THE BROADWAY MELODY (1929)

Broadway_Melody_posterThis is the story of a pair of sisters who hit the Broadway circuit and attempt to make it big. The film is interesting in that it was pre-Code, and the first sound film to win an Academy Award for Best Picture, in 1929. This was also the second year of the Awards. The film features Anita Page as Queenie and Bessie Love as Harriet “Hank” Mahoney. Hank prides herself on her mind for business and her talent; Queenie is lauded for her beauty. This sets up a tension in the relationship, both professionally and personally. Eddie, who is engaged to Hank, starts the film off by telling two chorus girls he’s brought the sisters to New York to perform a vaudeville act with him in the latest revue being produced by Francis Zaneville. The chorus girls seem a little jealous and wish they’d have a shot at the gig, but Eddie in his charm still manages to stay in their good graces.

In the next scene, we see the sisters hanging out together and waiting for Eddie. When he arrives, we realize he has not seen Queenie since she was a girl. This part was a little confusing to me, since he’s engaged to Hank and clearly aware of their act as a sister duo, but I tried to suspend disbelief. He’s very taken with her immediately; so much so that it was rather uncomfortable to watch as a viewer – particularly because I liked Hank and her pluck so much.

The timeline of the characters’ backstory may not be the biggest wrinkle in this movie- but we’ll get to that in time. The Broadway Melody was the first talking picture to win Best Picture, and the second overall. I’m not sure if it was the first-ever feature musical, but it was definitely one of the first, and I’ve very much been looking forward to seeing it. Released sixteen months after The Jazz Singer, it is from a time when talkies were a novel artform. In any survey of film history, the introduction of synchronized sound always gets a mention. The Transition to Talkies has become the stuff of legend in Hollywood lore, with the stories of stars like John Gilbert, Clara Bow and Buster Keaton inspiring later classics like Singin’ in the Rain and Sunset Boulevard. But while those later dramatizations are perennial classics, the actual output from this period is little-seen, making it something of a Hollywood ‘dark ages’. And there is something utterly irresistible about an artifact from a dark age.

Presumably, most movies from this era are little-seen for a reason. Filmmakers famously had to scale down productions to accommodate burdensome sound equipment. While writers learned to write convincing dialogue, actors worked out a new acting vocabulary befitting the talkie (or, often enough, they were dumped for actors who sounded better). I always imagine these early talkies as just a little more primitive than they turn out to be. That being said, Broadway Melody didn’t exceed my expectations too much, and I caught a couple of cuts that Ed Wood wouldn’t have let escape the editing room.

The logic of the feature musical is sound: now that you have sound with pictures, what do you want to hear? Stage musicals were already very popular. Combining the two forms seems obvious enough. Very literally- this is a film about making a stage musical. Unfortunately, for Broadway Melody, the songs and performance numbers- while not terrible- are not terribly impressive either.

Broadway Melody comes up in discussions of least deserving Best Pictures, but really, what was the competition that year? A quick run through the also-rans…In Old Arizona is notable for being the first talkie filmed outdoors. Hollywood Revue: essentially a variety show of MGM stars which served as a vehicle to introduce the public to the stars’ voices. Alibi, I admit to knowing little about, but it sounds interesting. The Patriot was the last silent movie nominated during the silent era. It also currently holds the dubious distinction of being the only Best Picture nominee currently lost. Definitely an interesting batch of firsts, lasts and ‘onlies’, but none really appreciated today on artistic merit, rather than as a milestone of technology or as a trivia question. Zoom out to the previous year’s winners and nominees. Wings, with its aerial photography and large scale battle scenes is a classic blockbuster. Sunrise and The Crowd are genuine works of art. (Buried among the nominees: The Jazz Singer, like a lone insurrectionist lurking among the old regime.)

All old movies interest me, as time capsules from a bygone era. But something else is going on here. The eligibility period of the Second Academy Awards is classical Hollywood figuring itself out in view of the audience. It may not have produced many films that really hold up to modern viewing. But, movies as we know them had to start somewhere, and that somewhere is here.

I asked why this film won when we watched it, frankly – and Mouse pointed out the important question – “What was the competition?” I thought Wings, the silent winner from the first year, was much better, so maybe my bar was high. I think I was also sort of disturbed by the premise of the film in general; I cannot imagine this happening with my own sister, for example. It seems to break the sister code so perhaps I was prejudiced against it from the beginning.

Not impressive is a bit of an understatement for the songs. I did think as a musical this was pretty bad in terms of tunes, and I generally enjoy most musicals. I also felt the plotline was not only annoying (sisters! ugh) but meandering and a bit pointless. The film could have ended within ten minutes in my opinion. I really did not like this one! I guess one fun element of the film was the young women’s names – Queenie and Hank are two pretty fantastic names, albeit nicknames.

I was sad to see Queenie’s career apparently end, though I guess going off and marrying her sister’s former fiancee was more of what she was interested in anyway. Maybe Hank really dragged Queenie into the band in the first place – or duo, rather. Now that is a story I think I would like to see. This film certainly didn’t seem to pass the Bechdel test. That might have enabled it to.

Fun things I learned from Wikipedia: Anita Page (Queenie) retired from acting a few years after this, but returned after a 60 year hiatus, appearing in direct-to-video horror movies. At the time of her death in 2008, she was the final surviving attendee of the first Academy Awards.

Norma Desmond, the fictional silent film star from Sunset Boulevard famously said “I am big, it is the pictures that got small.” The comparison between last year’s Wings and The Broadway Melody illustrates exactly what she was talking about. The songs are mediocre, the acting bad, the story melodramatic. Is Uncle Jed’s stutter supposed to be humorous? Was I supposed to laugh at a guy faking a speech impediment? There is the (maybe apocryphal) story about the studio exec who proclaimed “Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”  Considering Broadway Melody as the non plus ultra of cinematic achievement at this time, his words don’t seem so crazy in context.

Now maybe I’m being a little harsh on this movie. Maybe I need to reimagine how I am meant to see it. Perhaps I should have put myself into the mind of a 1929 moviegoer. I walk under the marquee of an art deco movie palace…I take my seat in a packed theater…and when the movie starts I hear the characters’ voices through the whole movie! Like all films of its time, it never would have occurred to anyone that Broadway Melody would be viewed in the intimate setting of a living room. Another thing we’re missing out on is that the musical numbers were originally shown in two-strip Technicolor, which would have been almost as novel in 1929 as synchronized sound. Although the film itself survives, the color prints have been lost.

I’m going to dispute this idea that this film does not pass the Bechdel Test. It’s about two women arriving in New York to further their careers in entertainment. I’m also going to say there was some real dramatic potential in the scene where Hank sends Eddie after Queenie. I’m not saying it works terribly well in execution, but on the page I’m sure it was great, having the movie turn on the point where Hank gets wise to how the other two feel, and sacrifices them both for the sake of each other. The movie ends up being about people giving up their plans and living life as it comes at them. I give the film credit for not giving Hank the happy ending. She just figures out how to get by, a remarkably prescient sentiment for 1929.

This film is a snapshot of a different sort, not just of the state of film craft. On screen here are the last days of the Roaring Twenties. By the time the 2nd Academy Awards had rolled around, the great Stock Market Crash had happened and the economy was in a graveyard spiral that history would call the Great Depression.

I laughed out loud reading your question about whether you are supposed to wonder at what you are meant to laugh at or engage with. Yes, this film was pretty absurd in a number of ways – I did also have to fight off falling asleep a few times. I am prone to that with cozy winter coming, but it was pretty easy with this one.

I guess we do need to remember that, as you said, we are seeing it through 2018 eyes. I do think I might disagree with you, though, about the happy ending for Hank. Honestly, at the end of the film, her life seems more interesting and happier to me than Queenie’s. I think she got what she wanted with a career and a life that centered her talent. She also doesn’t seem sad, and I was glad the sisters seemed to share a great deal of love despite the path their lives took them. Maybe on that level there was a glimmer of something positive in terms of women’s relationships.

It does also definitely seem like a film made before the Great Depression, so I think that detail is worth pointing out. I wonder what this same film would have looked like were it made a year or two later, tonally.

I’m not saying Hank gets a tragic ending by any means. But, unlike some of its successors, the story does not resolve with her dreams coming true.

So, I suppose we can view Broadway Melody as something like a first draft of the movie musical. Many of the elements- the show within-a-show, the backstage rivalries and sexual politics, would be revisited in later movies. It’s not one I would readily recommend. These are the reasons to watch Broadway Melody:

  1. You have a specific interest in the craft of cinema, and you want to see a movie from when they were still tightening the bolts on the whole business.
  2. You want to see what the people in a silent movie probably sounded like if you could hear them.
  3. You are a completist intent upon seeing every Oscar winner (what we refer to around here as “The Competition”).

In a couple years, Busby Berkeley would be on the scene, combining military precision with a keen sense of camera work to create true classics. If you want to check out an old time musical, I would point you there. 42nd Street and Footlight Parade are safe bets.

While I’m giving recommendations, I’ll bring up Singin’ in the Rain. It tells the story of this famous transitional period, albeit in a stylized, romanticized manner. Released in 1952, it’s sort of a bookend to the Hollywood Golden Age that began with movies like Broadway Melody. Plus, it has the benefit of picking through the best songs of the period, making sort of a greatest hits package. And that Gene Kelly was just an incredible dancer.

But the movie I can’t walk away from this without mentioning- The Saddest Music in the World, a modern movie that consciously borrows the look and feel of early musicals, including awkward edits, stagey sets and even a Technicolor sequence. It leverages the uncanny artificiality of early talkies to create a bizarre dreamlike world. It’s one of my favorite movies of the current century and is required winter viewing in our house (especially suitable for snowed-in nights).

Look up the “Singin’ in the Rain” sequence from Hollywood Revue, where they gathered almost the whole stable of stars at MGM for the finale. Watch their faces as the camera pans. Some of the actors look a bit uncomfortable, don’t you think? Maybe it’s the inevitable awkwardness of being forced into a group singalong. But I think there’s something else on their mind. These are the the faces of people peering into an uncertain future. And, oh man, some of them weren’t wrong to be worried.

Also nominated in 1929:
Alibi
Hollywood Revue
In Old Arizona
The Patriot

Next film: SLUMDOG MILLIONAIRE (2008)

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