THE BROADWAY MELODY (1929)

  • Director: Harry Beaumont
  • Writers: Screenplay by Sarah H. Mason, Norman Houston, and Jason Gleason, Story by Edmund Golding, Music by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed
  • Starring: Anita Page, Bessie Love, Charles King, Jed Prouty, Kenneth Thomson, Edward Dillon, and Eddie Kane
  • Accolades: 1 Oscar (Best Picture), 2 additional Oscar nominations (Best Director – Harry Beaumont, Best Actress – Bessie Love)
  • Where to Watch: Buy or rent of Amazon Video, YouTube, or Apple TV

Welcome to our Virtual Film Festival for this Oscar Week, featuring Forgotten Best Picture Winners. The list of Best Picture winners, dating back to the first winner, Wings in 1928, is of course full of all-time classics like Gone With the Wind, Casablanca, Ben-Hur, The Godfather, The Silence of the Lambs, Titanic, and the list goes on. But there are just as many movies on the list that very few people today have even heard of, much less actually seen. Sometimes that’s a result of the winner being from a “light” movie year, at least in retrospect. Some of it is the tastes of Academy voters often not matching up with those movies that will actually still be watched, many years down the line (this is still the case more recently, of course… when was the last time you watched or even thought about 2005 winner Crash?). And sometimes it’s a result of a movie just being the right sort of movie in the right place at the right time. Today’s entry is definitely one of the latter.

The Broadway Melody won the second Academy Award for Best Picture back in 1929, becoming the first sound movie to win the award. More than that, it was likely one of the very first movie musicals, which is almost certainly why everyone at the time loved it. In a weird way, it made me think of James Cameron’s Avatar. It didn’t invent the technology it used, but it seemed like the killer app at the time. Both movies were massive hits that were basically out of the public consciousness within a decade, because the initial technological shock had worn off, so to speak. And so we’re left with this Best Picture winner that received universal raves at the time, but today has a 35% aggregate score on Rotten Tomatoes, complete with a summarizing blurb declaring the movie to be “bereft of appeal for modern audiences.” Which, um, yep, it is.

The story of The Broadway Melody is incredibly basic, yet also incredibly melodramatic (most of these people learned how to act in silent movies, of course), and the very basic music and musical numbers do basically nothing to make up for it from a 2021 perspective. The main characters are two sisters (amusingly named “Hank” and “Queenie”), played by Bessie Love and Anita Page. They have just moved to New York to try to make it on Broadway. It turns out that Queenie is good enough to make it, but Hank, the sassy one, isn’t, leading to conflict in their double act. The same guy (Charles King) is also interested in both girls, but Queenie is tempted by the lame rich guy “Jacques Warriner” (Kenneth Thomson). In the meantime there is a handful of songs, entirely “diagetic” as part of various rehearsals or try-outs.

The story would be fine for filling time between musical numbers, if the musical numbers were interesting, but The Broadway Melody suffers badly, in retrospect, from its pioneer status. At the time of its production, sound movies of any kind were still very much in their infancy. So much of the time the camera had to be locked down inside a sound-proof box, and there was no way for the performers to move around much while also getting recorded properly. And so we’re left with what would should be the highlight of the movie, the big, title song production number, being directed and performed so lifelessly that, had I turned it in for my undergrad Film Production class, I would have gotten a failing grade. I don’t think I’ve ever seen any movie somehow make a lady tap-dancing this boring. It’s almost impressive, but it’s also not anyone involved in this movie’s fault. 

Yeesh. The techniques we are missing so badly here simply couldn’t be integrated with sound filmmaking yet. But they were integrated with silent films: compare Harry Beaumont’s direction here with the fluid camera movement and other techniques used in F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise, two years earlier, and you get the sense of what the movies lost and had to rediscover all over again with the advent of sound. If the performances seem uninspired, it might be because they had to repeat them over and over and over. Very early sound recording equipment did not work very well, resulting in the scenes having to be shot repeatedly in order to get the sound recording correct. One scene in which Bessie Love plays a ukelele for just a few seconds reportedly took three hours and hundreds of takes to actually shoot.

I’d have to go back through my lists, but there’s a non-zero chance that The Broadway Melody is the earliest feature sound movie I’ve ever actually sat down and watched. In that sense, I do find it interesting in a time capsule sort of way. There is slang used in this movie that I’ve honestly never heard before and sometimes kind of wanted footnotes on, in a way that the only slightly later 30s gangster movies (with which a modern viewer would be much more likely to be familiar) do not. The girls spend much of the movie in much skimpier outfits than we might be used to at this point (at one point, asked to take on a new part in the show, Queenie is told by a stagehand, “OK, take off your clothes.” “I haven’t taken off my clothes in my life!” she responds), because after all this is well prior to the institution of anything approaching a Production Code. And near the end, when the sisters make up, they hug and then give each other a lengthy kiss right on the mouth that was apparently just a thing ladies in 1929 did but I was definitely not expecting at that moment.

Probably the best performance in the movie is given by Anita Page, a silent star who was known in the late 1920s for possessing “the most beautiful face in Hollywood.” Bessie Love, also a big star at the time, received the Oscar nomination, but (again, through no fault of Love’s own) her performance is much more full of over-the-top silliness that completely doesn’t work today. This was Anita Page’s first sound movie, though she later said that she preferred to act in silents. One of the reasons seems to have been that she preferred to act while blasting “mood music,” something you obviously couldn’t do in a sound movie. She retired from acting in 1933 at the age of 23 when MGM (you can tell how early a sound movie this is because the MGM lion doesn’t roar yet, it just kind of sits there) denied her a pay rise, then married Nacio Herb Brown (who composed the music for The Broadway Melody) the next year. Page lived to be 98 years old, in the process gaining a reputation as Hollywood royalty as “the Last Star of the Silents.” She gave frequent interviews in her old age as a rare first-person source on 1920s Hollywood, and among other feats of longevity was thought to be the last living person who would have been in attendance at the first Academy Awards ceremony. She returned to acting in her 90s, appearing in several movies with titles like Creaturealm: From the Dead and Witchcraft XI: Sisters in Blood.

For a lot of these movies, I try to help people figure out why they might want to see the movie, even if I wasn’t a fan. For The Broadway Melody, I’m not sure I’d really recommend this to anyone, even fans of old musicals. The only reason I can think of to see it is if you are trying to see every Best Picture winner. I am the sort of person who is not going to get in the way of that kind of completionism, but if that’s your mission, this will likely be one of the least memorable movies on your list. It is also probably worth pointing out that what you’d see today is not the original version of the movie. One of the original musical numbers in the movie was shot using a very early version of technicolor. This proved wildly popular and became a common feature of Hollywood musicals over the next few years. However, this technicolor sequence is now entirely lost (the version you’ll see now has the same musical number in black and white), making The Broadway Melody the only Best Picture winner not to survive intact to the present day. One of the movies it beat for Best Picture, a silent drama called The Patriot starring Emil Jannings, is the only Best Picture nominee to be considered a fully “lost film.” Only about a third of it can be watched today.

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