Broadway Melody, TheReviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 02/27/05 12:40:01
Just as “The Jazz Singer” revolutionized motion pictures one year earlier, 1929’s “The Broadway Melody” transformed the movie musical forever. Before “Melody,” the few musicals to already have been made - not counting “Jazz Singer,” which was only partially a talkie - were merely staged variety shows, hosted by and featuring stars of the day, doing all manner of song, dance, comedy, and vaudeville routine. “Melody,” on the other hand, was the first all-sound musical to actually feature a plot. In addition, its brief two-strip Technicolor sequence found near the film’s end (sadly, only the black and white version survives today) set the stage for blockbuster spectacle, as producer after producer fought to top one another in terms of pure showmanship. But above all, the producers’ use of prerecorded music on the set created a way of filming musicals still practiced today.“Melody” is as important a film as you’ll find in movie history. It’s also fine entertainment, too. Although to be honest, it’s not nearly as entertaining as its successors (a line of in-name-only sequels began in the mid-1930s, plus there are all those other great MGM musicals for which we have the movie to thank). The problem here is that this All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing! Film is far more All Talking than it is All Singing or All Dancing. What we’re missing here are the glorious musical numbers that would soon become standard at the studio; while we get a couple of brilliant set pieces scattered throughout, the music here is otherwise disappointingly scarce.
This is the film’s lone drawback, as it still works like a firecracker in its non-musical moments. The story is a pure, unadulterated backstage melodrama: Eddie (Charles King) is writing a smash hit Broadway show, coincidentally titled “The Broadway Melody.” He’s brought in his fiancée, Hank (the lovely Bessie Love), and her sister, Queenie (the equally lovely Anita Page); they’re a sister act eager to make it big in New York. (Side note: how many other Hanks do you know that look this good?)
Anyway, the sisters finagle their way into the show (Eddie Kane plays big shot producer “Francis Zanfield,” an obvious take on B’way legend Florenz Ziegfeld), and the soap opera that develops is a doozy. Not content with mere who’s-upstaging-whom dramatics, we also get what I’ve best seen described as a “love quadrangle.” Eddie soon realizes he’s in love with Queenie, not Hank, although Queenie’s hooked up with bland, obnoxious socialite Jock Warriner (Kenneth Thompson). (Side note number two: Is “Jock Warriner” meant to sound like “Jack Warner,” making this a fun stab at a rival studio?) It’s around here that the film turns into All Crying! All Fighting! But in a good way.
Spread throughout are some nice touches. The backstage goings-on are great fun, what with the divas, both male and female, dealing with the annoyed stagehands, and with the producers bickering amongst themselves, trying to hone their show for opening night. There’s even a bit of open-mindedness, or, at least, bold honesty, as the male costumer is presented as obviously (yet not cartoonishly or even comically) gay. It’s here, in these little touches, that the viewer gets a sense of how Broadway really is run (or was run in 1929, as it were).
Some touches don’t pan out, however. Jed Prouty turns his wise mentor role into a lame excuse for comic stuttering, a Porky Pig routine that gets too old too quickly. Some of the staging and acting is a bit rickety at times, the sign of a cast and crew still figuring out how best to use this new technology, how best to create a new genre. And the musical numbers, impressive as they are, fail to make much sense in the larger picture; I’m guessing the show-within-the-movie has some kind of plot, but guessing what it is from the grab bag of settings and costumes is tough work.Ultimately, “Melody” is not as impressive as the musicals that followed its direction (it’s one of those rare films that’s overshadowed by its sequels). And yet, it’s well worth watching. For starters, it’s a work of great interest, an example of Hollywood’s transitional phase, with the filmmakers still tinkering with how best to work this newfangled “sound” into their movies. (Here’s a film that contains both silent-era title cards and sound-era show stopping dance numbers.) Its function as genre blueprint makes for quite the curiosity. And, more importantly, it also stands up quite well as a solid evening’s entertainment, a ripping story that’s good enough to get itself recycled again and again over the decades. With its energetic script and its grand list of hit songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, it makes for complete, golden era fun. That’s the Broadway Melody!
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