Two Girls on Broadway looks and feels like the “B” movie musical from 1940 that it is. At just over 70 minutes long, the film obviously wasn’t one of MGM’s big budget productions. But Two Girls on Broadway is a fun film, notable for–in my book–a very important reason.
It showed the world that Lana Turner could dance.
Take a look in the video below.
Lana carries her own alongside veteran ballroom dancer, George Murphy, in the film.
With formal training, I’m convinced Lana Turner could have been one of the dancing greats of the Golden Age.
And with Two Girls on Broadway, we get a taste of what Lana could have become if MGM had used her talents differently.
Lana and Joan: Two Girls on Broadway
You can rent or purchase Two Girls on Broadway here on Amazon [aff. link].
Let’s get to the plot, then go behind the scenes to the twists and turns of Joan Blondell’s career, and the drama of Lana Turner’s first marriage to Artie Shaw.
Joan and Lana are the Mahoney Sisters, two small town girls from Rome City, Nebraska, who run a dance studio. Joan plays big sister Molly, Lana plays little sister Pat.
Molly and Pat spend their days teaching kids how to “dance like Fred Astaire and Eleanor Powell.”
One day, Molly awaits a phone call from her fiancé, Eddie (George Murphy). Eddie’s in New York trying to get one of his songs played on a radio show, which he does by pretending that he’s taught canaries how to harmonize. When the birds miraculously can’t sing come show time, Eddie pulls a fast one, singing and dancing to one of his own songs instead.
Tricky. Smart move Eddie.
His plan works, and Eddie catches the eye of the “Linoleum King” and sponsor of the radio program, Chat Chatsworth (Kent Taylor). Chatsworth hooks Eddie up with a gig at the Royal Casino, a popular New York nightclub owned by his friend Buddy Bartell (Richard Lane).
The Girls Head to New York
Though he’s only just secured his own position at the Royal Casino, Eddie proceeds to ask Chatsworth and Bartell to give his fiancée Molly, and her kid sister Pat–whom Eddie’s never met–parts in the show as well.
For some inexplicable reason, Eddie’s forwardness is rewarded. Bartell tells him to go ahead and have the Mahoney sisters come to New York to audition.
When Molly and Pat get to New York, there are obvious sparks between Eddie and Pat.
Molly is completely oblivious that her sister and fiancé may have fallen in love at first sight…
One Sister on Broadway
To further complicate matters, when the girls audition, Chatsworth and Bartell are only impressed with the talent of one Mahoney sister: Pat. Bartell offers Pat a part in the show as Eddie’s dance partner. Out of loyalty to her sister, Pat turns Bartell’s offer down. So Bartell says he’ll give Molly a job as a cigarette girl if that would make Pat change her mind. Pat still says no.
But good-hearted Molly accepts Bartell’s offer, optimistically saying:
“It isn’t what you are, it’s what you’re gonna be.”
Though she doesn’t let on, Molly is heartbroken over the arrangement. But she’s a good sister, and knows that this is a once in a lifetime opportunity for Pat. Molly wants her to take it.
While Molly tries to find contentment as a cigarette girl, Eddie and Pat spend more and more time together rehearsing for the show, and realize that their feelings for each other are deepening. Molly still has no idea, and Pat feels absolutely terrible about it all.
Pat decides the best thing she can do is elope with Chat Chatsworth, who’s been enamored of her since they met.
Trouble is, Chat’s already been married four times…the odds are not in Pat’s favor that this marriage will bring her everlasting happiness. As George and Molly warn Pat:
“That guy’s heard wedding bells so often he’s got a permanent ringing in his ears!”
Corny, but true. And of course, there’s the fact that Pat doesn’t love Chat; she loves Eddie.
Just as Pat and Chatsworth get to the courthouse, Molly learns of Pat’s elopement plans, and realizes that Pat and Eddie are in love. Molly knows that Pat is only marrying Chatsworth to avoid hurting her feelings.
Molly tells Eddie that she knows he loves Pat, and pleads with him to go down to the courthouse and convince Pat not to go through will the marriage:
“What if she marries Chat? It will only last six months and then what’s she gonna do with the rest of her life?”
A Happy Ending?
Eddie successfully stops the wedding and saves Pat from making a big mistake. Molly then decides she should go back home to Rome City, Nebraska, and leave Broadway to Pat and Eddie.
“Goodbye, baby. Be happy.”
She tells Pat.
“I’m gonna be back in Nebraska in time for the corn and lima bean festival. Who knows, maybe this year I’ll be voted the queen of the succotash.”
On this self-sacrificing, slightly silly note–they just had to work succotash into this otherwise poignant moment–the film ends. The tearful Molly takes a greyhound back to Rome City, while Pat and Eddie, presumably, become the toast of Broadway.
Two Girls on Broadway: Lana Gets Top Billing
Lana Turner showcased her dancing skills for the first time on film in 1939’s Dancing Co-Ed. MGM was impressed enough with her dancing to have Lana replace the great Eleanor Powell in Two Girls on Broadway. The film was then tailored to fit Lana’s budding persona as one of Hollywood’s most glamorous and beautiful stars.
19 year-old Lana Turner got top billing in Two Girls on Broadway (1940). Both Joan Blondell and George Murphy had years more experience in movies than Lana, but there was no question who the star of Two Girls on Broadway was. Lana Turner stole the film. As the New York Times put it:
“With Lana Turner figuring prominently in the doings, it is fairly safe to predict that none of the patrons will bother to inquire where and when they have seen Two Girls on Broadway before. There is an indefinable something about Miss Turner that makes it a matter of small concern.”
Lana had star power. In spades.
It didn’t matter that the plot of Two Girls on Broadway was highly predictable and had literally been done before. Audiences were drawn to the film because of Lana.
Joan Blondell: the Heart of Two Girls on Broadway
Though Joan Blondell takes a back seat to Lana throughout Two Girls on Broadway, Joan was a seasoned professional by the time of filming.
And it shows.
Her performance is more than this “B” musical deserves. In the film, Molly takes nothing but blows to her dreams of marrying Eddie and becoming a Broadway star. Joan’s ability to portray Molly’s positivity in the face of these disappointments–as she supports and applauds her sister’s success no less–pulls at your heartstrings throughout the film. Joan is always believable, and even manages to hang on to the melancholy tone of the closing scene, despite the fact that MGM thought Molly’s tearful goodbye to Pat was a good time to work the word “succotash” into the script.
And of course, Joan aces all the comedy scenes in Two Girls on Broadway.
Perhaps her greatest comedy exchange in the film comes when Pat gets home really late from a date with Chatsworth, and tells Molly that the four-times married Chatsworth has asked her (Pat) to marry him.
Joan infers that Chatsworth obviously marries every girl he dates, and delivers her punchline response with clipped, brassy perfection:
“Why should you be an exception?”
Then Pat continues:
“He was awfully swell last night in the moonlight,”
And Joan hits back with another sassy retort:
“So’s the Taj Mahal, but I don’t want to be married to it.”
It’s a flawless delivery, a silly line elevated to legitimate comedy status by the great Joan Blondell.
Life Imitates Art for Joan
Two Girls on Broadway was Joan Blondell’s first film at MGM. She hoped that working at a studio other than Warner Bros., where Joan had made the majority of her films, would bring her some meaty, truly leading lady roles. As Joan said at the time:
“After having cracked the same jokes in different gowns for nine years, I find them just a little stale.”
Unfortunately, MGM was not the career changer she’d hoped for. Instead of a plum leading lady role in her first MGM picture, Joan ended up in Two Girls on Broadway, with second billing to a 19-year-old newcomer.
Sounds almost identical to what Molly Mahoney experiences in the film.
A Career Realization for Joan Blondell
Two Girls on Broadway presented Joan with a tough career realization. She was only 34 years old, but for an actress who’d been making films in Hollywood for a decade, Two Girls on Broadway was not a step towards leading lady status.
It’s possible that the film led Joan to the realization that she’d play supporting roles the rest of her career. And with few exceptions, this turned out to be true.
Joan Blondell didn’t set out to be a supporting actress, and it may have been a disappointing career turn in 1940. But by 1950, Joan had optimistically embraced her supporting actress status. It made her transition to character roles easy. And in the coming years, Joan Blondell would become one of the most revered character actresses in the business.
Life Imitates Art for Lana
In Two Girls on Broadway, Pat almost marries the caddish Chat Chatsworth. But ultimately, Pat turns Chatsworth down, and listens to Molly and Eddie, who tell her the marriage would only last six months, and probably ruin her life and career.
Such a dating and marriage scenario basically happened to Lana Turner in real life while filming Two Girls on Broadway.
Except it didn’t ruin Lana’s life or career. It just added to the public’s fascination with her.
While filming Two Girls on Broadway, Lana was dating attorney to the stars, Greg Bautzer. Bautzer was young Lana’s first love. She was absolutely crazy about him, as photos of the happy couple evidence. When Greg proposed to Lana about halfway through production of Two Girls on Broadway, she excitedly said yes.
Then Lana discovered that Greg was cheating on her with Joan Crawford…
When Bautzer then stood Lana up for a date on her birthday, it cleared the way for the pompous, pedantic bandleader Artie Shaw to sweep Lana off her feet.
A Rebound Date...and Marriage
Lana first met Artie while filming Dancing Co-Ed the previous year, and was not impressed by his vain, self-important air. But as a frustrated young lady stood up on her birthday by her cheating fiancé, when Artie called and asked her out, Lana accepted the date.
By the end of the evening, Artie had convinced Lana that he wanted the same things she did: a steady marriage, happy home life, and children.
That very same night, Artie and Lana eloped in Las Vegas.
Lana was only nineteen.
Lana later said that after a mere 3 days of marriage to Artie Shaw, she knew she’d made a mistake. Artie was cruel and manipulative to his young wife. His goals seemed to be to de-glamorize Lana, and make her feel stupid. (He would do the same thing to Ava Gardner when they wed a few years later, in 1945.)
Lana said that Shaw treated her:
“like an untutored, blonde savage, and took no pains to conceal his opinion.”
Lana tried her best to make the marriage work for four months, but ultimately, she couldn’t take the mental abuse. Guess who her divorce attorney was?
Yep, ex-fiancé Greg Bautzer.
It’s the ultimate irony that Lana’s character in Two Girls on Broadway was spared the miserable marriage that Lana herself experienced in real life.
It certainly wouldn’t be the last time that Lana Turner’s personal life seemed at least as exciting—if not more so—than the plots of the films she made.
That's it for Two Girls on Broadway
And that’s it for Two Girls on Broadway.
Join me next week as I introduce our new Star Spotlight, the inspirational Patricia Neal.