This is evidence, I think, of my assertion that the early Best Picture awards were for expensive productions that made a lot of money at the box office, not awards for artistic merit. These were awards for producers (they still technically are), and producers were concerned with keeping down costs and maximizing ticket sales, and The Broadway Melody was the biggest movie at the box office in 1929. The movie itself is a mess, an attempt to make the most of early sound technology (something it does reasonably well, though this is no M) while discovering what a musical means in terms of cinema. The actual story used to piece together the handful of musical sequences is incoherent, though.
Hank (Bessie Love) and Queenie (Anita Page) are the Mahoney Sisters, come to New York City to make it big on Broadway. Hank is engaged to Eddie (Charles King), a songwriter with his catchy new tune “The Broadway Melody”. Now, one of the most frustrating parts of this film is that the titular song is so poorly used. I like the song a good bit (Gene Kelly made it something more in Singin’ in the Rain), but it’s sung three times. The first two times are just Eddie in rooms singing it while swaying back and forth. The third time is actually on a stage with Hank and Queenie dancing along to it, but it gets cut short. The titular song is so poorly utilized in the film, and it’s such a weird thing. You’d expect one final, major reprise at the end, but it never comes.
Anyway, Eddie uses his connection with the Broadway producer Zanfield (Eddie Kane) (based on the famous producer Florenz Ziegfield) to get the sisters a tryout, and this is where I realized that the production was really just trying anything that came along because neither Bessie Love nor Anita Page have particularly good singing voices, at least as captured by the archaic sound equipment. Their dancing number is a series of extremely simple steps as they walk back and forth back to front, but the scene hinges on the number being really good, only undermined by the piano playing poorly. It’s a really odd moment. Zanfield chooses to bring Queenie on because he can use a blonde, but Eddie gets Hank a job on the production anyway moments later. Also, they have their own number when we skip ahead a few weeks (the instance of “The Broadway Melody” that gets cut short) instead of them being backup chorus girls, or something.
There’s something going on through all of this that kind of confused me. Eddie, the second he sees Queenie (despite being engaged to Hank) is completely smitten with her. It happens right in front of Hank, and I was wondering if this was a cultural change that had occurred over the past century, that it was perfectly alright for future brothers-in-law to be super chummy with the sisters of their future wives. Instead, it’s him falling head over heels in love with Queenie, but the conflict around Eddie abandoning Hank for another woman feels so underserved that it’s easy to forget that the two are actually engaged. She pushes him away and falls into the arms of Jacques Warriner (Kenneth Thomson) (do you see how it sounds like Jack Warner? HA! I guess), a rich producer who tosses gifts at her.
Being pre-Code, I’m kind of surprised that they dance around the subject so much, but Warriner just wants to sleep with Queenie, and the core of the finale is Eddie and Hank convincing Queenie of this, though she seems to already know it? It’s weird, and it is helped none at all by Hank finally having a huge moment where she decides to let Eddie go. This would have been much improved by simply having Hank infatuated with Eddie at the beginning instead of having them be engaged. There still wouldn’t be enough attention paid to the relationship, but it’d be significantly less weird.
So, does this musical end with a big musical number? Nope. It ends with a ten minute scene in a hotel room with no singing where Queenie and Eddie come back from their honeymoon, Hank and her uncle talk about their new act and then perform some of it with Hank’s new partner, just as ineffectually as Hank and Queenie did at their trial.
Well, musicals aren’t necessarily known for their stories but their spectacle through song and dance. How’s that here? Largely unrewarding. As I said, the best song, “The Broadway Melody” is poorly executed two and a half times. There is one ornate number “Wedding of the Painted Doll” that’s something, but it’s flatly filmed in a way that prevents the joy of the dancing from really popping on the screen. The film was directed by Harry Beaumont, and, looking through his filmography, seems to have been a largely unremarkable workman for MGM who made films from the early silent period through the early 40s. He brought that workmanlike approach to The Broadway Melody, his and MGM’s first talkie, and there’s a certain, surprising, technical proficiency to the affair. There’s the same sort of drop outs of sound from one shot to another (the most memorable example I remember being of John Ford‘s Salute), but it’s far from the worst first talkie I’ve seen (like John Ford’s The Black Watch).
This is a slog of a film. There’s hardly a story. The musical numbers are largely unremarkable and dull. The performances, especially the sung parts, are a joke if not just mundane. This was obviously not awarded because of its artistic merit, though critics at the time were kind, seemingly taken in by the technical innovations more than anything else.