Thursday, March 15, 2012

The Broadway Melody (1929) - Lots of Raw Emotion

The Broadway Melody 1929 poster

While "The Broadway Melody" (1929), directed by Harry Beaumont, may seem archaic by present-day standards, it was far ahead of its own time. "The Broadway Melody" also ushered in the concept of filming Broadway musicals with rows of chorus girls flashing a lot of leg. That idea was taken much further by Busby Berkeley a few years later, but "The Broadway Melody" initiated the idea and thus is a seminal film in Hollywood history and well worth study by serious film buffs.

It is difficult to rate this film because of its transitional nature. But I find it hugely entertaining for several reasons. I love the fact that it doesn't abide by stifling conventions that came into effect shortly after this film was made, and I find the characters very real in their uninhibited rawness. There is some terrific emoting which by later standards might be considered over the top, but strikes me the right way. Finally, there are some authentic glimpses of a long-gone age which I, as a lover of history, find fascinating.

The Broadway Melody 1929

Anita Page and Bessie Love star as sisters trying to take their musical act onto Broadway. Bessie is the sassy older sister who manages the act, but Anita is the prettier of the two. Anita draws the eye of Francis Zanfield, a big-time Broadway director, and the act is in. But then the fun begins, as the two sisters are attracted to the same guy, the star of the show (Charles King), who first has eyes for one, then the other, of the sisters.

The Broadway Melody 1929

Any casual student of Hollywood's past will spot all sorts of obvious (even then) references to major film and theater figures. But there also are subtle references that give this film a unique charm. When Bessie calls her Uncle Jed (a hilarious Jed Prouty stuttering his way through his scenes), the number she gives the operator is "Murray Hill 8400" - well, Anita Page's father lived in Murray Hill, Flushing and got Anita her big break, and that is how telephone numbers were given in those days. Then shortly thereafter, the sisters dream of getting a home on Long Island - precisely the dream of so many New Yorkers in those days, when Flushing (the "Valley of Ashes" in "Gatsby") was a frontier and points East were still the big estates of the Vanderbilts and Morgans (which started getting broken up in the bad old 1930s, and some of which still exist in greatly diminished form). Add in the daytime shots of Times Square at the end, complete with trolley cars and without the later cliché "blazing lights," and you have a rare, real glimpse into a forgotten time when things were still good, shortly before the gloom of the Great Depression and the (in my humble opinion, related) Hayes Code descended.

The Broadway Melody 1929
While the sets in "The Broadway Melody" seem primitive today, they reflect a distinctive art deco style that accelerated during the 1930s.

Speaking of the Code, Page and Love parade around in skimpy costumes as often as possible, and Page in particular is quite fetching. Showgirls back then were chunkier, with thick thighs and knobby knees, so some of the rehearsal scenes are unintentionally humorous as they thunder across the stage. But I like the reality of it, which extends to crying jags and raging cat fights between the sisters and the jealous showgirls, and also between the sisters themselves. I think Page is brilliant at showing the thin line between love and hate.

The Broadway Melody 1929

This film will offend some. Fun is made of an obviously gay costumer/designer ("Well, I know you didn't do it, because then it would have been in lavender"), an overbearing backstage stage mother, a drunk, and a stutterer. A humorous bit has a lighting guy (reminiscent of Miss Page's father, incidentally) throwing a spot at a preening male lead singer, and no, he isn't hauled off to jail for assault. The relationship between the sisters is, um, quite cozy at times. Some of the men physically handle their women rather roughly. People who aren't married actually kiss each other on the lips! Egads! I will simply say that it is all done in a good-natured way, so if you can overlook the different ways of those days, you will still enjoy the film.

The Broadway Melody 1929

So, sure, anyone with eyes can spot the silent-film overacting, replete with arm-waving and people running into frame (by Page in particular). You also can bemoan the rather shoddy (by later Busby standards) stage productions, with threadbare sets and people standing around. The camera-work is amateurish by later mid-1930s standards, and some of the actors shout their lines while others speak too softly to hear clearly - there were no rules, nobody had experience with sound film. There is some very poor editing, especially in the climactic scene between Page and her boorish playboy suitor. There is no background music, and the songs themselves (to me, maybe not to you) are unremarkable aside from a few melodies that are interesting only because they recall the 1920s. The drama has been done better a hundred or a thousand times since, with better sound and in color. And, my goodness, there still are actual (horrors!) title cards (though they don't interrupt the flow at all). So, as noted above, this is a transitional film, and Hollywood still had to figure out how to use sound optimally aside from just recording the actors' voices. It is easy to nitpick with almost 100 years of hindsight.

The Broadway Melody 1929
The Broadway Melody music sheet.

But this was Hollywood's take on Broadway in 1929, and did lead to series of "Broadway Melody" films until World War II ended them. It is state of the art, presenting something that had never been done before. You won't see this, at even this uneven level of quality, anywhere else - it is history unfolding before your eyes. Worth seeing if that interests you, and also for a good look at the lovely young Miss Page.


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