Director: Roy Del Ruth
Screenwriters: Harry W. Conn, Moss Hart, Jack McGowan, Sid Silvers
Cast: Jack Benny, Eleanor Powell, Robert Taylor, June Knight, Una Merkel, Sid Silvers, Buddy Ebsen
Nominations: Picture, Original Story, Dance Direction
Win: Dance Direction
It would be wrong to say Broadway Melody of 1936 isn’t a good film, because it is. It’s fun and engaging, and above all, it’s entertaining. But it does suffer from one of the biggest pitfalls many early musicals get caught up in: having a sensical narrative or a narrative that’s more than paper thin. The thinking seems to be that if the musical numbers are flamboyant enough no one will notice the lapses in logic or the fact that the plot could be resolved in a few minutes if the characters would just stop their deceptions, omissions, and/or farces and have a conversation.
Take a look at Irene’s story, for instance. Her re-connecting with Bob takes longer than it should because instead of introducing herself right off the bat, she doesn’t say anything. Later—even though the extent of their previous relationship in Albany isn’t fully explained—Irene seemingly abandons her goal of working on the stage because Bob tells her it’s hard work and she infers he means she wouldn’t be able to make it. Then, when he sends her back to Albany, Irene returns to impersonate the fictitious LaBelle Arlette, because… well, just because, really. After that, the Arlette cover disappears, and Bob and Irene decide to get married.
Yeah, there’s literally no reason any of that had to have happened had Irene only said, “Hi, Bob, it’s me, Irene.” And there’s no reason Irene should necessarily listen to Bob about her attempt to work on Broadway considering they haven’t seen each other for years and he never sees or hears her perform until the film’s finale. And why does she have to pretend to be Mademoiselle Arlette, especially when she has to know that the ruse can’t last any longer than a few days? And why is Irene okay marrying Bob when, in all honesty, he’s done nothing but quash her dreams and driver her away for the entire length of their storyline? None of it makes sense, but that’s more or less the entire point of an excuse plot: the plot is there because it’s expected to be there, not because it serves any real purpose. (Personally, I have no issues with excuse plots so long as they don’t venture into idiot plot territory—which Broadway Melody of 1936 gets close to.)
Again, though, that’s not to say this isn’t a good movie. Jack Benny and Sid Silvers are hilarious; their scenes are easily the best in the film not only because they’re fun, but because the pair’s rapport is believable and realistic. The musical numbers are also wonderful, from the Oscar-winning opening routine to Irene’s Busby Berkeley-inspired ballet and the over-the-top finale. And that, ultimately, is why films like the Broadway Melody and Gold Diggers series are enjoyable. We care about the characters to the extent it takes us to the next musical set-piece. Not every film has to break the mold, and sometimes these escapist joys are just the medicine to get through life’s stresses.