Musical Monday: Lady Be Good (1941)

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.

lady be goodThis week’s musical:
Lady Be Good (1941) – Musical #260


Norman Z. McLeod
Busby Berkeley, musical numbers

Ann Sothern, Robert Young, Eleanor Powell, Lionel Barrymore, Tom Conway, John Carroll, Red Skelton, Reginald Owen, Virginia O’Brien, Dan Dailey, Phil Silvers, Rose Hobart, Buttons the Dog
Themselves: Connie Russell, The Berry Brothers

The film begins in the divorce court telling the story of married songwriters Eddie Crane (Young) and Dixie Donegan (Ann Sothern) begin to grow apart as they find more success. Dixie prefers their more simple life together, while Eddie revels in the glamorous party set of high society.

• The song “The Last Time Paris,” written by Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II, won the Academy Award for Best Music, Best Song. This win caused controversy, because the song was not written for the film. Before the film was released, the song had already been performed and six versions were on the charts by December 1940. Kern and Hammerstein were both angry that their song won an Oscar since it wasn’t written for the film. Because of this, the Academy changed the nomination rules so this wouldn’t happen again in the future. Moving forward, any song nominated for an Academy Award had to be written for the film it appeared in, according to Kern’s biographer.
• Several dogs were tested for the “Lady Be Good” tap number with Eleanor Powell. When none worked out, Powell bought a dog from a prop man and trained the dog for the number.
• MGM purchased the rights for the 1924 Broadway show “Lady Be Good,” but only used two Gershwin songs from the show and have a different storyline.
• Busby Berkeley was originally set to direct the whole picture, but ended up only directing the musical numbers, according to his biographers.
• The film was meant to be a vehicle for Ann Sothern to build up her career at MGM as a musical star. Dancer Eleanor Powell was cast as her friend since Sothern and Robert Young were primarily in comedy and dramas, according to a 2006 introduction by former Turner Classic Movies host, Robert Osborne.

• Eleanor Powell dancing, specifically with the dog for “Lady Be Good.”
• Robert Young singing
• The Berry Brothers dancing and singing to “You’ll Never Know”
• “The Lady Be Good” montage of it growing in fame.

Notable Songs:
• “Fascinating Rhythm” performed by Connie Russell
• “Lady Be Good” performed by Ann Sothern, danced by Eleanor Powell and Buttons the Dog
• “Your Words and My Music” performed by Ann Sothern and Robert Young
• “You’ll Never Know” performed by Ann Sothern, reprised by the Berry Brothers
• “The Last Time I Saw Paris” performed by Ann Sothern

My review:
When it comes the musicals of Metro-Golwyn-Mayer, “Lady Be Good” (1941) isn’t the most well-known of those films. But it’s one of my favorites.

With Ann Sothern, Robert Young, Eleanor Powell, Red Skelton, Virginia O’Brien, John Carroll and Lionel Barrymore all in the cast, it’s almost like the who’s who of 1940s MGM.

What’s interesting is that Sothern and Young generally were in lower budget MGM films, while the top tier budget films were reserved for stars like Clark Gable and Joan Crawford. But this musical glitters like any prestige picture.

While tap dancer Eleanor Powell receives top billing in the credits, Powell plays a supporting role while Sothern and Young lead.

The leads play Eddie (Young) and Dixie (Sothern), songwriters who eventually get married after they write a hit song. As their success continues, it also drives them apart. Eddie seems more interested in entertaining at glamorous parties while Dixie wants to continue to work. Her friend Marilyn (Powell) stands by her as she seeks a divorce. After their divorce, Eddie gets jealous of their radio singing friend, Buddy (Carroll), thinking he is romancing Dixie.

While Powell is a supporting character in this film, her dance numbers are the true highlight in this film. Her “Lady Be Good” number is unique and fun for several reasons. First of all, she wears puffy harem pants, rather than a dress or even slacks, giving her spins a unique look as the pant legs balloon out. Powell performs the dance with Buttons the Dog who jumps through her arms, walks between her legs or wags his tail doing the hula. The tapping alone is always great, but the dog being including in the number makes it a good bit of fun.

“Eleanor was by far the finest female dancer we ever had in films, and a very hardworking perfectionist,” Berkeley is quoted by his biographer.

Other excellent tap dancers in the film are the Berry Brothers, a trio who dance to “Fascinating Rhythm” and “You’ll Never Know” (not the same song that Alice Faye later made famous).

Another major highlight in the film is the “Fascinating Rhythm” number, which is probably one of my favorite musical numbers of all-time. Directed by Busby Berkeley, the number begins with Connie Russell singing the intro with large shadows of the musical instrument she is singing about zooming toward the camera. The camera eventually comes closer to Russell as she sings. The Berry Brothers eventually tap dance and then Eleanor Powell appears in a top hat and tails, dancing through curtains around piano players.

Aside from excellent tap dancing, Powell looks so good in this — even more glamorous than usual in costumes by Orry-Kelly.

Another highlight in the film is getting to hear Robert Young sing, which is a rarity. John Carroll also appears to be singing, which seems surprising.

Now, you may have noticed Red Skelton and Phil Silvers in the cast. I know some people in the classic film community avoid films if they spot either in the cast, dreading their zany antics. Never fear, Skelton plays a more subdued character and Silvers is in one scene. Skelton has a few of his antics, like stepping out of a car and falling because it has no running boards, but otherwise, that’s it. Skelton plays a song plugger, and does have a cringey moment when he’s trying to sell “Lady Be Good” to different communities.

One thing I enjoy in this film is how fast and easy they make song writing look, like when they write “Lady Be Good.” I’m no lyricist so maybe it can be easy, but it’s amazing how quick it appears.

And if you like Oscar trivia, “Lady Be Good” played an important role in how Best Song nominations were later handled. The song “The Last Time I Saw Paris” was featured in “Lady Be Good,” nominated for an Academy Award and then won. However, the win caused controversy because the song was written prior to the film and not for the film. After this happened, it was ruled that songs nominated for Oscars could only be written for the film.

Honestly, I could go on and on about this film. It is such a hidden gem to me with great songs, an excellent cast and fabulous dance numbers. “Lady Be Good” is in fact good and also a joy.

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2 thoughts on “Musical Monday: Lady Be Good (1941)

  1. This is a favorite of mine too. It always leaves me with a big smile on my face. Elearnor Powell must have had the patience of a saint to drain the dog to dance, but it’s certainly a highlight of this film.


  2. This one sounds like a winner — and it certainly has some of my favorite performers, including Robert Young and Ann Sothern. I would especially like to see Eleanor Powell do that dance number with the dog. Interesting about the Oscar rules for Best Song being changed because of this film. (I’m not sure I understand why Kern and Hammerstein were angry about the song winning, though!)

    — Karen


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