There sure is a lot here. Broadway Melody of 1938 is one of those “something for everyone” entertainments that winds up being of little value to anyone. It doesn’t settle into its backstage theatrical story, its supporting plot about an aging performer is just there, and there’s a lot of time spent on horseracing and training a thoroughbred. At least the film is smart enough to often cede the floor to its biggest strengths: its female stars.
Eleanor Powell gives one of those happily broke, starry-eyed dreamer performances that litter the Depression-era musical, but she’s at least cute and charming about it. Sure, her character plays a bit like a well-adjusted speed freak set loose upon the populace, but we also get to watch her dance. Powell is a so-so actress but a dynamite dancer, possibly the greatest female dancer ever captured on celluloid. Her finale is astounding as she gets tossed around by various dancers then zips back into her machine-gun taping and elegant kicks. Her dance duet with George Murphy plays like a Fred-and-Ginger-style pas de deux straight out of Top Hat or Swing Time.
She’s surrounded by enough incident and filler to propel two other films, at least. There’s George Murphy and Buddy Ebsen as a pair of old vaudevillians who become her best pals, Robert Taylor as Powell’s love interest and a Broadway producer, a sneeze expert, a wannabe Opera singer and his Italian stereotype uncle, and a stage mother who runs a boarding house for actors and her teenage daughter. Whew, I’m wiped out just typing all of that, and we’re still missing a few bits and pieces along the way.
The sneeze expert is a time suck, Ebsen is a bit awkward here, Murphy and Taylor are fine is sacked with flavorless roles, and the Italians are just loud, annoying caricatures that needed to be removed. It’s that stage mother and teenage daughter that really stick out in a positive way. They’re played by Sophie Tucker and Judy Garland, and Broadway Melody of 1938 quickly shapes up into something engaging when it lets these two do pretty much anything. Imagine a version of this film with Tucker and Garland leading it? No guarantee it would’ve been better, but their charisma alone would’ve powered through the dead spots.