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Wednesday, January 26, 2011

The Best Picture Countdown #2: The Broadway Melody (1929)

Director: Harry Beaumont
Starring: Anita Page, Bessie Love, Charles King

There is a scene in Singin’ In The Rain in which audiences watch the first sound film starring reigning screen couple Don Lockwood and Lina Lamont and are reduced to laughter even though the film is a romantic drama. That movie in the movie is like The Broadway Melody - melodramatic, clichĂ©, and just way too stagey – only real-life audiences vociferously embraced the bad film, making it the top grossing film of 1929 and compelling MGM to make several sequels. Truth is stranger than fiction.

The plot of The Broadway Melody, such as it is, involves two sisters: Queenie and Hank Mahoney (played by Anita Page and Bessie Love, respectively) who are vaudeville performers. They head to New York to make it on Broadway and meet a fellow performer named Eddie Kearns (Charles King), who begins a relationship with Hank. It isn’t long, however, before Eddie’s affections begin to transfer to Queenie, who reciprocates his feelings but doesn’t want to hurt her sister. The solution she falls upon is to get involved with a wealthy playboy, which isn’t much of a solution at all since it only makes Eddie more attentive to her because he doesn’t want her to get hurt.

Eventually Hank clues in to the feelings between Queenie and Eddie and lies, telling Eddie that she never loved him. Not one to let the grass grow under his feet, Eddie runs straight from his break up with Hank to interrupt Queenie’s date, which results in him getting punched by the playboy. Eddie and Queenie get married and Hank starts a new act with a new partner (Mary Doran) and though she has some lingering doubts about whether she did the right thing by letting Eddie go, she accepts that what is done is done.

The plot is built according to some pretty tried and true formulas about backstage stories and love triangles and it never feels anything but contrived. I mean, even in 1929 this was a creaky, well-worn plot and screenplay, written by Norman Houston and James Gleason from a story by Edmund Goulding (director of 1932’s Best Picture Grand Hotel), never really tries to bring anything fresh to it. Then again, the writers probably didn’t feel as if they needed to bring a new perspective to it since the main draw was that this was the first all-sound musical film. The plot and the characters only needed to be fleshed out enough to connect the song and dance numbers, the novelty of the whole enterprise being the thing that would (and did) attract audiences. The musical numbers are competent enough but the camera is mostly static, something which musicals, and films in general, would quickly evolve away from (the following year’s Best Picture winner All Quiet on the Western Front, for example, features a great deal of camera movement). The Broadway Melody is perhaps most valuable, and of greatest interest, as an example of a transitional film, the kind that shows exactly what technical obstacles had to be overcome as studios moved away from silent films and towards sound. On its own, the film really isn’t much to write home about.

The actors fare well enough most of the time but there is an artificiality about the whole thing that isn’t really unusual in early sound films, the actors perhaps overly self-conscious about the way that they speak and talking in these very unnatural cadences, and being overly expressive in the way that is essential for a silent film but is at odds with sound films. Page had a highly productive career during the late silent/early sound years, retiring abruptly in the mid-30s and re-emerging in the ’90s for a series of horror films, while Love had a less high-profile career but worked fairly steadily in small roles in film and television into the ’80s, appearing in such films as Reds and The Hunger. Both would learn adjust their acting styles to the needs of sound film, but the kinks are still quite apparent here. Neither is bad in this film but the performances are flawed, as is the film itself. Ultimately The Broadway Melody is worth a look if you’re interested in that transitional period of Hollywood filmmaking, but it’s pretty forgettable otherwise.

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