Sunday, October 17, 2010


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Although 1927's THE JAZZ SINGER is remembered as the first sound film, most of it was actually silent, with just a few scenes featuring singing and hardly any spoken lines of dialogue.  So it was 1929's best picture winner, THE BROADWAY MELODY, that was the first (as it was promoted)to have "100% ALL TALKING!  100% ALL SINGING!  100% ALL DANCING!". Yes, this was the first official Hollywood musical, and it is appropriate that the studio that produced it was Metro Goldwyn Mayor, seeing as how that studio would come to be so identified with big splashy musicals in the coming decades.  Unfortunately, THE BROADWAY MELODY, much like THE JAZZ SINGER, is far more interesting today as a primitive museum piece than it is an actual good movie.
Remember all those funny scenes in SINGING IN THE RAIN where we saw the old movie studio struggling with the change to sound films?  Well, those scenes were based on actual stories from that time; the change to sound was indeed a difficult one, and THE BROADWAY MELODY  is a good illustration of some of those difficulties.  It's sometimes hard to make out the dialogue, there are many static long camera shots with little to no camera movement, the sound occasionally drops off sharply, and the actors still use the broad expressions and gestures of silent film. Still the influence of this film in undeniable, not only as the first musical, but as the first backstage musical.  All of the elements that would become cliches are there: the struggling young dancers, hungry for fame, the hard driving director who yells at the chorus girls, the backstage backstabbing (there's an outright cat fight at one point!),the lecherous producers who back the show just to meet the chorus girls, and the backstage dressing room scenes of the chorus girls that showed as much skin as the screen would allow at the time (it wasn't just the producers who were lecherous!).  One character we see in this movie that would not become a cliche, and indeed would  soon be banished from movies altogether under the production code,  is an extremely gay costume designer, acted with enormous energy by Drew Demorest.  It's more than a bit surprising today to see an openly gay character in such an old movie, but since he's protrayed as a mincing stereotype, and is subjected to all manner of homophobic sniping by the other cast members, the film could hardly be called progressive in its outlook.
The music for this film was written by Nacio Herb Brown and the lyrics were by Arthur Freed;although I find the title song to be the only truly great song in the score, (and it's evocation of the glamor and excitement of the great white way is so effective that it still often performed there to this day), the rest are pleasant enough and hold up pretty well, with "You were meant for me" also becoming a standard. Along with influencing movies like 42ND ST.(generally considered to be the best of the backstage musicals) and FOOTLIGHT FRENZY,  MGM capitalized on THE BROADWAY MELODY's success by releasing a series of similar themed films that updated the title (BROADWAY MELODY OF 1936,  BROADWAY MELODY OF 1938, etc.).

 Rehearsing the title number

The film opens with a scene in a music company building, and it cuts from one group of singers practicing to another in rapid succession; this probably was quite a dazzling scene for audiences in 1929, who only heard one song at a time in THE JAZZ SINGER, and it's still a fun a way to open the film, even when the music drowns out the dialogue.  The film's hero, Eddie Kearns (Charles King) quiets everyone down to announce that he's just written a great new song, which is the title song. He quickly sings it  (it will be performed two more times in the film) and dashes off to meet his fiancee and her sister; they are the older, headstrong, Harriet(Bessie Love) and the sweet, slightly dim Queenie(Anita Page).  They are a singing and dancing act who have had some success on the west coast, and have come to break into broadway, with Eddie's help of course; he just happens to be starring in a new show, and he convinces the producer, Francis Zanfield (obviously based on famed Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld) to let them be in it.  Meanwhile Eddie, although engaged to Harriet, finds himself falling for Queenie; she starts to have feelings for him too, but, not wanting to hurt Harriet, she starts going out with sleazy producer Jock Warriner(a parody of Jack Warner, the head of MGM's rival studio, Warner Brothers), much to the dismay of Harriet and Eddie.
 The dull love triangle

  It's this gossimer thin plot that drives the film, and, even with the music numbers, it just isn't enough to carry it; there is scene after scene of Eddie and Harriet begging Queenie not to go out with Jock, which become more and more frantic, until they are literally yelling and fighting each other.  The audience quickly becomes thankful for the music numbers that break up all the squabbling.  Sadly, even the musical numbers aren't all that great; indeed, I found Queenie and Harriet's act to be quite weak, and it seems unlikely that their not very strong singing and dancing could ever really make them a big hit on Broadway.  It's also a shame that the "wedding of the painted doll number", which was originally shown in technicolor, now only excists in black and white.
The film's ending has a surprising miscalculation for a musical:no music!  Oddly, the film's last musical number comes about twenty minutes before the film's end, and the rest focuses on the story's resolution.  As if we really cared about how the corny and predictable story would turn out!  This is one mistake very few other musicals would ever make, I mean, come on, you have to give the audience one last show stopper!


It's obvious that I have mixed feelings about THE BROADWAY MELODY, and so it's easy for me to say that Victor Seastrom's THE WIND, Buster Keaton's STEAMBOAT BILL JR. and Erich Von Stoheim's THE WEDDING MARCH are all far better (if less groundbreaking) films.  They are also all silent, but they hold up very well, and don't have any of the technical limitations that early sound films did.