The Broadway Melody (1929)

The Broadway Melody (1929)

The Broadway Melody (1929). 100 minutes. Directed by Harry Beaumont. Starring Anita Page (as Queenie Mahoney), Bessie Love (as Harriet “Hank” Mahoney), Charles King (as Eddie Kearns), Jed Prouty (as Uncle Jed), Kenneth Thomson (as Jacques Warriner), Edward Dillon (as stage manager), Marry Doran (as Flo), and Eddie Kane (as Zanfield). Music by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown.

The Broadway Melody is one of the first films in the sound era to use an almost completely synchronized soundtrack. The top-grossing picture in its year of release, it was widely praised by critics and was the first sound movie to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. However, the reviews of some in the industry, such as Charlie Chaplin, were not so favorable (he calls it “a cheap dull affair” in his memoir). Chaplin admittedly had much to fear with the arrival of The Broadway Melody, whose success helped to spell the end of the silent era that his career was invested in. But Chaplin’s assessment also happens largely to be correct. Time has not been kind to The Broadway Melody, mainly because of its reliance on singing and dancing extravaganzas to carry along bad acting and storytelling, and the extravaganzas no longer seem impressive. But if you are keen to see what the transition from silents to sound films was like, you should probably see it sooner or later, in part to develop a sense of what appealed to early sound audiences.

The story takes the form of a back-stage musical. Queenie and Harriet “Hank” Mahoney are two sisters who have arrived in New York, eager to find their big break on Broadway. Hank is engaged to Eddie, who is involved in a musical production for the wealthy backer Zanfield. Soon after arriving, Queenie and Hank both manage to secure parts in Zanfield’s musical. It soon becomes obvious that Eddie is really in love with Queenie, not Hank, but when Queenie learns of this, she rebuffs Eddie. One night, after a public dress rehearsal, a flock of affluent men hounds Queenie, who consents to joining one of them, Jacques Warriner, at a nightclub. She encourages Jacques as a way of deflecting her affection for Eddie. Soon Eddie and Hank learn that Queenie is being kept by Jacques, which enrages them. When they confront her, Hank realizes that Eddie is in love with Queenie, and when Queenie storms out, Hank tells Eddie to go after her. Eddie rescues her from Jacques, whose intentions are not honorable, and Eddie and Queenie are married. Queenie plans to retire from the stage, while Hank and her new partner Flo take a position with a traveling company and head out on the road, keen on achieving stardom.

As a movie that was notable for its mostly synchronized soundtrack, The Broadway Melody plays up its status by providing many audio perks. For example, the movie’s first scene takes place in a sheet music shop, which offers layers of sound: rooms of ladies singing and small ensembles practicing. All of the noise spills out into the main room of the shop, where Eddie assembles the shoppers and performs the song “Broadway Melody” for the first time. This ostentatious cacophony might strike us as noisy and irritating, but even today we perceive some of the latent excitement in what it is doing.

The Broadway Melody was released in both silent and sound versions, the former to accommodate theaters that were not equipped for sound movies yet. I am not sure if the silent version still exists. But we see vestiges of the silents in the sound version’s use of title cards to announce transitions and scene changes, and also in a peculiar technique: the camera will sometimes linger on a close-up, and the sound will cut out entirely. Then we hear the background noise of the soundtrack come back on, and someone will speak. We know that no one will say anything while the audio is completely off, and we know as soon as we hear the soundtrack returning that someone is about to speak. In these moments, we never experience the suspense that we otherwise might in sound movies; we do not feel as if the silence might be suddenly and unexpectedly ended by the vocal activity of another character. It is an odd way of destroying the power of silence in a sound film. The result is a movie that does not completely engage in the drama inherent in sound technology, in spite of its use of abundant sound elsewhere.

The primary attraction of this movie is its music and dancing. Most of the songs were written by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed (who would eventually become the head of the MGM production team that would define the Hollywood musical for years to come). In particular, lead actor Charles King can sing well, whether he is performing the song “Broadway Melody” at the sheet music store or in the Mahoneys’ hotel room. (The song is repeated many times over the course of the film.) “Broadway Melody” is a fine anthem for the backstage musical, although the primary musical arrangement for this song is reminiscent of the earlier reedy popular music of the 1910s and weirdly does not feel very current for 1929. “You Belong to Me,” a down-tempo love song, is also not bad, but it is really “The Wedding of the Painted Doll” that stands out to me as the best of the lot. The lyrics, which describe the attendants of a doll wedding ceremony, are slightly creepy, and the melody is just a tad sinister. It seems destined for xylophone adaptation and cartoon use (it was later used extensively in the animated short “Toyland Broadcast of 1934”).

The dance sequence set to “The Wedding of the Painted Doll” that takes place as part of Zanfield’s big production is the film’s standout sequence. There are acrobatics and a lot of dancing in line, and there is even one routine where a row of chorus girls passes large balls in undulating waves that I enjoyed. The long row of dancers is an effort to fill up the space and make the production seem extravagant and important. To a film-going audience deprived of Ziegfeldian stage experiences, this must have seem impressive and new. Additionally, the “Painted Doll” sequence was originally filmed in two-strip Technicolor, although the color version is now lost. The use of color was another way to convey visual splendor.

I would love to see “The Wedding of the Painted Doll” in color, but it is hard to imagine how color could make up for some of the sequence’s flaws. The dancing is rather simple, with kicks and jumps but nothing terribly complicated. The dancers also seem less polished than the dancers of movies produced only a few years later; I noticed many steps slightly out of sync and late starts. A similar production of the early 1930s would likely be staged with more attention paid to synchronicity and minute perfection: Busby Berkeley, for example, would contribute his precise geometric obsessions and complex stagings to the world of lavish musical productions in movies such as 42nd Street (1933)The Gold Diggers of 1933, and Dames (1934).

Some of the other dancing and singing in The Broadway Melody can be rough. Queenie and Hank do not impress with their harmonizing, which sounds rather feeble, nor do Hank and and her new partner Flo sound any better when they introduce their act to Queenie and Eddie at the movie’s end. I am not sure if we are meant to laugh at Hank’s performances or enjoy them straightforwardly; if the latter is intended, then that is a problem. Queenie seems to excel most when Zanfield casts her in an operatic performance set in antique times, for which she is placed atop a tall pillar and made to simply sit—perhaps she is destined to be looked at on stage rather than heard.

The dancing and singing cause the movie to feel less practiced and skillful than slightly later musicals, but other aspects of production also contribute to an impression of artlessness. Take the placement of the camera, for example. Shots frequently focus on odd points in Queenie and Hank’s hotel and dressing rooms as characters take a step and end up halfway or mostly out of the camera’s view. The composition often focuses on a door in the background, even if the door is not involved in the shot’s activity. I concluded that the shots were hastily thrown together. It is rather shocking to see the well-honed techniques of the late silent era, exemplified by movies such as The Last Laugh (1924) and Sunrise (1927), forgotten or otherwise abandoned as sound technology comes on the scene.

At least the music and dancing is interesting. What has aged less well and did not hold my interest was the love triangle. The characters are not well developed, we do not really understand why they are attracted to each other, and Queenie’s decision to throw herself at a playboy to smother her feelings for Eddie is unbelievable and melodramatic. There is a lot of crying, grabbing, and shouting, especially shouting of people’s names (“Queenie!” “Queenie!”), which always seems like a weakness. All of this serves to draw attention to how feeble the non-musical elements are.

There is, of course, also the narrative about show business ambitions. Here it is useful to compare The Broadway Melody with the earlier Jazz Singer (1927), which broke new ground for its use of synchronized sound in a more limited number of scenes. The Jazz Singer is remembered today primarily for its innovative technology, but I was impressed at least as much by its narrative as by its famous soundtrack. Whereas The Jazz Singer could not offer audiences the full sound experience that The Broadway Melody does, it nevertheless tells a compelling story about family allegiances and theatrical careers. It is easy to care for its protagonist (played by Al Jolson), and its conflict builds to an accomplished climax. The Broadway Melody makes use of The Jazz Singer’s technological achievements, but interestingly it does not offer anything like the former movie’s story.

The Broadway Melody of 1929 gave rise to a series of Broadway Melody films starring dancer Eleanor Powell. Those movies—especially The Broadway Melody of 1940, which also starred Fred Astaire—were more amusing than the 1929 entry and from a different universe altogether, although I must admit, I have never really wanted to watch any of the Broadway Melody movies a second time. The Gold Diggers franchise had its start in the same year as The Broadway Melody, and those movies have some of the most sublime musical sequences ever filmed. For sheer entertainment value, if you are deciding between one or the other film series, the Gold Diggers franchise is the obvious choice.