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The Broadway Melody: Best Picture, 1929

The Host: The 2nd Annual Academy Awards were hosted by William C. deMille, elder brother of (you guessed it) Cecil B.

The Nominations: The Broadway Melody was nominated for 3 awards: Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actress.

The Competition: Practically everything about this year’s ceremony is weird, beginning with the nominees. The heaviest competition this year was from The Patriot (a biopic, and the last silent film to be nominated for Best Picture until 2011) and In Old Arizona (a western featuring, of all things, the Cisco Kid), each with 5 nominations. Also in the running were Alibi (a crime drama) and The Divine Lady (a historical romance), with 3 nominations apiece, and Hollywood Revue, with a single nomination (for Best Picture).

This last is a particularly curious one. Like Broadway Melody, it was a musical released by MGM, but unlike the other film, Hollywood Revue is merely a plotless “talent show” featuring the MGM star roster (as the title suggests). As such, I can’t understand what it was doing on the list at all.

The Results: The oddities of the year continue with the outcome of the ceremony. Of the mere 7 awards that were given out for this year, each went to a different film, an anomaly that has never been duplicated. Thus, Broadway Melody is one of the three movies to win Best Picture and nothing else, while the other two awards it was nominated for went to Mary Pickford for her performance in Coquette (the silent legend’s first talkie) and Frank Lloyd for his direction of The Divine Lady.

The Film: Eddie Kearns, a moderately successful singer/songwriter on Broadway, is sure his new “Broadway Melody” will be a smash-hit, and he knows just who to perform it with. His fiancee, Hank Mahoney, and her sister, Queenie, have a traveling vaudeville act, newly arrived in New York City, and they’re hoping Eddie can provide their big break. As they struggle to convince producer Francis Zanfield to hire them, then to rehearse, Eddie falls for Queenie, who reciprocates. Unwilling to hurt her sister by stealing her fiance, Queenie entertains the attentions of notorious playboy Jock Warriner. Drama ensues, between songs, and love triumphs in the end. Sort of.

The Experience: The Broadway Melody isn’t devoid of interest for the modern viewer, but that interest is entirely in its status as a cultural artifact. As a movie, there’s basically nothing of any note going on. The songs are bland (even the title number is smarmy and pandering), the choreography is pedestrian, and the story is all but nonexistent. Anita Page (Queenie) and Bessie Love (Hank) do give solid performances, and their characters stand out as interesting to watch and worth caring about, but given the ending, that almost makes it worse.

See, Eddie, though engaged to Hank, apparently hasn’t seen Queenie in a number of years, during which time she has grown quite lovely indeed. On the strength of that alone, his affections immediately shift, and poor Queenie is also left to navigate further attention and advances from all directions. Every male character in the film is a swine, with the exception of the girls’ Uncle Jed, a character with a comical stutter like Porky Pig that gets old fast. Hank and Queenie, happily, do not succumb to catty bickering. They quarrel, certainly, but only as a result of each of them looking out for the other.

Anyway, eventually Hank realizes that Queenie is only entertaining Jock in an attempt to ignore Eddie, and she goads Eddie into going after her sister by pretending she never loved him. Eddie and Queenie marry, and Hank heads unhappily back to the sticks with a new dance partner she can’t stand. But, hey . . . That’s show business? I guess? Whatever. You can only get so far just criticizing the past from a position of present-day superiority. There are other things about this movie that are far more interesting.

Let’s talk about the shallow playboy, “Jock Warriner,” for example. The pronunciation of the name is so specific, I only knew his name wasn’t “Jack Warner” because the spelling is shown on a business card. Jack Warner, of course, was the youngest of the four Warner Brothers (yes, those Warner brothers), heads of one of MGM’s rival studios. I don’t know whether the gross caricature in this film has any basis in his actual reputation, or if it was just a straight hatchet job. I do know that in 1929, Jack Warner was still married to his first wife. Either way, the really interesting thing is the blatant openness of the insult, with barely even a perfunctory attempt at plausible deniability.

Perhaps it’s just genial inter-studio ribbing, but that’s not what it feels like. Here’s what I think: In the mid-1920s, various companies were competing to achieve a synchronized-sound process, but the major studios were in no hurry to see the transition happen. They all agreed together to wait. The second-tier Warner Bros., however, was willing to gamble on the new technology, and they jumped into the game with a process that used bulky recorded discs played in synchronization with the film. The Jazz Singer, of course, was their famous and well-received attempt to insert sound into a feature film, and its success and the success of WB’s subsequent talkies helped drive the change.

But the change didn’t happen over night. Even after deciding that the sound film’s time had come, the major studios came together again and agreed that they would put off the transition for another year while they investigated which synchronized-sound system they would all adopt together. Warner, naturally, milked this head-start for all it was worth. When the majors finally chose their system, they went with an arguably inferior but vastly more convenient sound-on-film process. Warner swore to stick with discs, but eventually caved.

Meanwhile, the big studios finally entered the sound game in early 1929, and Broadway Melody was one of the first major forays by MGM. Note the prominence of the words “TALKING SINGING DANCING” in the advertising above. The movie was (sort of) MGM’s much-delayed answer to Warner and its sound films, and perhaps the apparent animosity reflected in the “Jock Warriner” character is part of that.

All that pettiness aside, it’s hard to deny The Broadway Melody‘s significance as the first true Hollywood musical, appearing basically fully-formed as a genre in 1929. Not that “movie musicals” hadn’t basically been done before. The Jazz Singer is technically a musical, but only the songs are heard. And, of course, the “musical” obviously wasn’t a new idea. So, it’s hard to forgive this film it’s cliche-ridden triteness, and I’d love to know more about the traditions that it drew from. Looking over my comments thus far, though, it should be quite telling that the context is more interesting than the film.

The Verdict: I don’t believe I’ve seen a single film from 1929 other than this one, but I can’t imagine that there weren’t better films. I’d certainly like to see Pickford’s first talkie (though it was poorly received at the time), and many of the other nominees sound interesting. This was certainly a year of significant change in the industry, and it’s not terribly strange to find that upheaval inversely reflected in the middlebrow safeness of the films being produced.

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~ by Jared on September 9, 2012.

One Response to “The Broadway Melody: Best Picture, 1929”

  1. […] wrote more extensively about this film here. Suffice to say that it was interesting as the first film of its kind, as a curious choice for Best […]

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