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THE BROADWAY MELODY(DIR:HARRY BEAUMONT, SCREENPLAY:EDMUND GOLDING)
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 dull love triangle
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!
SO DID THE ACADEMY GET IT RIGHT?
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.