The Broadway Melody is only the second best picture winner, taking home the award way back in 1929. It’s also the first “all talkie” musical, having synchronized sound throughout. This probably works against it in some ways, as with early sound films there was almost no camera movement (I noticed zero in this film) and as such the films become more stagy than they were in the silent era. The Broadway Melody definitely falls victim to this problem, but you know what, I liked it anyway.
Hank (Bessie Love) and Queenie (Anita Page) are two halves of a sister act who have been doing alright for themselves travelling around the country. They want to make it in New York though, and to that end Hank’s boyfriend, Eddie Kearns (Charles King), tries to book them for his new act in Zanfield’s (Eddie Kane) musical revue show. He succeeds, but unfortunately not on the basis of Hank and Queenie’s talent, but rather Queenie’s beauty. Queenie makes a behind the scenes deal with Zanfield to hire both of them, rather than just Queenie, but hides it from Hank who thinks it’s thanks to her own shrewd negotiating skills. They are put in the show, but their numbers get cut severely while Queenie is given a standout part where she doesn’t sing or dance, but rather just stands on top of a ship in a revealing costume. Hank is a bit disillusioned with this, saying they sure but the “broad” in Broadway, but is glad to be there nevertheless.
There are personal as well as professional problems. When Eddie secretly starts romancing Queenie behind Hank’s back, Queenie is mortified and starts gravitating towards ladies’ man Jacques Warriner (Kenneth Thomson) instead. Hank, used to looking after the younger Queenie, warns her that Jacques’ reputation suggests he doesn’t really have marriage in mind. Queenie, eager to protect Hank from losing Eddie, doesn’t explain why she is willing to date such a cad, and Hank is dismayed that Queenie’s keeping secrets from her and won’t listen to her advice anymore. Queenie can’t tell her why, so the two sisters grow increasingly apart. The behind the scenes of love triangle is a favorite of movie musicals, but I got to admit, the conflict was an emotional one for me here. It did wrap up rather suddenly and a bit unconvincingly in the end, but at least everyone seems happy.
As I said in the intro, this film exhibits a problem common to many early sound films, that they just can’t move the camera in an interesting way and record sound at the same time. This film has the most static shots of probably any film I’ve ever seen (I didn’t notice them move the camera once, not even to pan or tilt), and doesn’t even use closeups that often. When closeups are used, they become that much more powerful for that reason. Normally, the film can feel very stagy, and if feels just as stagy during the musical numbers as it does during dialogue scenes. Furthermore, we only occasionally get different angles besides just straight on views, further enhancing the stagy feel. I think the story’s strong enough and the novelty of seeing a movie this old (for me anyway) somewhat makes up for the relative lack of cinematic imagination (that’s a sentence I never thought I’d write).
The strangest thing about this movie is that while it has a variety of musical numbers, they based the whole movie around the title song, “The Broadway Melody.” It’s really short, so it’s strange that they use it over and over again throughout the movie when there’s not a lot to it (it’s good for the one verse it does have). While I had always wondered if this “Broadway Melody” was the same “Broadway Melody” at the end of Singin’ in the Rain, this suspicion was immediately confirmed by seeing Arthur Freed’s name in the credits as the lyricist (Nacio Herb Brown composed the music). “You Were Meant for Me” and “Wedding of the Painted Doll” are two other songs that appear in this film that would later be used in Singin’ in the Rain, though I wouldn’t really count either of them as highlights of either film.
1929 was a pretty long time ago, and you can see it in both the style and skill level of the musical numbers here. The dancing is not that impressive, one iteration of “The Broadway Melody” features dancers just walking in time to the music in two lines opposite each other. You’ll also often see dancers just posing in the background (sometimes they are pretty casually just standing there), showing the low bar for show biz that Hank laments. When there is more complicated dancing, the dancers just aren’t as tight together as we’re used to seeing nowadays; the early Fred and Ginger musicals from the next decade (my next movie musical reference point) have a much higher level of skill and precision in both the singing and dancing. It’s not as if the dancing in this movie is out of time from the music, they just a lot looser than anything anyone would dare to put on film after this. When the dancers lift their legs, there’re not all at exactly the same height and exactly the same time. As such, for a musical, the big musical numbers are one of the most disappointing aspects of the movie. For some reason, they can’t or don’t execute them to the military precision that musicals of the golden age would.
Despite its roughness around the edges, I really liked The Broadway Melody. I got surprisingly sucked up in the story, decrying Eddie’s fecklessness, respecting Hank’s desire to make it in show biz on skill alone, sympathizing with Queenie to protect her sister. The 20s style dialogue was particularly enjoyable. Even though “The Broadway Melody” might be too short to be used over and over again in this movie, it’s still a great song. The acting is pretty strong throughout (though Anita Page is sometimes a weak spot). I might be cutting it some slack because of how old it is and its technical innovations at the time (it also had a sequence in early two strip technicolor that is now lost unfortunately), but I can’t help it. I enjoyed the movie.
The 2nd Academy Awards were a strange time, because the Academy awarded seven different films one award each in seven different categories without announcing any official nominations at all. However, the Academy has gone back and retroactively announced “nominations” based on what they were reportedly considering at the time. Using that model, The Broadway Melody as the highest grossing film that year won against Alibi, In Old Arizona, Hollywood Revue, and Ernst Lubitsch’s The Patriot (now considered lost). Harry Beaumont also unofficially lost best director to Frank Lloyd for Divine Lady, and Bessie Love likewise unofficially lost to Mary Pickford in Coquette for best actress that year. The 2nd Academy Awards and the state of cinema in general are almost unrecognizable by today’s standards, so it’s almost impossible to second guess the awards from my modern vantage point. I’ve only seen two other films from that year, Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail and GW Pabst’s Pandora’s Box. Those might be technically better, but I’d be more likely to sit down for repeated viewings of The Broadway Melody.
“Oh, of course, Eddie. I’m glad to see her make good. Oh, but, gee, we ain’t never had to get by on our legs before.”
Long story short: 3/4 stars
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