The Broadway Melody (1929, Harry Beaumont)
Despite the hype and bile that’s greeted it over the past eighty-odd years, two great myths about The Broadway Melody are baseless: it’s not the worst of all Best Picture Academy Award winners, and it’s not — by any means — the “first” movie musical. Nobody can tell you what was exactly — a Vitaphone short? The Jazz Singer, if that counts? But whatever, this isn’t it. (As for the Best Picture claim, Crash alone puts a rest to that.) A claim with merit might be that this is the birth of the musical as genre, at least the genre as we know it. In that sense, for all its problems, there’s something transcendent and truly special about it.
It doesn’t hurt that two of the three central performers are game and thoroughly charming. The great Bessie Love is luminous as the resourceful, brassy Hank; she and her sister and dance partner Queenie (lovely Anita Page) seek to make it big on Broadway with the help of Hank’s beau, a rather scaly and opportunistic songwriter and dancer brought to us by the cheerful but accidentally sinister Charles King, who can’t compensate for the inefficiency of his performance with a big grin and a spirit of tireless enthusiasm; all three actors suffer from the undoubtedly momentous transition of silence to sound and clearly have no idea how to read dialogue on camera — which makes the film enjoyably quaint while also rendering it fully ridiculous.
The dancing and music, clumsy as they may also be, compensate in some capacity even if the unavailability of post-production sync and dubbing makes the final film feel more stilted than most classicist musicals. The various renditions of the title song, later the centerpiece of the last act in Singin’ in the Rain, sparkle unfaltering, including the sublime opening moments that feature a supposed performance of the song just after it’s been written. Most of the other numbers are presented in the context of the Broadway musical being mounted throughout the story, including the sterile “Love Boat,” the adorably clumsy “Boy Friend” (embodying one of a number of unadorned dance sequences that goes on far too long without much of visual interest, surely a consequence of sound’s still-blooming novelty), and the actually rather spectacular “Wedding of the Painted Doll.” This last piece is the most impressive bit of choreography here; originally presented in Technicolor (only a monochrome version now survives), it’s a dazzling centerpiece and really the prime reason to see the movie.
Everything else, especially the story itself, is a distraction, so threadbare you spend most of your time speculating on how much of it is studio axe-grinding (a lecherous character is clearly named after Jack Warner). It’s not unusual for a musical of the first decade or so of American sound pictures to seem creaky in the plot and performance departments, but The Broadway Melody is still so primitively and amateurishly structured it’s a lot harder to ignore. On some level, a symptom of the film’s problems can be elucidated upon by the curious fact that a silent version was put together and screened in theaters that weren’t yet equipped for sound; if it’s possible to render your musical as a silent film, chances are it’s a bit too talkative and plotty. The love triangle at the center of the film is absolutely preposterous — man falls for his girlfriend’s sister because of her devotion to his girlfriend, for which he is immediately forgiven and permitted to toss over to the other sibling? That’s Jerry Maguire-level wrongheaded — though only slightly more so than in the average Hollywood romance of the time.
Luckily, you may also notice something that isn’t outdated about The Broadway Melody, and that’s its vague wisp of feminism, despite the horrendously unappealing leading man. Baddie rival Jock Warner is presented as a wealthy, powerful, and freaky-deaky perv who gets a sense of entitlement out of his maleness; to its eternal credit, in stark contrast even to Grand Hotel just a few years later, the film never concedes to him. It even mocks his flighty MGM romancing of Queenie — wildly overdone compliments, comically ginormous bouquets of flowers, and disgusting date-rape gestures and comments about her “owing” him for nice behavior; after he departs the room, King’s Eddie remarks how slimy it looks when a man goes around kissing ladies’ hands like this. (Having witnessed something approximating this in real life at a friend’s house, I can back up Eddie’s conceit.) This is not, in the Hollywood patriarchal parlance, a no-no-no-no-no-well, okay, yes story; Warner never does get the girl, and Queenie is presented as a strong and independent voice of resistance to his advances. Of course, movies shouldn’t really deserve credit for failing to advocate rape, but listen — we take the explicit takedowns of gross stuff when we can get them. This is one element of Broadway Melody‘s very poor love story that nearly justifies its presence.
Needless to say, The Broadway Melody has aged poorly, especially in comparison to the later Freed Company musicals that this film is vitally important for inaugurating. It’s not hard to see, however, that beyond the inevitable limitations of the first few years of sound, and moreover beyond the hollowness of the script that’s hardly a unique trait for it within the genre, the problem is largely not the film itself but the breadth and depth of influence it had on all of the genre pieces in its wake. Though it’s generally credited as a lesser example of the glamorous Hollywood musical production now, in its time it was a massive hit, enough to start a franchise of sorts. In this sense, you can see how Harry Beaumont’s film becomes actually a victim of its own quality and success — the miracle is how much of it worked, and still does; this bold and audacious early musical that falters in so many areas works beautifully when you look upon it as an experimental film. That’s more or less what it was, anyway — and one that shook the foundational notions of what a Hollywood movie could be, suddenly screaming out with synchronized song and dance, so many joys still to mine. It feels like the Beginning, and there’s something still exciting about that.