Sunday, October 17, 2010

The Broadway Melody (1929): A Review


All Singing, All Dancing, Not All Bad...

The Broadway Melody, the first sound film and musical to win Best Picture, has been bashed, and I think unfairly.

By today's standards, it is dated, but

A.) one has to apply the standards of the time when watching it, and

B.) there are some great songs that for all lovers of film will be shockingly recognizable.

Given that, I think watching it today we should be a bit milder on The Broadway Melody, which is by no means a brilliant film or even a particularly good one. However, it is not as horrid as one is led to imagine.

This is in many respects, a rather simple backstage story. The Mahoney Sisters are a double act trying to break into The Great White Way. Hank (Bessie Love), the older of the two, is a tough hoofer who has a fiery determination. Queenie (Anita Page) is a more innocent and delicate girl, more the beauty to Hank's brain in the operation (side note: I kept wondering why they had such odd names, but I digress).

Hank has a fiancee, song-and-dance man Eddie Kearns (Charles King), waiting for her in New York. He's already set to star in a show called The Broadway Melody, to which he's also written the title song. He can get into Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld...I mean, Francis Zanfield's (Eddie Kane) show. Eddie does get them in, but he also falls in love with Queenie and she with Eddie. Neither want to hurt Hank, so Eddie suppresses his love while Queenie starts inviting the attentions of a stage-door Johnny named Jock Warriner (Kenneth Thompson). Eventually all comes out amid elaborate dance numbers like The Wedding of the Painted Doll, with Queenie and Eddie finally together and Hank once more on the road, determined to be a Broadway star.

I think the best way to describe The Broadway Melody is to say that it is a bridge between the previous Best Picture winner (the silent film Wings) and its immediate successor (All Quiet on the Western Front), a film that connects what a silent film was capable of and what a sound film was capable of.

As a movie in its own right, The Broadway Melody suffers from many problems looking at it today. It is difficult to imagine a casual viewer being able to tolerate listening to the same song three times or to understand why some of the staging seems so flat, with no camera movement to speak of.

This would be in the fact that director Harry Beaumont did not take many if any imaginative leaps in what sound could do. Rather than try something innovative with the technology by being able to make the musical numbers come alive, he played it safe by having the camera locked in one position, but which meant that the audience missed a great deal.

Take the Wedding of the Painted Doll number (which had been made in color but has since been lost, leaving only the black-and-white print). It's a very active number with a lot of elaborate dancing, but because we only see a few people at a time we don't get the full impact we could have had.

The Truthful Parson Brown number is even less imaginatively shot and almost makes the hour-and-forty minute film drag; in fact, it almost seems like it came from a short-subject film rather than having anything to do with the movie itself.

There are, however, some good moments: The Boy Friend number (which, incidentally, is the first time we see the Mahoney Sisters actually do a number by themselves, though strange that it comes near the end of The Broadway Melody) is quite pleasant, and the scene where we hear the car that takes Queenie and Jock to his party while seeing Hank's reaction showed that people were beginning to realize just what an innovation sound was.

Sometimes, however, there are moments that play well if the film had been, ironically enough, in a silent picture. Take the scene where Queenie reads the card Jock sent with flowers: there is no sound at all, and Love gives a brief but beautiful silent reaction. The same can be said in another scene when Queenie is admiring the bracelet Jock gave her. The fact that there are basically title cards throughout The Broadway Melody (ex. 'Zanfield's Theater, during the rehearsal of the latest revue') makes one wonder if the film would have worked better if it had been like The Jazz Singer: a silent film with musical numbers interwoven within it.

The story also had problems. You never fully understood why Eddie fell so hopelessly in love with his fiancee's sister (apart from lust), or why Queenie felt the same (same reason). You also never understood why Flo (Mary Doran), one of the Zanfield Girls, became such a bitter rival to the Mahoney Sisters, or how you had a twist with her in the end. Finally, one never understood why Hank was so quick to give up Eddie (apart from loving Queenie so much she'd sacrifice her own love for Eddie so as to make her more innocent sister happy).

Finally, yes the acting had issues to deal with. King was at times annoying as Eddie: we weren't sure what to think of a guy who had apparently little qualms abandoning one sister for another. Love and Page however, were better as the Mahoney Sister. Love had a toughness to her Hank, but she always showed her true affection for Queenie and her concern for her safety and happiness throughout. Page created a character who at times appeared dim if not downright stupid, but also at times she created a character who was more naive and sweet, unwilling to harm anyone intentionally.

At times all three leads did come off as a bit over-the-top, but then given that the technology was making it difficult to curtain what might have been more acceptable in a silent film (though I've long argued that silent film acting has never been as broad as people think it is) it is forgivable.

As it stands, The Broadway Melody is a good picture to watch if one wants to see how the transition between silent and sound pictures was handled. You can see where they went right (musical numbers, including You Were Meant For Me, one of the songs later immortalized in Singin' In The Rain, certain sound effects), and where they went wrong (keeping the camera still, some curious staging and acting).

Still, one will enjoy the songs of Arthur Freed and Herb Nacio Brown, and as a historic piece The Broadway Melody will be a gold mine of information about that era in film spoofed so brilliantly in Singin' In the Rain (which was produced by Arthur Freed, who by now had become a respected musical film producer).

Granted, it might not have been the best picture of that year or any year, but it was a dance step in the right direction.


1930 Best Picture: All Quiet On The Western Front

Here are more Best Picture Winner reviews, with the aim of reviewing every Best Picture Winner available.

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