Have you Seen....? by David Thomson
2008 Broadway Melody of 1940
…With films it is our habit to say that this one is good, that one a masterpiece, whereas maybe the most truthful approach would say that in John Frankenheimer’s I Walk the Line there are two or three minutes when the look on Tuesday Weld’s face is from some other film, a film made by William Faulkner, while the rest is, well, decent filler. I think once we got into that way of looking, we could all build an anthology of moments while admitting that elsewhere a film rests or glides downhill.
So, in Broadway Melody of 1940 (a 102-minute picture) there is 9 minutes 43 seconds of Begin the Beguine…
[Fred Astaire’s] in a white tux, black tie; [Eleanor Powell's] in a swirling white frock that stops at the top of her calf. Now it’s a flat-out tap version of Beguine, one of mounting speed and exuberance, with a gaiety and an energy so great that if you’d been Hitler in 1940, you might have looked at this and called a halt. Fred and Eleanor had no artillery, no cavalry, no infantry. But they had the assurance to do this dance as if in the front parlour, for millions of people. And as it ends, there’s a quite enchanting moment where the dancers stop and Eleanor’s loose white flower of a frock keeps dancing for a second and half.
observations: This entry is about how much life has changed for filmfans who like to read about the movies. David Thomson (a really wonderful film writer) wrote a version of this piece in an English newspaper in approx. 2005. I read it and – as surely anyone would be – was desperate to see Begin the Beguine. In order to have any hope of doing that, I had to go to an American website, order an ancient second hand video/VHS (not DVD) of this movie – because that was all that was available – pay for it in dollars, and wait weeks and weeks for it to travel by surface mail and arrive. And a) it was well worth the trouble and the wait and b) I felt incredibly lucky, because I could get hold of a copy, and because computers had made that easy, and because by then the US/UK different video standards had been (somewhat) sorted, and so the US video was playable on an English system – 10 years before that wouldn’t have been the case. Ten and twenty years before, if you heard of a wonderful film, or a wonderful film moment for your anthology, you had to search for a video, or wait for it to come on TV, or hope for a film club to show it. So in 2005 that was fine.
But also in 2005, YouTube started up. I’m sure you couldn’t get any of Broadway Melody of 1940 on it straightaway – but now, you can watch the end of Begin the Beguine, and you can see Eleanor Powell’s dress as David Thomson wanted you to. Result.
So the picture shows the exact moment (and a half) he is talking about: they are stationary, they have stopped moving, but look at that skirt.
You can see the final couple of minutes of the number (despite all above, have not found the full 9+ minutes) here.