The Broadway Melody (1929)

(On Cable TV, June 2018) As far as I can find out, The Broadway Melody has two enduring claims to fame: It was not only a Best Picture Oscar-winner, but the first sound film to do so (after the silent movies Wings and Sunrise the previous year) and is generally recognized as the first Hollywood musical. (It was also the top-grossing film of 1929.) Watching the clunky result today is a reminder of how far we’ve come since—While The Broadway Melody isn’t exactly bad, you can feel it trying to figure out the newfangled sound technology, and the devices it assembles to show musical numbers on-screen are still very much in their infancy. The characters break into song in completely naturalistic fashion, for instance to showcase the tune they (as Broadway writers) are working on. Or the film (in its best sequence) runs through a dress rehearsal for a Ziegfeld-inspired Broadway show. This is all in support of a story about two sisters seeking fame and fortune in Manhattan—the opening and closing moments of the film offer fascinating footage of late-twenties New York City and while the rest of the film is far too stage-bound to give us a good sense of contemporary city life, The Broadway Melody does give a generous glimpse at the life of a Broadway showgirl. If anyone was wondering about the influence of Broadway on American cinema, a triple helping of The Broadway Melody, The Great Ziegfeld, and Yankee Doodle Dandy should settle the matter. Alas, even with sound, The Broadway Melody is a rough draft of what movie musicals would become—it’s very much certainly of historical interest, but the end result is unsatisfying. The staging is awkward (that “fight” at the end…), the dialogue is stiffly articulated, the transition between scenes is handled through title cards rather than using stock footage as interludes … this is a film from Hollywood’s teenage years, and it still shows an art form being developed. (For an idea of how fast things evolved back then, have a look at the much less known sequel Broadway Melody of 1936 which, even made only six years later, show a dramatic improvement in sheer cinematic language.) Still, let’s recognize the work of the actors here: While Anita Page gets the plum role as the conflicted Queenie, Bessie Love is far more interesting as her hard-working sister (and got nominated for an Oscar for it). Eddie Kane is fun as Zanfeld-not-Ziegfeld, while Jed Prouty is intentionally insufferable as a stuttering uncle. It’s also interesting to note that, contrary to some expectations, this isn’t a fluffy musical—the film features plenty of personal setbacks for the characters and the ending barely offers enough hope. Given that it’s a pre-code film, you can expect to see a costume designer coded as gay, same-sex kissing (between sisters, but still) and quite a bit more exposed legs and underwear than I would have expected. 

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