the meantime, Nora gets a job dancing in Lucy’s show as her understudy, complicating things further.

Outside of our lead cast, Ted’s sailor buddy is ‘Gunny’ Saks, played by Sid Silvers. Gunny hasn’t seen his wife, Jenny (played by Una Merkel) in four years. When the two meet again, Jenny is angry that it has been so long, and is reluctant to let him know that they have a four-year-old daughter, Sally (played by Juanita Quigley).

There is a lot going on in this plot and several characters and entanglements, but still, I like this musical.

Interestingly, Sid Silvers, who plays Gunny, also wrote the screenplay for “Born to Dance.”

In 1936, MGM was building up both Eleanor Powell and James Stewart.

For Eleanor Powell, “Born to Dance” was only her third credited role and second with MGM, with “Broadway Melody of 1936” as her first film under contract with the studio. Not only does Powell dance in this film, but also “sings.” Powell’s singing is dubbed by Marjorie Lane, who’s singing voice matches Powell’s speaking voice fairly well. Lane also dubbed Powell in other films. Powell performs what is probably one of her most famous dance numbers in “Born to Dance” – “Swingin’ the Jinx Away.” The enormous finale includes Powell dressed in a sequined leotard with a Navy flare with giant cannons and a battleship as her background. I feel that this film best shows off not only Powell’s tap dance abilities but her training as a ballet dancer, as she combines the two dance types in several of her numbers.

As for James Stewart, I know you may be thinking “Jimmy Stewart in a musical? What the heck?” But remember – this wasn’t the same James Stewart you know from his later films like “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” He was just starting out and MGM was trying to figure out what the heck to do with this awkward and 6′ 3″ 28-year-old actor. In 1936, Stewart was in nine films released by MGM. He played everything from a dangerous criminal (Rose-Marie, After the Thin Man) to a musical (Born to Dance) to a costume drama (The Gorgeous Hussy).

And even though it seems odd, his singing and dancing in “Born to Dance” really aren’t that bad. It’s actually entertaining – but I love to see non-musical stars in a musical. Songwriter Cole Porter handpicked James Stewart to introduce “Easy to Love,” a song that was unused in the Broadway musical, “Anything Goes.” Porter later said that Stewart’s voice was “far from well,” but it fit for a clean-cut sailor, according to “The Songs of Hollywood” by Philip Furia and Laurie Patterson.

Truthfully, his voice is no better or worse than other popular musical stars – like Gene Kelly for example.

Jame Stewarrt has a pretty good voice – no better or worse than some others like “Gene Kelly.

“The song (Easy to Love) had become a huge hit, even my singing wouldn’t hurt it,” Stewart says in That’s Entertainment

While I thought Stewart’s singing and dancing was fine in the film, I don’t know that he would have been well suited for a long musical career. His biographer Marc Elliot said this was his first and only time dancing in a musical.

Cole Porter later complimented the performance of one of his songs in “Born to Dance.” In the film, Virginia Bruce preforms “I’ve Got You Under My Skin,” and Porter said no one else performed the song as well as Bruce did in this film, according to her biographer Scott O’Brien.

Another non-singer to look for is Raymond Walburn who sings in the comical number “Entrance of Lucy James.” Reginald Gardiner also made his Hollywood debut, randomly as a police officer who starts directing an imaginary orchestra like he’s Leopold Stokowski.

Also watch for the noodle-legged dancing of Buddy Ebsen and brunette Frances Langford, who sings a few numbers.

“Born to Dance” really is brimming with excellent performers! While the plot is a bit kooky, this is a really fun film. If anything, watch it for Powell’s dancing and Stewart’s singing.

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