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The Broadway Melody (1929)

  • Review: ** (out of ****)
  • Starring: Charles King, Anita Page, Bessie Love, Jed Prouty, Kenneth Thomson, Edward Dillon, Mary Doran, Eddie Kane, J. Emmett Beck, Marshall Ruth, Drew Demorest
  • Director: Harry Beaumont
  • Screenplay: Edmund Goulding, Norman Houston, James Gleason
  • Length: 110 min.
  • MPAA Rating: Passed (National Board of Review)

Within two years of the infamous The Jazz Singer breakthrough in sound recording, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciencesswitched form honoring the past and began awarding for the future. The Broadway Melody was not only MGM’sfirst Best Picture winner it was also its first all-sound motion picture.

Much has changed since the 1920s with sound being almostmore important than storytelling to many audiences. Thus it’s no surprise thata musical reminiscent of Broadway featuring plenty of talking, screaming,crying and singing would take home the world’s most coveted entertainmentaward. Unfortunately, The Broadway Melody ushered in an era of films of debatable quality triumphing at the AcademyAwards because of sheer spectacle.

Bessie Love, whose career began more than ten years prior inthe silent era, made a good transition to the “talkies”. Love’s performance asone half of The Mahoney Sisters stage act, while not the tour de force of a Bette Davis or Janet Gaynor, was nonethelessimpressive given the material. The story is an old one. It’s about thesuccesses and failures many find when following their dreams to the Great White Way.Hank (Love) and her sister Queenie (Anita Page) have come seeking stardom underHank’s love Eddie Kearns (Charles King).

After a jealous “Dolly” girl sabotages their audition beforestage impresario Francis Zanfield (Eddie Kane), they find that adoration isfickle and the expected fighting begins. There are many dynamic, if overused,plot devices in Broadway Melody butwith Love giving a decent performance and Kearns at least passable as theadequately talented stage singer, BroadwayMelody isn’t an outright failure.

The screenplay by Edmund Goulding does what it can tocapture the heartbreak and frustration many performers feel heading toBroadway. However, it is ties to the famed New York theater scene that create the mostproblems. Just compare the fictional Francis Zanfield to real life FlorenzZiegfeld. The names are uncannily similar as is the name of the dancers, theZanfield Dolly Girls (the real life counterpart was the Ziegfeld Folly Girls).One can’t help but feel that the producers are trying too hard to mimic thesuccess of the famed Broadway producer.

The nomenclature is, sadly, where the likeness ends. Broadway Melody, which spawned a seriesof film sequels, bears a lot of awkward production values. Whereas the ZiegfeldFollies were filled with well choreographed numbers, Melody features a slate of poorly conceived and ill-directedsequences. Harry Beaumont, director of the motion picture, brings too much ofhis silent feature techniques to the all-talking picture. He never gets thedancers to move in synch and, especially during one long scene where Love cries(and briefly laughs) her heart out, the camera rarely moves.

Over the years, as sound became less complicated tomatch up with film, the industry’s overall production values slowly increased. Broadway Melody was a tremendous successbecause it wasn’t at all what the filmgoing public expected. Not only was itthe first musical to win an Oscar for Best Picture it also ushered in the eraof the MGM musical. And while TheBroadway Melody has never been one of the best film musicals ever made, onecan hardly deny its place in film history.