The Broadway Melody: Pleasantly Predictable

About 25 miles south of Cairo, Egypt sits the famous Bent Pyramid. The pyramid started out at a 54-degree inclination, but then, about halfway up, the inclination shifts to 43 degrees. And, while there have been many theories proposed as to why it changes, the prevailing sentiment is that this was a transitional pyramid (from step pyramids to smooth ones) and the angle had to be used to keep it from collapsing.

So, what the heckin’ H does this have to The Broadway Melody, the second winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture? Well, it’s all about discovery.

Over the eons of recorded human history, largely nothing happened. Yeah, the pyramids were a thing, but in the grand scheme of history, the time that it took to build them was relatively small. The ancient Egyptians figured out that engineering crap and built those suckers, but not all of them were built well or correct. They had to learn how to do it, presumably without the aliens’ help.

I’d argue that there are hardly any recorded instances of people learning from trial and error on a big, macro scale. That’s what The Broadway Melody is, trial and error.

When The Broadway Melody was released to the public in mid-1929, sound on screen, particularly vocal sound, was a very new and interesting novelty. But sound in “talkies” was a seismic shift in the way the medium was presented. Up until then, silent films dominated the scene. In fact, the first Best Picture, Wings, is the only truly silent film to win the award. Obviously, sound quickly took over the movie business.

But the transition wasn’t easy. The Broadway Melody even had a silent version released as many theaters couldn’t handle the technical demands of sound. There are stories of actors, like Charlie Chaplin and Buster Keaton, whose careers changed as the silent movies become talking ones.

The rough transition carried over to the way the films were shot, too, which leads us to the discovery part. I’ve really seen only one silent movie, The Phantom of the Opera, but I’ve never seen a movie shot in this transition period. In a way, Hollywood was trying to figure out how to adapt to this new medium and learning how to do what Hollywood does. The decisions made in terms of shooting style, direction and acting would lay the foundation for the future of Hollywood movies. Those impacts are still being felt today.

The Broadway Melody has many elements of more modern filmmaking (like sound, for example) as well as many elements from the silent era, such as countless close-ups and scenes where there is literally no sound. I’ll have more about that in the review below.

Anyway, that was the most fascinating thing about watching this movie and my inner history nerd loved every minute of it.

Now, here’s the rest of the story

Writing/Dialogue:

The writing in The Broadway Melody is exactly what you’d expect, or, at least what I expected. It’s very short, snappy and witty. In short, it’s everything that I’d expect out of the 1920s. The script was written by Edmund Goulding.

Being that this film came out in 1929, it has several phrases that I have zero idea what the heck they even mean. Principal among these is “Nix cracking, Rosie.” Can somebody please educate me on this hip, Roaring 20s lingo? I enjoyed many parts of the witty script. One of my favorite comebacks was, “your profile was ruined the day you were born.”

Obviously, this script has a classic feel to it, and that includes in the language directed at women. The only use of “woman” or “women” in the movie is used as an insult, like “big woman.” Every other time, the women are referred to as “girls.” Only “girls.” The actors only seem to fixate on their looks, too. As I have said before, I can’t hold these things against a movie. Films are simply a reflection of their time. I serve as a reason to point things out.

Based on sheer fascination with the vernacular and the style of the day, I have to give this movie a 1.

Directing:

Harry Beaumont directed The Broadway Melody and he earned a nomination for Best Director at the 2nd Academy Awards. There’s not much I can say about his directorial effort in this movie, it was neither bad nor was it good.

I did pick up on one thing, though: the blocking.

Blocking is the placing of actors in a scene on a stage or a set. All stories that we see visually are blocked. It’s a testament of good directing when you can’t even tell if the blocking is good or bad.

The audiences that watched movies during this period in history were used to seeing plays and musicals live on stage. Films consisted of one long shot with actors coming and going in a frame during the course of the film. This was very stage like.

By the time 1929 came around, audiences were getting more used to the offerings of different camera angles and their relative distance to the actors. However, the long shots remained. Therefore, the actors had to be blocked extraordinarily well. They are constantly moving left and right and upstage and downstage. This adds dynamics to a scene even when nothing interesting is going on.

The Broadway Melody is certainly no exception. The characters are always moving. There are no static characters in this movie. And I imagine the actors were in excellent shape. It’s a very unusual thing to see on the big screen today, but in this movie, it worked very well. 1.

Set Design:

The Broadway Melody takes place in present day 1929, which is to say that the fashion and furniture are very much “of the times.” I’ve seen a few movies from this decade and several more modern movies that take place during the 1920s, so I know the fashion and the look.

For whatever reason, though, it was odd to see people of the time dressed in their native habitat. Yeah, the ladies’ hats and the gentlemen’s suits are prevalent, but that was an everyday occurrence to the people that were actually in this movie.

The fashion extends to the stage. The movie is about two women trying to make their own way onto Broadway. Therefore, there are many sequences on stage. Holy cow, those outfits are extravagant. There’s one scene in which Hank and Queenie wear large boas around their waist and have two more hanging from sticks on the top of their head. What?

As I mentioned above, The Broadway Melody is blocked like a stage production and that extends to the sets themselves. The sets are very square and boxy. They don’t have a lot of different elements. The apartment for Hank and Queenie is very simply stocked with vanilla furniture. Overall, though, The Broadway Melody’s sets and fashion are on point and perfectly execute that “20s vibe.” 1.

Cinematography:

John Arnold was the cinematographer for The Broadway Melody. As I mentioned above, this movie is from a transitional time in Hollywood as the talkies started to gain popularity in a world of silent films. There is one leftover from silent movies that I picked up on watching this movie: the length and the number of reaction shots.

The composition of reactions shots, or shots with an actor reacting to a particular catalyst, is fairly simple: a close up on the actor’s face while he or she doesn’t say anything and holding that shot for about 10 seconds before cutting back to the scene. Reaction shots are still used in every movie today, they’re just done more subtly.

What’s significant about these shots is their purpose in the very movies that talkies were replacing. In silent movies, dialogue between characters is obviously at a premium. Therefore, there’s a terrific emphasis on telling the story visually. Audiences were still used to this so they were left in.

On another note, the cinematography in The Broadway Melody was very simple. There were very few pans and the camera did not tilt or move. The cameras were constantly on a tripod, showing just one static shot at a time. The actors may be moving a lot during this shot, but the camera was still. Simple, yet effective seems to be the message for the last three movies, Gandhi, Rockyand The Broadway Melody, and that’s okay, really. As long as the audience gets the point. 1.

Sound:

I’ll admit, I had low expectations for this movie in this category. The microphone, reproduction and mixing technology in this era was just not that great and primitive. In some respects, my expectations were met and in many others, they were exceeded.

First, the dialogue was just as I expected it to be: it sounded like it was recorded in a can and from a distance. It wasn’t the crystal-clear audio that we hear in today’s television and movies. Yet, that’s okay. The sound crew had no choice but to capture sound in this way. All the actors had to deliver their lines perfectly every time.

The Broadway Melody exceeded my lowly expectations was just in the rest of the sound. It’s everywhere in this movie. To get this point across, check out this clip from the movie. Granted, this is not that unusual and there was not as much sound as in a movie like Argo, but I was pleasantly surprised. This is particularly true in the musical numbers. I mentioned that this movie is really the first true musical, it’s different from the musicals that would become very popular over the years. There are few musical numbers and even less variety. But it works as the tunes are catchy.

There are also scenes in which there is no sound. This is notable during the reaction shots that I mentioned. There doesn’t need to sound in that shot, so why would there be? I’ll admit, this was a little disconcerting. But I can’t hold it against The Broadway Melody for having enough sound at the time. 1.

Acting:

There are really three principal actors in The Broadway Melody, Bessie Love, Anita Page and Charles King. Since the movie is about the tale of the two Mahoney sisters, I’ll focus on Love and Page.  In general, their performances are often melodramatic with large, noticeable movements and a lot of shouting. The first two I contribute, again, to the theater blocking and style of the movie. The third is due to the technology of sound capture. However, there are some nuggets of a good performance in there.

Bessie Love was nominated for Best Actress playing Hank, or Harriet, Mahoney, the optimistic and ambitious side of the Mahoney sisters. Her character is easily stereotyped, she doesn’t take “no” for an answer and she’s easily angered when she does not get her way. The shining moment for Love in this movie was when Hank was at her worst. Having just realized that the man she loved (Eddie, played by Charles King) loves her sister, she becomes hysterical, sobbing and laughing. It is the only true breakdown of the tough-woman edifice that she displays for the entirety of the movie.

This does not save the acting in the movie though. Hank, and her sister Queenie, were flat and progressed very little. I didn’t feel as if I could relate to any of them at any time. The character progression in this movie was like Around the World in 80 Days, the characters were just lovable enough to give us someone to root for.

Anita Page plays Queenie Mahoney, Hank’s younger sister. She’s perceived in the movie as the prettier of the two sisters and all the wide-eyed Broadway types fall in love with her based on her bright blonde hair and enchanting smile. She starts as a shy young woman who is unenthusiastic about the pair’s chance on Broadway, but she comes around, gaining confidence with the men losing their collective minds over her beauty. There isn’t a lot of positives to say about her performance, it was neither good nor was it bad. 0.

Plot:

In general, the plot of The Broadway Melody is very basic: two sisters try to make their name on Broadway with the help of Eddie, a singer and songwriter in Zanfield’s Revue, a variety show on Broadway. Foreseeably, the bright lights of Broadway drive the sisters apart and they must find themselves again, and they live happily ever after. Even by the early Hollywood standards, this story is very predictable.

Even a love triangle, one that forms when Eddie (who’s engaged to Hank) falls in love with Queenie, fails to save this one. The added depth is nice, but not engaging. To be perfectly blunt, I was rather uninterested in this movie from a plot standpoint. I failed to stay interested during its relatively short 100-minute run time.

The Broadway Melody uses very long scenes to tell its story. There are a couple of musical numbers late in the movie that do nothing to further the story. In short, this is another example of flash and trash, just done at a different time. 0.

Bonus Points:

I’m still astounded by the amount of sound in the movie. Granted, there was not a lot of sound, but I’m not sure if there could have been more, given the technology at the time. So, I’ll give an extra point there.

Final Score: 6/10

Oscar Facts:

The Broadway Melody won the second Academy Award for Best Picture on April 3, 1930 at The Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles. There are a couple of interesting notes about this ceremony. The awards were for films made between August 1, 1928 and July 31, 1929. Therefore, the awards were presented several months after their eligibility. The Academy decided to have the 3rd Academy Awards in November of that same year, making 1930 the only year to have two ceremonies. There were only seven categories.

The Broadway Melody beat out Alibi, In Old Arizona, The Hollywood Revue of 1929 and The Patriot for Best Picture. Frank Lloyd won Best Director for The Devine Lady and this is the only time in which a film’s director won Best Director without the film being nominated for Best Picture. Warner Baxter won Best Actor for his role in In Old Arizona and Mary Pickford won Best Actress for her spot in Coquette. This ceremony is the only time in which no one movie won more than one Oscar. The Broadway Melody was the second movie to win Best Picture without a writing nomination (it has happened seven times) and it was the first of three movies to win Best Picture and nothing else.

Next Week:

For the next post, I’ll be taking a deep look at Robert Benton’s Kramer vs. Kramer, the 52nd winner of the Academy Award for Best Picture in 1979. Following that, it’s Driving Miss Daisy, The Last Emperor, The Hurt Locker, Slumdog Millionaire and Terms of Endearment.

 

8 Comments

  1. Well, I must say I’m not a big fan of older movies so I most likely won’t ever seek this one out to watch but I commend you for watching and reviewing it! I’m interested in your take of Kramer vs. Kramer next week!

    Like

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