“What’s this all about?”
“Boy meets girl.”
In true typical MGM fashion Born to Dance is very much boy meets girl story. It follows the plot of boy meets girl, they fall in love, a misunderstanding arises, the misunderstanding involves some heartache, then the misunderstanding gets resolved, the heartache goes away, and boy and girl live happily ever after. I think it is safe to assume that everyone who has ever watched movies in their life has seen this exact scenario played out hundreds of times especially in musicals. But when a musical like Born to Dance does and makes it fun the plot is enjoyable and leaves you wanting more.
Ted Barker (James Stewart… Yes, I said James Stewart) is a sailor for the US Navy. His ship has just pulled into New York Harbor. He is given leave for the night so he heads out with two other sailors Gunny Saks and Mush Tracy (Buddy Ebsen). Gunny is looking for his wife that he married and a few days later he left and has not seen her in four years!
Nora Paige (Eleanor Powell) is a dancer. She has been in New York City for weeks. Nora had an audition but she did not get a place in the chorus. She goes to a hotel called Lonely Hearts where she meets Jenny (Una Merkel) who works the front desk. At first Jenny is a little rude and mean to Nora but they make nice and become friends. When Nora tells Jenny she is a dancer Jenny has her dance for the guests in the lobby.
Gunny tracks Jenny down to the hotel. At first Jenny mistakes Ted for Gunny and when she sees Gunny she is not happy. Ted sees Nora by the bar and says hello. Nora is not too sure about him at first but before you know they are singing and dancing together and in love.
The following day the famous stage actress Lucy James comes aboard the ship at the request of the captain who had dinner with her the night before. All the men clamor around her and the captain is nothing but tickled when he gets to take a picture with her for the paper. In an effort to impress the actress the captain “accidentally” throws her dog overboard. All the sailors jump over to save her dog with Ted the one who saves it. Lucy’s publicist comes up with the idea to create a romance for publicity. Ted had promised to take Nora out on a date in the park the same night. Lucy keeps Ted from seeing Nora that night.
Nora is very upset with Ted especially after seeing his picture with Lucy in the paper that morning. Jenny wants to see Gunny and to tell him that they have a daughter so she takes the daughter and Nora to the ship. Jenny needed to build up to the fact that they have a daughter so Nora saves her and says that the girl is her daughter. Nora says this in front of Ted getting him back for the night before. She tells Ted that she is already married to another sailor.
Nora gets a part in Lucy James’s new Broadway show as her understudy and a part in the chorus (even Mush gets a part!). When Lucy has a fit over a song on the piano saying that she cannot dance to it and storms off to her room the director asks Nora if she could dance to it. She does but Lucy comes out of her furious and makes the director fire Nora. Jenny tells Ted what happened to Nora and that Nora is not really married with a kid. Ted gets his revenge on Lucy by calling the papers saying that they are getting married. The publicist and Jenny are furious but Ted says he will only call if they let Nora be in the show. Lucy storms out and refuses to perform thus giving Nora her first Broadway starring role.
The whole cast was just perfect. Eleanor Powell is so adorable. She was not the best actress but MGM had hired her for her dancing. There were a few scenes of Powell where I could not get over her face she was so pretty and adorable. Powell’s dance numbers were incredible she was so unbelievably talented. She seemed to have so much energy and to thoroughly enjoy dancing. I can never get over her legs how muscular they were from tapping so hard. James Stewart I am not too much of a fan of but he was good. I was cracking up when he had to sing and dance. Compared to everyone else in the film he was so stiff when he had to dance a little. His singing was not bad he actually did a great job to the point where Cole Porter, who wrote the songs, said that he sang the best version of one of numbers. Una Merkel, Sid Silvers, and Buddy Ebsen stole the whole film. Merkel and Silvers’ story line was so funny and both of them were so good. Ebsen was a good dancer and he was very funny but he kind of freaked me out when he danced he looked so awkward and creepy!
My favorite scene in the film is when Nora and Ted go out to a department store and take a look at a furnished model house. Ted is totally disgusted and does not want to listen to the salesman’s shtick but Nora will not let him leave because she does not want to interrupt the poor guy. The next thing they know they are being shown to the bedroom. The salesman has Ted sit down on the mattress and bounce on it and the whole canopy falls. Powell’s faces to Stewart were so funny and Stewart’s face after the canopy fell was priceless.
The songs by Cole Porter were alright. It was interesting to hear I’ve Got You Under My Skin as a ballad. I just finished reading a book on Irving Thalberg where the author writes about when Porter went to the producers to perform his songs he wrote for the film. Thalberg came in and did not look happy to be there, Porter noticed and got a little nervous. By the end of the performance of the songs Thalberg had a big smile on his face having enjoyed the songs. Apparently Thalberg had no ear for music so who knows what he was really thinking. Also, the day Irving Thalberg died production of Born to Dance and several other films that were filming were shut down even though they were not his productions out of respect.
Born to Dance may seem like a typical extravagant MGM musical… well it is but it is so good and so enjoyable that the overused plot fades away. Eleanor Powell’s marvelous dancing and Una Merkel’s comedic timing and wit are really what make Born to Dance so much fun to sit through.