Eleanor Powell, Metro Goldwyn Mayer’s tap-dancing super-star of the 1930s and early 40s, is now an oddly marginalized figure in the world of dance history. Perhaps it’s because the movies she appeared in–featherweight musical vehicles–are now mostly unwatchable. (I hate it when that happens). One of them, ‘Ship Ahoy’ (1942), contains (for my money) one of the most breathtakingly conceived, staged and executed dance numbers in all musical cinema. Powell dances to a song called ‘I’ll Take Tallulah’, by Burton Lane and E.Y. ‘Yip’ Harburg. Bert Lahr and Red Skelton are around for the beginning of the action but the real surprise cameo belongs to drummer Buddy Rich, who does some nifty drumstick tricks with Powell. Rich is twenty-four years old in this clip and believe it or not he’s smiling and actually acting like he’s enjoying himself. It’s a very different Buddy than the foul-tempered, scowling bastard who appeared on The Tonight Show through the 70s and 80s. (Of all Johnny’s guests, Rich and Jerry Lewis were the ones I dreaded seeing the most). Rich got his start in Vaudeville as a child and he appears to be channeling that self in his routine with Powell, not the hard-core drum virtuoso who screamed obscenities at his band on the tour bus. By the way, the original title for ‘Ship Ahoy’ was ‘I’ll Take Manila’. It was changed after the Pearl Harbor attack. Perhaps the song was titled that as well and ‘Tallulah’ was subbed in at the last minute to avoid offense? A subject for further research, though not by me.


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