The Best Picture Project – The Broadway Melody (1929)

Dir. by Henry Beaumont

Starring Anite Page, Bessie Love, Charles King

When sound films came into being back in 1927 – with The Jazz Singer – the death of silent films was at hand but because of the time needed to switch over to producing and exhibiting sound films there was an unusual lag in time between the death knell and the actual death itself. This meant that in the first year of the Academy Awards, when sound films were just making hay, silent films were able to rule the day. By the second year, though, silent films were over.

The first sound film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, The Broadway Melody, tells the story of a vaudeville sister act – Harriet, aka Hank, and Queenie – who come to New York in search of their big break. Thanks to Eddie, Hank’s love-interest, the sister’s land a job on a musical-revue just going into production, The Broadway Melody of the title. Though things seem to be looking up things quickly come undone when the innocent Queenie is preyed on by a backer of the show who just wants her as some sort of kept-woman, much to the chagrin of Eddie, who realizes he’s fallen in love with Queenie himself.

The back of my DVD describes the movie as “All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!”, and that’s a fairly apt description. From beginning to end there is little time when somebody isn’t singing, and if the plot gets in the way of the musical numbers the plot gets short-shrift. Some of the songs fall right into the middle of scenes, with characters breaking into song – particularly You Were Meant for Me. Other numbers come somewhat more organically, motivated by the ‘show within a show’ aspect of them film – such as the title tune, below – but mostly these prove to be somewhat less-essential to the story. In a sense, given the rather slim plot and lousy script – the script probably could have been written on one side of a napkin – the movie might really have been called a ‘Revue’ as that’s about all it was: a group of songs with some slender plot slipped on to tie them together.

From the above paragraph you get the idea that I’m pretty down on the movie and I definitely am because, while this might have been the year when sound films showed their superiority over silent films, this doesn’t mean that sound films were actually superior. Indeed, given the transition time needed to get from one technology to the other these films were not truly sound films, but more like silent films with sound, The Broadway Melody especially. After all, one need only look at a movie replete with scene setting title cards, wooden dialog full of heavy exposition which struggles to be natural – George Lucas must have watched this movie before writing the dialog in Star Wars – and the complete overacting by everybody in sight to see the silent film influence. But because technology hadn’t caught up with the format the camera remains largely stationary throughout the film, as if nailed to the floor, and not a single scene from the film takes place outdoors, where the imperfect medium of sound recording would have been exposed. Too late to be a silent film and too early to be a proper sound film, it fails as both. Now it’s a curious bit of novelty that, when stood up against all the other winners of the Academy Award for Best Picture, must be ranked close to the bottom, if not the outright bottom of the list.

Still, the movie does have its moments. It should, it won best picture. There is some witty wordplay with the main characters and given that this was a pre-Hay’s Code film and wasn’t shackled by all the puritanical mania that would come to dominate movie, seeing Bessie Love frequently in her underwear and undershirt, sans bra (top, with co-star Anita Page), or in her stage costume with a plunging neckline (bottom, with co-star Charles King), made me ready for a nude scene. Even if part of me knew that nudity wasn’t going to happen the way it was going I kept waiting for it to happen.

One of the most influential things about the movie is that its victory paved the way for a revamped Oscar voting system. Even though the film probably would have won the award on its own – it was a huge box office success and in spite of the limitations it shows 80 years on, it was revolutionary for its time – the award for Best Picture was something of payback to Louis B. Mayer, who’d sabotaged his own films the year before to win for this one. Still, because the awards had been voted on only by the five or so members of the central boards of judges and not the membership as a whole there was a feeling of the fix being in so, in subsequent years, the membership all had a vote. Not that it mattered to Mayer: his film got the Oscar.

Tidbits of Interest:

Interestingly, the subtitles to my DVD’s has the heel that pursues Queenie as being named Jock Warriner – on the IMDB he’s listed that way as well – but curiously, when we see his business card at one point, his name is Jacques, not Jock. While you cannot expect subtitles to be perfect – sometimes they paraphrase sentences to make it easier to read at the speed it’s said – it made me wonder how closely the subtitling company actually pays attention to the details if they blunder a major one like that?

Perhaps more intersting is that the only Oscar The Broadway Melody won was Best Picture. Only two other Best Picture winners have failed to win any other award at all. They were Grand Hotel (1932), which had the distinction of winning Best Picture without even receiving any other nominations at all, and Mutiny on the Bounty (1935).

This movie also included a two-color technicolor sequence but color prints of it were presumably lost and today’s versions of the film are entirely in black and white.

Here’s the list of winners, in case you’re keeping tack of progress.

Incidentally, I’m selling my copy of the DVD on EBay.  If you want to buy it, now is your chance. (ACTUALLY, I ALREADY SOLD IT)

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