In Casablanca, everyone comes to Rick’s. In Born to Dance, everyone comes to Jenny Saks’ (Una Merkel) Lonely Hearts Club in New York. Jenny is married to Gunny Saks (Sid Silvers), but she barely knows him since he’s a sailor who has been away with the Navy for four years. When Gunny finally comes back to New York, he takes his sailor friend Ted Barker (Jimmy Stewart) with him and heads straight for the Lonely Hearts Club to see his wife. But Gunny and Ted aren’t the only ones arriving in New York this day. Nora Paige (Eleanor Powell) has just come to town looking to become a Broadway star and hits it off with Jenny. When Gunny and Ted show up at the club, Ted and Nora fall in love, but things aren’t as warm between Jenny and Gunny. Jenny has a daughter named Sally that Gunny doesn’t know about and Jenny doesn’t want him to know about her until she’s sure whether or not she really loves him.
However, actress Lucy James (Virginia Bruce) soon ends up driving a wedge between Ted and Nora. When Lucy shows up on Gunny and Ted’s ship for some publicity pictures, her little dog ends up falling overboard and Ted is the lucky sailor to jump in and save it. Lucy’s press agent sees the potential for more publicity out of this incident and gets Lucy to invite Ted out to dinner to thank him. When her agent puts word out to the press about their date, Nora assumes that Ted loves her instead and refuses to see him. But even though Ted still loves Nora, Lucy is smitten by Ted. When Lucy’s agent suggests telling the press the two of them are engaged, she is outraged because she absolutely does not want to use Ted like that and threatens to back out of her new show if he does.
Meanwhile, Nora has gotten a job as Lucy’s understudy in her new show. So what does Ted do to win Nora back? He tells the press that he and Lucy are engaged, Lucy backs out of the show, and of course Nora goes on in her place and becomes a sensation! Nora and Ted get back together and they all lived happily ever after. Well, except for Gunny and Jenny. Gunny was thrilled to find out he was Sally’s father, but he didn’t find out until after he signed up for another four years in the Navy.
In the book Irving Thalberg: Boy Wonder to Producer Prince, there’s a page that talks about how one day, Irving had been asked to come to a meeting with Cole Porter and the main cast of Born to Dance to hear songs written for the movie. When he walked into the meeting, Irving was clearly unhappy about being asked to be there. This wasn’t one of his movies, he was a busy man and had plenty of other things to be doing. But by the end of the meeting, Irving was smiling and jumping up to congratulate Porter on what he called one of the finest movie scores he’d ever heard. I think that story really sums up what kind of movie Born to Dance is — something you can watch when you’re in a bad mood and by the time it’s over, it’s awfully hard to resist smiling. 1930s musicals were all about fantasy and escapism and that is precisely what Born to Dance is.
I loved everything about Born to Dance. It’s pure, exuberant fun, the cast is delightful, the songs are extremely catchy. It’s got lots of great lines like, “Sally, you’re going to drive me to stop drinking,” and “He went out fifteen minutes ago for five minutes and won’t be back for a half hour.” And there’s no going wrong will all that spectacular tap dancing by Eleanor Powell. When I say the cast is delightful, that includes Jimmy Stewart. This is a very unusual movie for Jimmy Stewart since he was so not meant for musicals. But I’ve really got to hand it to him, because you can’t accuse him of not being a good sport about being put in this movie. He was no Bing Crosby, but he doesn’t pretend to be Bing Crosby, either. There are moments where you can tell that he felt out of his element, but he gave it his all anyway and managed to make that awkwardness totally endearing. He may not have been a great singer, but he was completely adorable in it anyway.