Broadway, street of a million sighs…
Ah yes, The Broadway Melody. One of the movies that started it all. For MGM, it was their first all-talking, all-singing, all dancing movie that broke all the ground and made everyone sit up and take notice. So much so that it won a Best Picture Oscar in 1929. But how has the film held up in the ensuing ninety-one years? Let’s find out.
The first thing we realize in this film is that Broadway is full of music, natch. We’re first taken to Tin Pan Alley, where everyone and their brother is warbling the latest tunes. Into the confusion comes star Eddie Kearns (Charles King), who has a song that knocks the crowd silly: “The Broadway Melody.” It barely takes a verse and a chorus before everyone is grooving, and the next thing Eddie knows, he’s got women begging to put the song over. Too late, though, because there’s a sister act, the Mahoneys, that Eddie’s promised it to. He’s also promised to marry one of them, Hank.
Said act is already at their hotel waiting for their new lives to start. Queenie (Anita Page) is nervous because Broadway is a big step for them, but her sister, Hank (Bessie Love) is quick to remind her that they’ve worked for this. They deserve it. It’s gonna be awesome. And they’re going to order room service just because they can.
When Eddie shows up, he’s just got to show the ladies his new song, so with Hank strumming her ukelele and Queenie shimmying, we get to hear “Broadway Melody.” Again.
Next up are auditions, where we see about a dozen chorus girls dancing to…yep, “Broadway Melody.” We also see Flo (Mary Doran) attempt to sabotage Queenie and Hank’s singing by sticking things in the piano. Hank and Queenie get the job anyway after Eddie talks them up to Mr. Zanfield (Eddie Kane).
It all goes swimmingly until the dress rehearsal arrives. Eddie and the Mahoneys commence their big showstopper. If anyone guesses it’s “Broadway Melody,” they would be correct. Only difference is that there are about a dozen chorus girls and a lady wearing cat ears who tap dances en pointe because that was apparently trendy in 1928. Anyway, Flo heckles and the Mahoneys are cut from the number.
Queenie gets her big break when another performer gets drunk and falls off a tiny platform in the Roman Empire sequence. Suddenly Queenie has stage door Johnnys plying her with flowers and dinner invites. One, Jock Warriner (Kenneth Thomson) is especially intriguing. He wants Queenie to have everything she wants, and he’s going to buy it for her.
Eddie and Hank aren’t thrilled about Queenie’s new beau, and do whatever they can to get her away from the guy. He’s much too old for her anyway, and Hank can’t stand to see Queenie become a spoiled diva instead of the sweet, simple lady she was before. Eddie can’t stand it either, which is why he sings “You Were Meant For Me” to her. Hank realizes that Eddie loves Queenie and tells him she never loved him. She was just using him, Hank says. It’s a total lie, but Eddie buys it. Where this triangle will end up is the big question, but not too big, because this is Broadway, where no skies are gray.
The Broadway Melody has an extremely thin plot. Even in 1928 its backstage story would have been considered old hat, and it nods so often and so directly at the Great White Way that it’s practically a bobblehead. I mean, come on–Zanfield? Wonder who that refers to. And the movie never wants us to stop staring at all the sparkly lights. It’s happy. It’s romantic. It’s never gonna go out of style. We’re on Broadway, as the song keeps telling us.
Yeah. The title song is heard a lot. Four times in the first twenty minutes. It’s a good thing it’s charming and presented differently every time, because this would get old fast. Or at least not as old as it could be. Naturally, the song caught on, because it’s been used in countless films since, but watching The Broadway Melody ninety years later the constant repetition of the song feels like guilding the proverbial lily.
Other than that there just isn’t a whole lot of music in this film, which is unusual for what we would think of as a musical. Besides the titular number and “You Were Meant For Me,” we do get one other classic number, “The Wedding Of the Painted Doll,” which is quaintly primitive in its staging. The camera is just planted in the center of the screen while the performers dance in front of it, and the dance isn’t really designed to work for film as it’s too cramped. It’s choreography made for the stage and not really for a movie.
What’s amazing about the “Painted Doll” sequence is that what we see today is a reshoot. The American Film Institute notes that despite the song looking pretty in two-strip Technicolor, the number didn’t go over well with preview audiences. Thalberg didn’t like it anyway because he thought it looked too closed-in. He also didn’t want to have the orchestra come back for just one piece, so newly-minted sound engineer Douglas Shearer suggested playing the audio over new choreography. And presto, the playback was born. Stars have been lipsynching in musicals ever since. Unfortunately, only a black-and-white print of the sequence survives, but at least we get a pretty good idea of what Thalberg was going for.
For a movie called The Broadway Melody, there’s not a lot of Broadway in it, because the bulk of the plot has to do with Eddie and Hank trying to get Queenie away from Jock. It doesn’t end anywhere near a stage as has become typical for stories of this type.
The movie is primitive in other ways as well, which should be expected for such an early sound film. The actors are generally squished together in the center of the frame around the all-important microphone. I have to say, though, MGM seemed to be better at hiding their sound equipment than some studios (ahem, Vitaphone), because the mic isn’t ever seen. Well, I never saw it, and I looked. And the film occasionally uses intertitles, but only to indicate the passage of time or the movement of the characters.
There’s a good reason for this. Since sound was such a new thing, not all theaters were equipped to handle it, and MGM made a silent version of Broadway Melody as well. Plus, according to TCM, production head Irving Thalberg was cautious about whether or not the public would take to a musical film. The Broadway Melody was purely an experiment.
Thalberg’s worries were unfounded. The movie was a huge hit, inspiring a deluge of later musicals, but Broadway Melody got there first. It might not look and play too well nowadays because we have decades of history and thousands of films that have been made since, but when viewed through the lens of the time, it’s a landmark achievement.
More of the Great White Way can be found here, and another Broadway Melody is on the way tomorrow. Thanks for reading, all…
The Broadway Melody is available on DVD from Amazon.