by Allan Fish
(USA 1939 102m) DVD1/2
Waiting for act Two
p Jack Cummings d Norman Taurog w Leon Gordon, George Oppenheimer story Jack MacGowran, Dore Schary ph Oliver T.Marsh, Joseph Ruttenberg ed Blanche Sewell md Alfred Newman m/ly Cole Porter art Cedric Gibbons
Fred Astaire (Johnny Brett), Eleanor Powell (Clare Bennett), George Murphy (King Shaw), Frank Morgan (Bob Casey), Ian Hunter (Bert C.Matthews), Florence Rice (Amy Blake), Ann Morriss (Pearl Delonge), Lynne Carver, Douglas McPhail,
Think if you will of Shakespeare in Love and the scene where Gwyneth Paltrow’s Viola de Lesseps, in the guise of Thomas Kent, is playing Romeo in the first production of ‘Romeo and Ethel, the Pirate’s Daughter’. He’s aching for the love of his life, Rosalind, and Will steps in and reprimands her/him. “You’re speaking about a baggage we never even meet…what will he do in Act Two, when he meets the love of his life?” Stunned, Viola sheepishly says “I’m sorry, sir; I have not seen Act Two.” “Of course you have not”, Will fires back, “I have not written it.” There but for the Grace of Gods…
Several hundred years later, or around sixty years earlier, depending on your point of view, George Murphy as King Shaw is auditioning to be the leading man of Broadway supernova Clare Bennett and is singing and dancing to ‘Between You and Me.” It’s a lovely number, a thoroughly expert duet that would be enough to make one think we’d witnessed something very special. And yet this is just Rosalind, and though we may see her, she’s keeping the polished floor warm for the real magic to arrive.
Let’s go back to the beginning. Johnny and King are part of a dance duet yet to be discovered and working as unpaid hoofers at a wedding parlour, where they take turns giving the bride away. One day they are spotted by Casey, of Casey and Matthews, out looking for talent but with a rather embarrassing record of finding duds. Due to a simple misunderstanding King gets offered the audition that should have gone to Johnny and Johnny helps him so that it’s a success. Their number is golden, and who would argue with that, were it not for the fact that Murphy’s partner was nothing so common as gold.
Eleanor Powell was a dancer and quite simply the greatest ever seen in front of a movie camera. Take Charisse, Rogers, Hayworth, Haney, Vera-Ellen, even Ann Miller, and Eleanor could dance all of them to a standstill. But while Fred had been at RKO making immortal gold dust with Ginger, Eleanor had been little more than a guest spot in the two previous Broadway Melodys. The plot never matters in these musicals, we know how it’ll turn out, and we just wait until Fred and Eleanor get to it. Their first dance is at a café for an impromptu breakfast, and watching them is like watching jazz musicians at a jam session, raising each other like poker players, as if they hadn’t a care in the world, changing the steps as they go, like a terpsichorean keep me up. It’s utterly, divinely magical, and yet still it isn’t enough, merely a side dish for the main course to come.
So cue Cole Porter’s most immortal ditty, ‘Begin the Beguine’, first sung by Lois Hodnott and then Fred and Eleanor come on to the highly polished mirror-like black floor. They dance, as if on impulse, and you’re left breathless. They go off, a chorus interrupts, and then they return, freshly changed into all white, and they go again. Never, in any film, has such perfection been seen and heard. You imagine all the other dancers before and since throwing white towels at the screen knowing they are in a delirious realm into which they cannot enter; a place beyond the Pantheon, beyond Olympus, defying gravity, dancing as if on air. It’s like Benny Goodman playing ‘Sing, Sing, Sing’, Judy Garland singing ‘Over the Rainbow’ or Deanna Durbin seemingly defying physics to sing ‘Nessun Dorma’. Recall that shot in Easter Parade when Fred is dancing ‘Stepping Out to my Baby’ and we get a quick shot of Judy Garland in the wings watching, clasping her hands to her heart, looking upwards. Her look then is us now, having watched them end the Beguine and stride off. David Thomson, Frank Sinatra (in That’s Entertainment!) and numerous others have waxed lyrical, but no words can do it justice. Sigh.