November 01, 2009

Broadway Melody, The

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A movie review by James Berardinelli



Broadway Melody, The

MUSICAL:

United States, 1929

U.S. Release Date:

1929-02-08

Running Length:

1:40

MPAA Classification:

NR

Theatrical Aspect Ratio:

1.33:1

Cast:

Charles King, Anita Page, Bessie Love, Jed Prouty, Kenneth Thomson, Eddie Kane

Director:

Harry Beaumont

Screenplay:

Norman Houston and James Gleason

Cinematography:

John Arnold

Music:

Nacio Herb Brown

U.S. Distributor:

MGM

Subtitles:

none


To the degree that "sophistication" would become one of the characteristics defining Academy Award Best Picture winners, that criterion was not yet in place when The Broadway Melody received its citation in 1930. One part air and one part cheese, this movie was selected primarily because it brought the popular stage spectacle of the musical to the screen. The initial feature length, full sound musical (the first of many for MGM), The Broadway Melody benefited from being first and, as such, some of its flaws - which should have been evident even at the time of its release, 1929 - were easily overlooked. The movie was popular enough to spin off three sequels, all with different characters. (The actress who would become synonymous with The Broadway Melody series, Eleanor Powell - who appeared in the 1936, 1938, 1940, and would have been in the aborted 1943 movie - was not in the inaugural edition.)

The Broadway Melody has not stood the test of time in ways that many of its more artistic contemporaries have. Some of its deficiencies can be attributed to ways in which the genre has been re-shaped and improved over the years, but some are the result of the studio's validated belief that viewers would be willing to ignore bad acting and pedestrian directing in order to experience singing, dancing, and talking on the silver screen. The Broadway Melody became the first talkie to be honored with the Oscar (although that term had not yet been coined in 1930), and stands among the ten worst features cited as a Best Picture. It's available on DVD but not worth the effort to rent unless you’re a completist when it comes to MGM musicals or Academy Award winners.

From a film historian's perspective, this is an important movie. Not only was it the first all-sound musical to reach the screen, but it was also one of the first to mix music with drama (most early musicals were essentially filmed vaudeville shows). The showstopping number at the end was originally filmed using the two-strip Technicolor process to provide a big splash (only the black-and-white version exists today). This was also the first production to employ pre-recorded music on the soundtrack. The process worked so well that is was permanently adopted by Hollywood and remains the standard today. If only The Broadway Melody was as entertaining as it is historically relevant…

The soap-opera quality melodrama tells about a song-and-dance man, Eddie Kearns (Charles King), who is one of the leading men in the "Zanfield Follies," run by Francis Zanfield (Eddie Kane). Two Midwest-bred sisters, Hank (Bessie Love) and Queenie Mahoney (Anita Page), arrive in New York looking to break into show business. Hank is Eddie's long-time sweetheart but he finds himself strongly attracted to Queenie, who becomes one of the Follies' star attractions. She captures the attention of playboy Jock Warriner (Kenneth Thomson), who woos her with expensive presents. She loves Eddie but is open to Jock's advances because becoming a couple with Eddie would betray Hank. Meanwhile, Eddie's feelings and loyalties are divided between the two sisters. He loves Queenie but his long-standing relationship with Hank makes him resistant to change the status quo. Eventually, circumstances demand that Hank make the necessary moves to resolve the situation. Since this has traditional musical values, everything ends happily.

In some ways, this is atypical in that it doesn't feature many production numbers and all but two occur within the framework of the Follies. Of the songs, only "The Broadway Melody" engages - most of the others sound like rejected TV commercial jingles. The choreography is flat and static; Busby Berkely was still a few years away from transitioning from the stage to the screen. The flair and originality he would bring to the motion picture musical is noticeably lacking in The Broadway Melody. One can see where such simple song-and-dance numbers would enchant audiences infatuated with the novelty of talking and singing in a motion picture, but for viewers who have a library of 80 years' worth of sound musicals, that's not the case.

The Broadway Melody takes a couple of stabs at topical (and obvious) satire. The man behind the Follies is named Zanfield; this is a reference to the legendary Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. Likewise, it would be hard to miss the connection between the character "Jock Warriner" and the real-life motion picture magnate "Jack Warner." Such jabs are not out of place in this movie, which generally keeps the tone light. There is a moment late in the proceedings when there's some genuine emotion to contend with; it's easily the picture's most compelling sequence and features a standout performance from Bessie Love. Unfortunately, once that scene is over, everything is again sunny. Instances of legitimate drama such as this could occasionally creep into early musicals as long as they were short-lived and did not interfere with the happy ending.

Of the lead acting trio, only Charles King could sing. With the voice of a crooner, he's able to carry his own during the songs. Unfortunately, his acting is pretty awful. King had a short Hollywood career. The Broadway Melody was his second film and he would be out of the movie business by 1932. His female co-stars boasted considerably more success. Anita Page, who died last year at the age of 98, began her career in silent films but quickly transitioned to the talkies. In 1929, the blond bombshell was at the height of her popularity. (Benito Mussolini was reputedly a big fan.) After The Broadway Melody, she would continue in films until 1936, when she retired. She returned to the screen for a couple of features in the '60s and had recently revived her acting career while in her 90s. Bessie Love had the longest and most steady run of any of the three. Her first screen appearance was in 1915 and her last was in 1983. In between, she made over 100 movies and never went more than five years without a role. She never won an Oscar but was the only member of The Broadway Melody cast to be nominated for this film.

For journeyman director Harry Beaumont, this represented the high point of his 35-year career as a filmmaker. A fast worker like many of his contemporaries, Beaumont helmed nearly 100 films and effortlessly transitioned from silent films to talkies; The Broadway Melody was his first full sound feature and its success assured that he would continue to be employed for more than another decade. Most of his movies are either lost or forgotten; The Broadway Melody remains his most prominent effort; most of those alive today who have seen a Beaumont feature have watched this one.

It could be argued that it's unfair to judge a popular hit from 1929 by 2009 standards. There is some truth to this, especially in the case of an early screen musical, in which the filmmakers were still in the process of feeling things out and refining them. Nevertheless, the fact that many productions from the '20s and '30s (and earlier) remain beloved classics and stand up to various modern litmus tests argues against any "unfairness" that might result from "era bias." Those who viewed and enjoyed The Broadway Melody in 1929 are entitled to their memories. Anyone approaching it today will find it horribly dated, badly produced, and filled with uninspired musical numbers and over-the-top performances. This is the kind of movie that turns off children of today's generation from titles made during the early talkie era. During its first ceremony, in 1929, the Academy honored Wings and Sunrise, both of which were deserving of citations. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said of the 1930 recipient.

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