Ann Sothern and Robert Young can't stop marrying each other in... Lady Be Good (1941)

Is this poster not gorgeous? I would hang this on my wall in a second. Lately I've been watching a lot of Eleanor Powell films, which wasn't by design. I like Powell--she was a terrific dancer, a good actress, and a woman who portrayed intelligence, ambition, and kindness. It's a little crazy that her legacy isn't nearly as well-known as her male counterparts'. I could be wrong here, but I think Ann Miller, Cyd Charisse, and Ginger Rogers are more likely to spring to mind if someone were to ask you to name a female dancer. Eleanor Powell was only in Hollywood for a decade, from 1935 to 1945, with a quick return in 1950 for a cameo as herself in the Esther Williams/Van Johnson flick Duchess of Idaho. Although Lady Be Good was Powell's first time in a supporting role during her peak years, it may be my favorite film of hers. Let's dig in.


We open at a courthouse where a divorce trial is underway. On the stand is Dixie Crane (Ann Sothern), a lyricist whose soon-to-be ex is also her songwriting partner. She tells the judge (Lionel Barrymore) how she and Eddie (Robert Young) met while she was waiting tables and he was very much the struggling artist. They began dating, and one night during a particularly hopeless session with a lyricist friend of Eddie's (Dan Dailey in an early role), Dixie hesitantly tells Eddie that she wrote her own words to his song. He gives them
a try, and by golly, he loves it! (Watch the fun here.) The song becomes a success, as does their next tune. Dixie quit waitressing and became Mrs. Eddie Crane. At this point, Dixie's lawyer stops her testimony so he can put Broadway dancer and Dixie's friend Marilyn Marsh (Powell) on the stand. Marilyn likes Eddie, but as soon as he hit the big time, he stopped working on music and loved catering to snooty, high-society people. He all but forsakes the friends who stuck by him when he was struggling, such as Marilyn, music publisher Max Milton (Reginald Owen), song-plugger Red Willet (Red Skelton) and his girlfriend Lull (Virginia O'Brien), and singer Buddy Crawford (John Carroll). Dixie's exasperation finally got to the point where she wanted a divorce, which the judge grants. You can watch Dixie asking Eddie for the divorce here.

Now living with Marilyn, Dixie can't seem to find a decent songwriting partner. Eddie, on the other hand, can't find a single clean spot in his apartment. It's so bad, his servants quit and he calls up Dixie to get her help in procuring new ones, which she mistakes for an attempt at reconciliation. She's not too pleased to learn that Eddie is just too lazy to call an employment agency himself. She starts cleaning up the apartment (I don't blame her, I wouldn't be able to stop myself from doing the same) and when she grabs a piece of paper to throw away, Eddie is appalled that she would trash eight bars of a song he began a year ago. He begins playing the song, which piques Dixie's interest. Without a thought, the two fall back into their partnership as they stay up until the wee hours finishing the song. Once it's completed, they're so exhausted that neither one of them remembers they're divorced. Out of habit, they go to their bedroom and start disrobing... It isn't until Dixie is down to her slip that she notices their mistake.

Before long, Eddie becomes extremely jealous of Buddy, who has been casually dating Dixie. Their confrontation ends in Eddie getting a punch to the face; his embarrassment is complete when he joins Dixie and their friends at the nightclub where Buddy works and Dixie refuses to see him alone. The next day, Marilyn and Dixie's apartment is filled with flowers from Buddy, making Eddie's bouquet look puny. Marilyn is just miffed that neither guy bothered to get her anything (valid). Once Dixie arrives home, Eddie asks her if they can work together again. She's reluctant, but the conclusion is foregone as soon as Eddie sits down at the piano. I love watching Ann Sothern act here--Dixie is trying to come up with the words, using different phrases, making faces when something doesn't sound right, looking to Eddie to see what he thinks. In just a few minutes, Dixie and Eddie have written "Lady Be Good." Oh, movie magic.

Naturally, the song is a huge hit, bigger than their previous ones. Soon afterwards, a banquet is given in honor of Donnegan and Crane, and Eddie tells his ex that he wants to reconcile. Dixie remembers, though, how different Eddie became and she would rather stay songwriting partners for the moment. Marilyn is tired of all the will-they-or-won't-they nonsense, so she asks Buddy to do her favor: send Dixie an engagement ring so Eddie will get jealous and finally take a stand. Since he's realized he is in love with Marilyn, Buddy agrees to do it. Dixie receives the ring and believes it's from Eddie until Buddy shows up and acts thrilled that they're "engaged." Marilyn calls Eddie and lets him know about the ring, prompting him to angrily say that he's coming over...with a gun! The girls quickly change into good clothes (as Marilyn says, "If I'm going to be shot, it won't be in this!") and try to escape before the maniac arrives, but they're too late. After some more mixed-up craziness, Eddie and Dixie decide that they have had enough and it's off to the chapel.

On the way home from the ceremony, Marilyn admits her feelings to Buddy and they get engaged. In the front seat of the car, however, the newlyweds' glow quickly dissipates when Eddie tells Dixie that they're going on a long honeymoon, which includes visiting his society friends, instead of finishing work on an important Broadway show they were hired for. This show would be a huge boost for their careers, but once again, now that Eddie has Dixie, his ambition is totally gone. It's an interesting dynamic--Dixie is very driven and dedicated to what she loves, be it songwriting or her marriage. Eddie still hasn't quite...grown up. He wants things and he'll work for them, but only if it's absolutely necessary. Realizing she made a mistake, Dixie tells Eddie she wants a divorce. She offers to stay partners, but he's too upset and turns her down. For six months, he flits around with high society and starts (but never finishes) a symphony. Dixie finishes writing the show, which is another resounding success for her.

She goes back to the same court with the same judge, but after listening to her testimony, the judge refuses to grant the decree. It's clear that Dixie and Eddie are still in love, and they can't keep doing this marriage-and-divorce routine. Stunned, Dixie, Buddy, and Marilyn leave the courthouse seconds before Red, Lull, and Eddie pull up. Unaware of the ruling, Eddie contests the divorce, something that he didn't do before. The judge lets him believe that the divorce was already granted, causing Eddie to follow his wife to an inn where he begs her to remarry him. Realizing he doesn't know the truth, Dixie tells him she'll never marry him again but she will live with him, shocking him. She then embraces Eddie and asks him to keep believing that they're not married.

Eleanor Powell has two dances in this flick, and they're my top 2 favorite of hers. Well, besides maybe "Begin the Beguine" with Fred Astaire. What astounds me about Powell is that she almost always did solo numbers. Unlike Gene Kelly and Astaire, she didn't have a version of Vera-Ellen or Rita Hayworth given to her--MGM just kind of let her do her own thing. As far as I can tell, the only time her non-dancing leading man was forced to partner with her was Jimmy Stewart in Born to Dance, and even that is fleeting. Astaire seemed to be the sole guy in town who could keep up with her, and amazingly they were paired just once for Broadway Melody of 1940. I guess Ellie's talent was too much for just any partner...

Powell's first number doesn't come in until halfway through Lady Be Good, but it's a wonderfully simple piece. Dixie comes home to find Marilyn laying on the floor, drawing out a dance routine. Dixie retires to her room and misses one hell of a show. Her adorable dog, Buttons, watches Marilyn start out and decides he wants to join in. He weaves in and out of her legs, jumps through her arms, all while wearing a giant bow around his neck. When the music breaks into the hula style, Buttons stops moving, prompting Marilyn to tease him that he probably can't do it. He shows her--he stands up on his back feet and wiggles his backside. So cute! The dance ends with Buttons jumping into Marilyn's arms and they playfully roll around. After watching this, you'll forever be disappointed that you and your dog aren't nearly as cool. To make you feel even more inferior, Powell found and trained the dog herself!

Powell's second and last dance comes near the end of the film. Marilyn stars in the Broadway show Dixie is working on, and we get to see only one number from it, so the movie makes it count. A woman (Connie Russell) sings "Fascinating Rhythm" in a spotlight as individual musicians appear silhouetted on a giant curtain behind her. We then cut to the talented Berry Brothers as they do their acrobatic, spirited routine. Next, we see the unmistakable tap shoes of Powell as she weaves and dances her way around pianos and more enormous curtains. Did I mention this number was choreographed by Busby Berkeley? An orchestra is revealed behind one of the curtains and Powell interacts with them before she twirls her way on to a huge ballroom floor, where a line of men are waiting to flip Ellie over and over until she lands on her feet, with the biggest smile on her face, as she spins some more before landing in a close-up where canes point to her, as if we needed to know where to look. Surprisingly, the routine isn't as elaborate as Powell's more well-known numbers, such as her Navy-themed one in Born to Dance. You can watch "Fascinating Rhythm" above, but I could only find a video that showcased Powell's part. In the compilation film That's Entertainment, Gene Kelly introduced an amazing clip that shows this number and footage of the number being filmed side by side. You can see it here at 2:04.

Ann Sothern was a big star at MGM thanks to her popular "Maisie" series, but the studio rarely used her as a musical star, despite her vocal talent. They came to their senses soon enough, but since neither Sothern nor Robert Young were associated with musicals, MGM roped Powell into the flick and gave her first billing which would indicate to audiences that Lady Be Good was indeed a musical. Sothern would go on to do a variety of genres that would show off her range: dramas like A Letter to Three Wives, comedies such as her teamings with Gene Raymond, musicals like Panama Hattie, and film noir (Shadow on the Wall). The marvelous actress never really felt appreciated in Hollywood, starring in either B films or what I call A- films (A films that straddle the line). She proved a hit with her own TV shows, Private Secretary and The Ann Sothern Show, both in the 1950's. 

Lady Be Good was originally a 1924 Broadway show that starred Fred and Adele Astaire. As is usually the case, the show and the film are totally different, except for the use of "Lady Be Good" and "Fascinating Rhythm." Although the film is named after the Gershwin tune, the soundtrack is a mixed bag of the brothers Gershwin and Roger Edens. There is also one of the most poignant and lovely songs you'll ever hear, Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein's "The Last Time I Saw Paris," sung beautifully by Sothern. The song won an Academy Award, which actually caused a mini controversy. "Paris" was released a year before Lady Be Good and was already a hit before MGM selected it for the film. According to the Academy's rules, in order for a song to be eligible for Best Original Song, it can't have come from any other source except for the film that uses it. Some people were upset that "Paris" won, and from then on, the Academy was more diligent in its rules.

When you watch Lady Be Good, it's clear that it was one of Red Skelton's first movies because he doesn't get lots of screen time. He only gets one pratfall, but he does have some great lines. For instance, Buddy tricks him out of his seat so he can sit next to Marilyn, causing Red to say "You two want me to be alone." Later when Lull performs her own very unique version of a Donnegan-Crane song, Red quips "I didn't know you couldn't sing." When I wrote about DuBarry was a Lady, I expressed my love for Skelton and O'Brien, both individually and as a team, and I love them again here. O'Brien gets barely any lines, but she's still hilarious. Her character, Lull, is always eating copious amounts of food and looking bored, and good golly, do I adore her.

Lady Be Good seems to have been lost in the shuffle of incredible MGM musicals, something that is both understandable and egregious. The cast is tops, as is the production, score, and direction (provided by the reliable Norman Z. McLeod). You couldn't ask for a better time.



Can I have this fantastic seashell mirror? And also Ann Sothern's hairstyle?

Dixie can tell her best friend is in love with Buddy, even before Buddy knows it.

"Yo-ur worrrrds, annnd myyyy music!"

One of Sothern's many weird hats.

Love this shot of Young looking at Dixie...
and then the camera cutting to Dixie's legs as she tries to come up lyrics.



Marilyn's drawings for her this dance...


I forgot to mention Powell's great harem pants. Just another incentive to watch.









With love,
Michaela

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