- Production Company: MGM
- Year Released: 1929
- Directed by; Harry Beaumont
- Starring: Charles King, Anita Page, Bessie Love
- Expect to Pay: $15-25
The Broadway Melody, also known as The Broadway Melody of 1929, is the first in a long line of musicals to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. It was the first sound picture (or “talkie”) to win Best Picture. It is also widely regarded as one of the first, if not the first, musicals that Hollywood ever produced. Going into this movie, I sort of had high expectations, as it seemed like it was a real trailblazer. Unfortunately, this Broadway Melody hits a rather sour note.
The movie opens with some rather impressive shots of New York City as it used to be. How they managed these shots I don’t know, but the technique was excellent. The same cannot be said for the story, which is about as stock as they come. A songwriter named Eddie (Charles Page) has written a new number called “The Broadway Melody” that is going to be featured in the next revue that is being produced by Francis Zanfield’s theater. To help him out, he’s brought the Mahoney Sisters to help him perform it.
The sisters are named Harriet (nicknamed “Hank” and played by Bessie Love) and Queenie (Anita Page). Hank is engaged to Eddie, but Eddie secretly likes Queenie, especially after he sees her all grown up. If you know anything about Hollywood stories, you know how this is gonna go. There’s gonna be conflict between the two sisters over the man, and the younger and more unsuspecting one gets caught up in the city lights and falls for a guy that is despicable and la dee freakin’-dah. We have all seen this stuff before. This is no reason to write the film off, however. As Wings aptly demonstrated, corny setups are by no means a deal breaker if done well and with enough care. Unfortunately, this script is not up for the task.
The Broadway Melody holds the distinction of being one of only three Best Picture winners to win no other Academy Award but Best Picture. The other two movies that share this distinction are Grand Hotel and Mutiny on the Bounty. If the writing of those two movies are of equal caliber to what was on display here, then I am in big trouble. This script is bad. Kindergarten Nativity Play bad. It’s hammy, it’s corny, it’s clichéd and in some places, it’s downright creepy. Everyone talks to each other in such a condescending way, that I spent most of my time watching wanting to throw spotlights at the characters (one of the extras even does so in one of the funniest scenes of the film). The sisters act a little too intimate with each other to be comfortable.
When someone’s happy, it sounds sappy and silly. When someone’s angry, it sounds over-the-top and goofy. It all wraps up with an anti-ending that was unsatisfying. I watched this with my sister, and we both giggled the entire time during the dramatic moments. It was hilarious for all the wrong reasons.
It was not all bad however, as this movie does have some legitimately good acting. Jed Proudy as the Mahoney Sisters’ agent “Uncle” Jed was a riot. His stutter must have surely been an inspiration for Porky Pig. There’s a great deal of physical comedy as well, and while the dramatic parts of the script for the most part fall flat, the gags are excellent. The sass is strong with everyone, and the banter between arguing characters is sharply delivered. Not to mention that while the drama isn’t dramatic most of the time, there are a few instances where it is. Bessie Love as Hank desperately wants to make this script work, and sometimes, she succeeds. She deserved her Oscar nomination for Best Actress just for that. But even her performance can’t save the shoddiness of this script.
Despite the film’s general unevenness in tone with its balancing of comedic and dramatic elements, one area that this film hasn’t aged in is its music. The music, while sparse due to it being an early sound film, is great, and good dancing is good dancing, no matter whar the era.Three-quarters of the way through the film, there is a tremendous ballet sequence, and the tap-dancing segments are mere tastes of what Hollywood had in store for future audiences.
There was a silent film version of this movie released for theaters that had not yet been equipped with sound. It is a shame to think that movie-goers in some parts of the country would not be able to hear the most important part of any musical comedy. There was also a scene shot in Technicolor, which was a cutting-edge marvel in 1929. Sadly, this segment has been lost to time, with only the black-and-white version still available for viewing. These advanced technological achievements led to a big payday for MGM, earning the studio $1.6 million at the box-office and spawning three sequels, The Broadway Melody of 1936, the Broadway of Melody of 1938 and The Broadway Melody of 1940. It also started MGM’s longstanding relationship with the musical.
I can see why this film was chosen for Best Picture. Its singing and dancing and overhead shots and now-lost color segment make it an extremely innovative film for the time. However, as a piece of entertainment now, its awful dialogue left much to be desired, and while the songs were good, there just simply weren’t enough of them. This time, I agree with the Academy, but only because of how they saw it back then. Nowadays, there are countless other, better musicals to watch (some of which we’ll be getting into later). Unless seeing the first-ever Hollywood musical proves too much of a temptation for you, I’d recommend skipping this one and just listening to the soundtrack. You’re better off watching the film’s sequels than the original.
As I mentioned in my Wings review, there were two Academy Awards ceremonies in 1930. Next time, we’re gonna be taking a look at the second winner of 1930, All Quiet on the Western Front. See you then.