Friday 23 April 2021

On Blu-ray - David Hare is enthralled all over again by Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell in BROADWAY MELODY OF 1940

The screen above is from the opening of the six minute Cole Porter "Begin the Beguine" sequence, one of several breathtaking numbers in Broadway Melody of 1940. (Youtube links below).

Here Eleanor Powell heads the figurative mass blocking of white in the frame, with chorus and giant stage, until she dances backwards adagio tempo towards the dim figure of Fred Astaire, immersed in black, then the image shifts from white, to black, day to night, solo to duet. After the first three minutes of lyrics sung and tapped by Powell and chromatic tonality the number shifts from the giant sets into a dazzling tap duet from the two. It’s a great shame this was the only movie to pair Astaire with Powell.
In creative visual response to Porter's great tune, and the Alfred Newman scoring I think the principle genius behind the staging and imagination for all these amazing production numbers essentially goes to Metro Production Design king, Cedric Gibbons. There's really no credit for choreography, and one suspects the hand of Berkeley if only for the mass chorus, and hallucinatory travelling shots with cross cutting. But the only dance credit recorded is Bobby Connolly. The problem always arises in dissecting who's done what in any picture directed by a Metro hack like Norman Taurog. I suspect some credit for the shape and feel of these dance sequences might go to editor Blanche Sewell, and Adrian for possibly more than gowns, as well as Gibbons’ underling, Edwin Willis.
In any case the movie is all about the dances and their flights into delirium with a killer Cole Porter repertoire.
This is the sort of glory you get from an industry in which a nobody (in terms of talent) officially directs the picture but the machinery behind the credits (and sometimes on the credits as it was later with the Freed Unit) delivers these masterpieces. Cocteau surely pinched the mirrors and black/white duality of Orphee from this number which he would only have been able to see after the war and the occupation of course. Watch the second half in which Powell and Astaire riff a long duet including the most subtle "challenge tap" in the history of the musical. She was a flawless dancer on her own and with him she's his equal. Everything she is in worth watching.

The picture has been released from a new 4K scan of some parlous quality elements from Warner Archive Blu-ray. It looks and sounds glorious, once again. Jo Ruttenberg's glistening photography with crane and track is to die for.

 CLICK HERE TO WATCH THE FIRST PART of this magnificent sequence.When Powell steps into the blackness with the camera floating up with her, you’re in a Cocteau Dream. Then Astaire comes towards her but it’s his reflection in another wall of mirrors, and he enters the frame from the left! It’s completely dazzling.

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