Sunday, March 17, 2013

The Broadway Melody (1929)

Director: Harry Beaumont                                  Writer: Norman Houston & James Gleason
Music: Herb Brown & Arthur Freed                     Cinematography: John Arnold
Starring: Bessie Love, Anita Page, Charles King and James Gleason

As if The Jazz Singer set the template for sound pictures, many of the first talkies were musicals, giving film fans music and dancing along with their comedy and drama. Even though this sound film won the second Academy Award for best picture, there is still a great deal of holdover from the silent era in terms of acting styles--which sort of makes sense. Like a lot of films from the early talkie period, there was a silent version made for small theaters that didn’t have sound equipment yet. As such, there’s a good deal of diminishment from the peak of silent filmmaking that distinguished the previous year’s winner, Wings, to the awkward beginning of sound films that is represented by The Broadway Melody.

The story is the sort of backstage musical comedy/drama that would populate screens for the better part of the thirties. Two sisters, Bessie Love and Anita Page, have finally made it to Broadway, performing in a show for the Ziegfeld stand in, Eddie Kane. The star of the show, Charles King, previously engaged to Love, winds up transferring his affections from Love to Page. Meanwhile the younger sister, Anita Page, is getting a lot of attention from one of Kane’s backers, Kenneth Thompson. The love triangle winds up driving a wedge between the three of them until the truth comes out and each of the sisters makes a sacrifice for the other.

Ultimately the film is hampered by a weak script, featuring a preponderance of wise cracks that must have been trite and overused even in 1929 after decades on vaudeville. Charles King’s performance suffers from an attempt to be something of a cross between Al Jolson and Jimmy Durante, while the music suffers from the heavy reliance on a single song, the title number, used three times in the first forty minutes. All of the other musical performances, however, are incredibly static and stage bound in a way that makes the viewer long for Busby Berkeley to come in and break up the monotony.

It might have been popular in its day, but it simply doesn’t translate very well, if at all, to a modern audience. The music is stuck in the time period and hasn’t transcended it in the way other more popular songs have. Sure it won the Oscar, but while the film is an interesting artifact of the twenties, unlike a lot of films from that era that have maintained their status and grown over the years as works of art, The Broadway Melody is little more than a melodrama set to music.

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