BORN TO DANCE (Roy Del Ruth, 1936)

An amalgamation of elements from three recent films—Morning Glory (Lowell Sherman, 1933), 42nd Street (Lloyd Bacon, 1933), Follow the Fleet (Mark Sandrich, 1936)—and an anticipation of another hit, On the Town (Stanley Donen, Gene Kelly, 1949), Roy Del Ruth’s Born to Dance sings and dances and charms—except when it doesn’t. At 109 minutes it wears thin in spots, such as in a seemingly interminable patriotic, that is to say, cheerfully warmongering musical number (and in peacetime!), and ends embarrassingly with a matching set of black eyes. Still, for the most part this is a near wonderful musical-comedy-romance.
     On leave in New York with two other sailors (one of whom is played by a dancing Buddy Ebsen), Ted Barker falls in love with dancer Nora Paige at the Lonely Hearts Club. When Ted rescues star Lucy James’s little dog, however, the producer of Lucy’s upcoming Broadway show manufactures, for publicity’s sake, the appearance of romance between Ted and Lucy, and Lucy falls for Ted for real, causing him to miss his Central Park date with Nora. Poor Ted cannot quite pay the bill at the fancy restaurant where he and Lucy have dined at Captain Dingby’s order (it’s complicated). “I’m a little shy,” Ted confesses to Lucy at their table, referring to his purse; Lucy: “That’s what I like about you.” Ted does manage, though, to get Nora the job of Lucy’s understudy. Opening night, do I have to tell you who goes on in Lucy’s place and becomes a brilliant tap-dancing star?
     The score by Cole Porter includes a submarine-board homage to Gilbert & Sullivan and a jivin’ “Swingin’ the Jinx Away,” but is most famous for two achingly romantic Porter classics: “Easy to Love” and “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.” James Stewart, who beautifully plays Ted, does all his own singing and dancing, which includes Ted’s romancing Nora in the park with “Easy to Love.” Not nearly so brave (or gifted), Eleanor Powell plays Nora but has her singing voice dubbed by Marjorie Lane—and when it comes to “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” can contribute nothing: Lucy, played by Virginia Bruce, sings this intimately to Ted, and the ballroom team of Georges and Jalna make like Fred & Ginger when they dance together, all flowing lines and visual poetry, not Powell’s prose, to the exquisite melody at the Club Continental. For her part, one exceptionally fresh and breezy dance by Powell—her first in the film—delights.
     Among the other things she cannot do, Powell cannot play comedy. Una Merkel is onboard for that, playing wise-cracking Jenny Saks, a counter girl at the Lonely Hearts Club, whose husband, “Gunny” Saks, is one of Ted’s fellow sailors on leave. Jenny and Gunny haven’t seen each other in four years, right before which they had just married. When Gunny and Ted enter, Jenny kisses Ted, presuming he is Gunny, although Ted is tall and lanky and Gunny is short, compact: very funny; perfectly timed by Merkel. Powell times nothing well but her taps.
     Visually, a high point of the film is a simulated point-of-view periscope shot supposedly recording the submarine’s surfacing. (Another high point: We think we are watching Nora and Ted’s wedding ceremony, but a camera move reveals the couple whom Nora and Ted are watching getting married.) Comically, Raymond Walburn as befuddled Captain Dingby takes the cake. Dave Gould choreographed.

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