In week two of Witney Seibold’s epic quest to watch every single film to have won the Best Picture Oscar, he runs aground on the first talkie to win the award, the startlingly tragic 1929 musical The Broadway Melody.
There is a popular misconception about musicals, especially musicals of the ’20s and ’30s, that they are all “glitzy,” that they represent high living and glamorous opulence. It should perhaps be remembered that many musicals contain darkness, deep cynicism, and even high tragedy. The second film to have ever won an Best Picture Oscar was a musical talkie called The Broadway Melody (which I have just seen for the first time), and it contains a few surprisingly dark elements that read less like the “down” moments in an otherwise joyous Fred-and-Ginger comedy of manners, and more like a tear-wringing, pain-soaked cautionary tale.
The Broadway Melody came out just at the start of the sound era, which makes for a surprisingly staid form of filmmaking when compared to Wings and other films of the late silent era. Since the new sound-recording equipment was larger and more ungainly than its silent photography-only counterpart, filmmakers were forced to adopt a more static aesthetic in their composition. As a result, musicals don’t have the dip-and-zoom excitement of the silent era, staging elaborate single-take musical numbers instead. And since dialogue was a new wrinkle in film history, screenwriters began to adopt a near-hyperactive form of verbal banter, rising the art of film conversation to a form of elegant combat.
The Broadway Melody is less dynamic than Wings, but far more sympathetic. The heroines of this film strike me as being more modern and relatable than the classically dramatic heroes of WWI. Neither form is better – they are both stellar and legitimate – but it does point out what sound can contribute to a film, and what advantages silent films still have.
The Broadway Melody follows the adventures of the Mahoney Sisters, Hank (Bessie Love) and Queenie (Anita Page). Hank is the smarter, older sister, whose spunk and energy instantly deem her a hero. Queenie is younger, blonder, prettier, and more naïve. The Mahoney Sisters have been summoned to New York by Eddie (Charles King), Hank’s fiance. They are to debut Eddie’s new song, “The Broadway Melody” for a Broadway muckety muck named Francis Zanfield (Eddie Kane), not at all related to Florenz Ziegfeld. They kind of bomb their audition, but when Queenie steps in for an injured ingenue, her beauty attracts the attention of a notable New York millionaire named Jacques Warriner (Kenneth Thompson), most certainly not named after WB impresario Jack Warner. Important note: The Broadway Melody was an MGM picture.
As the film progresses, Queenie is increasingly seduced by Warriner’s temptations of high living and rich foods. She is promised apartments and cars. Hank and Eddie can both see that Queenie is going to be eventually duped into being Warriner’s kept woman, but she refuses to see it at first, and eventually becomes cold-hearted about others’ assumptions of her naïveté. It’s sad to see such a sweetheart like Queenie become so cold.
Sadder still, however, is Hank’s story. Hank is a shiny and dynamic and cute young lady (Janet Klein most certainly took her look directly from Bessie Love) who has a loving fiance. Eddie, however, has clearly begun falling in love with Queenie early in the film. About two thirds of the way through, Hank realizes that one of the only ways to save Queenie from a life of alcoholic, money-based iniquity is to essentially sic the only decent guy she knows on her sister. She forces herself to break up with Eddie, and sends him after Queenie. The highlight of the film is Love’s scene wherein she removes makeup from her face, alternately crying and laughing hysterically. Hank suffers in this film.
And by the end, Hank and Queenie have to separate. These two were incredibly close – they bathed together (and wore a lot of surprisingly skimpy underwear; thank you, pre-Code Hollywood), and they kiss on the mouth twice (making it the second Best Picture winner out of two to feature a gay kiss) – and The Broadway Melody essentially traces how they had to separate. Queenie’s happiness has an asterisk. Hank may not be happy with this arrangement at all. “Glitzy,” indeed.
The Broadway Melody came out at a time when jazz was still the hip music form of the day, and the film has a few rather enticing jazz numbers which most assuredly influenced people like Woody Allen and R. Crumb. Movie musicals were brand new at the time, but thanks to the popularity of films like this one, the form was almost instantly codified. Musicals would remain with the same character archetypes (the horny rich man, the naïve ingenue, the aspiring would-be star, even the mincing not-so-coded gay costume designer) and possess the same photographic aesthetic for almost two full decades.
I would only recommend The Broadway Melody to fans of pre-Code musicals, and even then, it’s not the best. I’ve had a much better time with the frothy comedies of Fred Astaire. I appreciate its tragedy and the cutting edge of its technology, but, man, is it ever a downer.
Join me next week for All Quiet on the Western Front.