You’re The Top!: Eleanor Powell Was BORN TO DANCE (MGM 1936)

Dancing masters like Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, and The Nicholas Brothers all agreed… Eleanor Powell was the tops! The 24-year-old star made a big splash in MGM’s BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936, and the studio quickly followed up with BORN TO DANCE, showcasing Eleanor’s tap-dancing prowess in a fun musical-comedy-romance featuring a cavalcade of stars, and an original score by Cole Porter. Yep, Leo the Lion was going big on this one!

The plot’s your typical Boy Meets Girl/Boy Loses Girl/Boy Wins Girl Back fluff, this time around concerning submarine sailors in port and the babes they chase after. Nora Paige (Eleanor) enters the Lonely Hearts Club (no, not Sgt. Pepper’s! ) looking for work as a hoofer (“You don’t use a fan?”, says wisecracking Jenny Saks, played by wisecracking Una Merkel ). Nora shows what she can do in the hot number “Rap, Tap On Wood”, a joyous dance number (that Eleanor makes look so easy!). Enter sailor Ted Barker (Jimmy Stewart… hey, what’s he doing here??) and it’s love at first sight, because that’s the way things work in these movies!

When Ted saves musical comedy star Lucy James’ (Virginia Bruce) pet peke Cheeky from drowning, the publicity machine gets cranking: “FAMOUS ACTRESS IN LOVE WITH GOB” read the headlines, and poor Nora is stood up while Ted dines with Lucy. Misunderstandings abound, as Nora tells Ted she’s a married woman with a child (actually Jenny’s kid, whose dad is Ted’s sailor pal ‘Gunny’) so he’ll leave her alone. Nora then gets a job as a Broadway understudy for… who else but Lucy! The temperamental Lucy gets Nora canned, Jenny spills the beans, and the whole thing ends up with a rousing, twelve-minute, patriotic, Depression-busting showstopper set on a battleship that becomes a dazzling showcase for the terpsichorean talents of Miss Powell.

The stars of “Born to Dance”: Frances Langford, Buddy Ebsen, Eleanor, Jimmy, Una Merkel, Sid Silvers

Eleanor has some marvelous numbers, and I especially enjoyed the athletic love dance she does in Central Park after Jimmy croons Porter’s classic “You’d Be So Easy To Love” to her – and far as Jimmy’s singing goes, let’s just say Bing Crosby had nothing to worry about! Curiously, while Stewart was allowed to sing, Eleanor’s vocals are all dubbed by Marjorie Lane (wife of actor Brian Donlevy). The number “Hey, Babe, Hey” is another stunner, performed by Eleanor, Jimmy, and fellow cast members Una, Sid Silvers (Gunny), Buddy Ebsen (Mushy), and Frances Langford (Peppy), each getting a chance to shine. And then there’s that finale “Swingin’ the Jinx Away”, where Eleanor is a whirling bundle of energy and shows just why her contemporaries considered her the best ever!

Beautiful Virginia Bruce

Virginia Bruce has never looked more beautiful to me, but then again I’ve only seen her in two other films – as the tortured victim in the Pre-Code KONGO and the title role in THE INVISIBLE WOMAN , where I hardly saw her at all! Miss Bruce gets to introduce the world to the Porter standard “I’ve Got You Under My Skin” here, and her voice is as lovely as the rest of her. Una Merkel gets all the good laugh lines; after seeing Ted with Lucy James in the papers, she quips, “That dame’s first name shoulda been Jesse”. And to her precocious daughter (Juanita Quigley): “Sally, you’re gonna drive me to stop drinking!”. Blustery Raymond Walburn is on hand as the blustery submarine captain, Helen Troy has a cute bit as a nasally telephone operator, and Reginald Gardiner plays a cop who comes across Ted and Nora in the park and breaks into a funny impersonation of famed conductor Leopold Stokowski.

Dependable Roy Del Ruth directed, and with this cast it must have been a dream job. I know I use the phrase “They don’t make ’em like this anymore” a little too frequently on this platform, but in this case the old cliché fits like a glove. And they sure don’t make stars like Eleanor Powell anymore, a multi- talented lady whose career was all-too-brief, but oh-so-memorable:

Pre Code Confidential #2: KONGO (MGM 1932)

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Torture! Prostitution! Nymphomania! Drug Addiction! Ritual Sacrifice! What is this, some forgotten 70s Grindhouse flick? No, it’s KONGO, a 1932 release from prestigious MGM studios. This twisted little tale stars an over the top Walter Huston as ‘Legless’ Flint, a sadistic cripple who rules over a native tribe in deepest, darkest Africa with his “ju-ju” magic tricks. Flint has a bone to pick with Gregg, the man who kicked his spine in and stole his wife, so he has Gregg’s daughter Ann kidnapped from a convent. After selling her to a whorehouse for two years, he fetches her to his jungle lair, plying her with alcohol while he degrades and humiliates her. His plan is to lure her father into his encampment to have the final laugh before killing him. Things take a turn for the worst when it’s discovered Ann is not Gregg’s daughter after all, but Flint’s! Now he has to scramble to save her before the tribe burns her alive in their voodoo ritual pyre.

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Huston has a field day as the nasty Flint. He dominates the film, whether he’s  getting  off on torturing Ann, berating his comrades, or performing cheap magic tricks for the superstitious natives. Huston was more than familiar with the role, having originated it on Broadway. KONGO was first filmed in 1927 as WEST OF ZANZIBAR, with Lon Chaney Sr. in the Huston role as Phroso. Tod Browning (Dracula) directed it. I haven’t seen the silent version, but it’d be hard to top this one for sheer perversion.

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Beautiful Virginia Bruce (The Invisible Woman) plays Ann, and it’s a far cry from her more glamorous roles. She’s bruised, battered and hopeless, her only solace in the shots of booze Flint sparingly gives her. It’s a remarkable acting job, and Miss Bruce pulls it off with just the right amounts of pathos and fear.

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“Mexican Spitfire” Lupe Velez is on hand as Flint’s nympho girlfriend Tula, who’ll fuck just about anything that moves. Lupe spends the movie half-naked, which is a treat for all you voyeurs out there! Silent star Conrad Nagel plays a doctor who wanders into the camp, drug-addled on byang root, who falls in love with the pathetic Ann. The scene where he saves Tula from having her tongue ripped out by Flint, only to be buried in a swamp so leeches will suck the drugs out of him, is alone worth the price of admission.

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KONGO is one of the most bizarre Pre-Codes you’ll ever see, a sick and demented trip into the heart of the jungle. You won’t find Tarzan here (though Lupe Velez was once married to Johnny Weismuller), just plenty of shocks and grotesqueries guaranteed to keep you glued to the action. Just don’t watch it while chewing byang root!

 

Spooky Screwballs: THE INVISIBLE WOMAN (Universal, 1940)

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THE INVISIBLE WOMAN usually gets lumped in with Universal Picture’s monster movies, but has more in common with BRINGING UP BABY or MY MAN GODFREY. In fact, it’s one of my favorite screwball comedies. There are no scares in THE INVISIBLE WOMAN, but there sure are a lot of laughs!

When rich playboy Dick Russell (John Howard) discovers his wild lifestyle has left him flat broke, he has to quit funding eccentric Professor Gibbs (John Barrymore).  The crackpot inventor takes an ad in the paper looking for a “human being willing to become invisible…no remuneration”. His ad is answered by Kitty Carroll (Bruce), a model always at odds with cruel boss Growley (perennial sourpuss Charles Lane). Kitty answers the “call to adventure”, and is given an injection, then placed in the professor’s invisibility machine (“It tickles!”)

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The experiment’s a success, and invisible Kitty seeks revenge on Growley for herself and all working girls in a hilarious scene. Meanwhile, mob boss Blackie Cole (Oscar Homolka), hiding out in Mexico, has got wind of the new invention. He sends three goons (Donald MacBride, Edward Brophy, Shemp Howard) to con the addle-brained inventor, but Kitty arrives in time to thwart them.

Russell and faithful butler George (Charles Ruggles, who has the best lines and takes most of the pratfalls) retreat to his hunting lodge. Gibbs and his invisible protégé’ soon follow, with Gibbs telling Russell his money worries are now over. Invisible Kitty imbibes too much brandy, and the alcohol has a strange reaction, causing her to remain invisible. Returning to Gibbs’ lab, they discover housekeeper Mrs. Jackson (Margaret Hamilton) locked in a closet and the machine gone! The gangsters have stolen it, but they forgot to take the formula. The inventor says “without the injection, that machine is apt to do strange things to people”.

The gangsters soon find out when boss Blackie makes deep-voiced henchman Foghorn enter the machine first, and he changes to a soprano! The other two thugs are sent back to retrieve Professor Gibbs, who’s given Kitty a reagent to turn her visible again. She’s warned to steer clear of booze (“When you dissipate, you disappear”). The goons grab Gibbs and Kitty after overpowering Russell and his befuddled butler, taking them to the Mexican hideout. Foghorn, angry at his falsetto fate, goes to Russell and rats his comrades out.

In the lab of Blackie’s Mexican scientist (Luis Alberni), Kitty spies a bottle of grain alcohol on a table and swigs it down, turning invisible again. She takes down the hoods single handedly, right before Russell and company arrive. Determined to make the playboy feel like a hero, she shoots at them and jumps in a pool, where Russell and Kitty finally embrace. They get married and have a baby in the film’s funny coda.

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Virginia Bruce is bubbly and beautiful as Kitty Carroll, giving a wonderful comic performance. Universal’s special effects wizard John P. Fulton does his usual splendid job, though Kitty’s shadow can be seen in the showdown with her and Growley. The comic cast is given lively direction by A. Edward Sutherland, who started in the silent era with Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Kops, later putting comedy legends like W.C. Fields, Mae West, Burns and Allen, and Abbott & Costello through their paces. Screenwriters Robert Lees and Fred Rinaldo were partners in hilarity for years, writing CRAZY HOUSE for Olsen & Johnson and many scripts for Abbott & Costello, including their best, A&C MEET FRANKENSTEIN. Sadly, both writers ended up on the Hollywood blacklist in the 1950s during the Communist witch hunts. Rinaldo’s last credit was 1952’s JUMPING JACKS starring Martin and Lewis. He died in 1992. Even more sadly, the 91 year old Lees was decapitated in his home by a drug crazed robber in 2004.

But let’s not end this on a down note. THE INVISIBLE WOMAN is a fast-moving, fun film with terrific acting from a great ensemble cast. Virginia Bruce never looked lovelier (when she’s visible, that is) in one of her best remembered roles. Don’t come looking for scares and shudders, but be prepared to laugh along with THE INVISIBLE WOMAN.

The 2015 TCM Summer Under The Stars Blogathon presents: Virginia Bruce in THE INVISIBLE WOMAN (Universal, 1940)

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Once again, I’m taking part in the 2015 Summer Under The Stars Blogathon hosted by the lovely and talented Kristen at Journeys in Classic Film. Today’s star is Virginia Bruce, starring in one of my favorite 40s flicks. THE INVISIBLE WOMAN usually gets lumped in with Universal Picture’s monster movies, but has more in common with BRINGING UP BABY or MY MAN GODFREY. In fact, it’s one of my favorite screwball comedies. There are no scares in THE INVISIBLE WOMAN, but there sure are a lot of laughs!

When rich playboy Dick Russell (John Howard) discovers his wild lifestyle has left him flat broke, he has to quit funding eccentric Professor Gibbs (John Barrymore).  The crackpot inventor takes an ad in the paper looking for a “human being willing to become invisible…no remuneration”. His ad is answered by Kitty Carroll (Bruce), a model always at odds with cruel boss Growley (perennial sourpuss Charles Lane). Kitty answers the “call to adventure”, and is given an injection, then placed in the professor’s invisibility machine (“It tickles!”)

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The experiment’s a success, and invisible Kitty seeks revenge on Growley for herself and all working girls in a hilarious scene. Meanwhile, mob boss Blackie Cole (Oscar Homolka), hiding out in Mexico, has got wind of the new invention. He sends three goons (Donald MacBride, Edward Brophy, Shemp Howard) to con the addle-brained inventor, but Kitty arrives in time to thwart them.

Russell and faithful butler George (Charles Ruggles, who has the best lines and takes most of the pratfalls) retreat to his hunting lodge. Gibbs and his invisible protégé’ soon follow, with Gibbs telling Russell his money worries are now over. Invisible Kitty imbibes too much brandy, and the alcohol has a strange reaction, causing her to remain invisible. Returning to Gibbs’ lab, they discover housekeeper Mrs. Jackson (Margaret Hamilton) locked in a closet and the machine gone! The gangsters have stolen it, but they forgot to take the formula. The inventor says “without the injection, that machine is apt to do strange things to people”.

The gangsters soon find out when boss Blackie makes deep-voiced henchman Foghorn enter the machine first, and he changes to a soprano! The other two thugs are sent back to retrieve Professor Gibbs, who’s given Kitty a reagent to turn her visible again. She’s warned to steer clear of booze (“When you dissipate, you disappear”). The goons grab Gibbs and Kitty after overpowering Russell and his befuddled butler, taking them to the Mexican hideout. Foghorn, angry at his falsetto fate, goes to Russell and rats his comrades out.

In the lab of Blackie’s Mexican scientist (Luis Alberni), Kitty spies a bottle of grain alcohol on a table and swigs it down, turning invisible again. She takes down the hoods single handedly, right before Russell and company arrive. Determined to make the playboy feel like a hero, she shoots at them and jumps in a pool, where Russell and Kitty finally embrace. They get married and have a baby in the film’s funny coda.

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Virginia Bruce is bubbly and beautiful as Kitty Carroll, giving a wonderful comic performance. Universal’s special effects wizard John P. Fulton does his usual splendid job, though Kitty’s shadow can be seen in the showdown with her and Growley. The comic cast is given lively direction by A. Edward Sutherland, who started in the silent era with Charlie Chaplin and the Keystone Kops, later putting comedy legends like W.C. Fields, Mae West, Burns and Allen, and Abbott & Costello through their paces. Screenwriters Robert Lees and Fred Rinaldo were partners in hilarity for years, writing CRAZY HOUSE for Olsen & Johnson and many scripts for Abbott & Costello, including their best, A&C MEET FRANKENSTEIN. Sadly, both writers ended up on the Hollywood blacklist in the 1950s during the Communist witch hunts. Rinaldo’s last credit was 1952’s JUMPING JACKS starring Martin and Lewis. He died in 1992. Even more sadly, the 91 year old Lees was decapitated in his home by a drug crazed robber in 2004.

But let’s not end this on a down note. THE INVISIBLE WOMAN is a fast-moving, fun film with terrific acting from a great ensemble cast. Virginia Bruce never looked lovelier (when she’s visible, that is) in one of her best remembered roles. Don’t come looking for scares and shudders, but be prepared to laugh along with THE INVISIBLE WOMAN.