Beginning in November 2019, I embarked on the Old Hollywood Best Picture Challenge, where I will endeavor to watch all 270 films that were nominated and/or won for Best Picture at the Academy Awards between the years 1927-1969. For a list of all films and reviews, please see my original post.
- Film & Year: The Broadway Melody (1929)
- Standing: Best Picture Winner for 1928/29 season
- Type: Musical, Drama, Romance, Pre-Code
- Other AA Nominations: Best Actress (Bessie Love), Best Director (Harry Beaumont)
- Other AA Wins: 0
- Director: Harry Beaumont
- Studio/Producer: MGM / Irving Thalberg and Lawrence Weingarten
- Cast: Bessie Love, Anita Page, Charles King, Jed Prouty, Kenneth Thomson, Mary Doran, Eddie Kane
- Production Notes: Story by Edmund Goulding, Music by Nacio Herb Brown with lyrics by Arthur Freed, Cinematography by John Arnold, Edited by Sam S. Zimbalist
- Notable Songs: “Broadway Melody,” “You Were Meant For Me”
- Viewing Order: 6/270
Summary & Viewing Experience:
Vaudeville sister act The Mahoney Sisters, Hank (Bessie Love) and Queenie (Anita Page) Mahoney, go to New York on the invitation of Hank’s fiance Eddie (Charles King), a performer appearing in a Broadway revue by showman Francis Zanfield (Eddie Kane). Zanfield, a thinly disguised nod to real life showman Florenz Ziegfeld, is intrigued by beautiful Queenie, but not so much by her feisty, ambitious sister Hank. Unfortunately ,that goes double for Hank’s own fiancé Eddie, who is instantly taken with beautiful Queenie and takes every available moment thereafter to flirt with her or touch her, often in the trusting and oblivious Hank’s presence. Queenie is so uncomfortable with this and her own romantic feelings toward Eddie that she begins dating the wealthy “stage door Johnnie” Jock Warriner (Kenneth Thomson) as a means to distance herself from her sister’s man.
Hank eventually finds out that Eddie and Queenie have feelings for each other and has to make some tough decisions about her own life and what she wants for her future while Queenie has a choice between two men (one being the fiance of her sister)…
The film sort of keeps the audience at a distance, fulfilling the checklist of what it thinks the audience wants to see (Half naked showgirls? Check! Romantic melodrama? Check!), without offering up any truly likable characters. Eddie is a first-class creep who only falls in love with Queenie because she’s beautiful while Queenie proclaims her loyalty to her sister then two scenes later is flirting openly with Eddie. Even Hank, who is undoubtedly the heroine, is something of a brat, yipping at Zanfield like an angry poodle for not giving The Mahoney Sisters a chance even though their act is legitimately terrible and stray cats could harmonize better.
Aside from Hank’s fabulous assortment of hats and coats, the highlight of the film are the songs by Nacio Herb Brown (with lyrics by Arthur Freed), mostly sung by Eddie (the only time he is likable). The title song “Broadway Melody” and what would become the film’s most popular song “You Were Meant For Me” stood out from the rest and still hold up today as the real deal in sound and songwriting.
Bessie Love did well in silent films of the late teens and early 1920s, but by without the full backing of a studio (she had signed a contract with Vitagraph, but a lot of her work was freelance), she turned to vaudeville, singing and dancing like her future character Hank. Her experience there set her up for a successful transition to sound and in 1928, she was signed by MGM. Her “comeback” in 1929’s The Broadway Melody was applauded in the papers as a huge success and she would be nominated for a Best Actress Academy Award for her performance as Hank. It was Anita Page who was given the most grief by critics. Yes, she was shrill and had all of the simpering baby talk of Jean Harlow without the enormous charm to temper it, but I find it confusing why she was singled out for bad acting while Love, with her fair bit of histrionics and fake tears, was nominated for a Best Actress award for her performance. Don’t get me wrong, I did prefer Love, who came off as more natural and had a good handle on the small gestures and facial expressions, but I don’t feel that their performances were yards apart.
While I wasn’t overly excited about the acting, I was impressed with the sound quality and the (on the surface) ease of transition from silent to sound. Having read several books about the earliest sound films (and having seen some) where every sound was picked up by the microphone and the difficulties of creating level tones manifested in actors speaking in monotone instead of naturally, I have to say I was expecting something of a nightmare when it came to the sound quality. I was pleasantly surprised to find that they pulled it off. There was plenty of yelling and stomping that recorded just fine and nowhere were you really reminded that this was MGM’s first attempt at the medium.
Behind the Scenes:
5 years after the film came out, Anita Page would marry the film’s song writer Nacio Herb Brown. Like her character Queenie, Page was known more for her beauty than her talent, evident in the “Boy Friend” number when she stands off to the side and poses as Hank eats up the floor with her shoes. Also like her character, Bessie Love was known for her dance ability and was the first to dance a Charleston onscreen in a previous film, which is said to have helped popularize the dance. While I was not impressed with Love’s singing, I found her high energy dancing in the “Boy Friend” number quite fun.
Both Bessie Love and Anita Page were named Wampas Baby Stars (an award to recognize up and coming actresses with star potential); Love for 1922 and Page for 1929.
The film is often called “The Broadway Melody of 1929” since MGM, hoping to capitalize on the original’s success, made 3 additional pictures with the same title and similar premises in following years (Broadway Melody of 1936, Broadway Melody of 1938, and Broadway Melody of 1940) and a remake in 1940 titled Two Girls on Broadway.
Why did it win Best Picture?
MGM, generally considered the biggest of the “Big 5” studios of the golden age, went all in on their first talkie. In the spirit of go big or go home, it was not only a talkie but a musical and released with certain scenes shot in technicolor (now lost and only existing in black and white). Audiences and critics were thrilled by the smoothness of the sound, the lavish sets, and the revue style music and dance numbers. One news article even went so far as to call it “The talkie Birth of a Nation.” You can definitely see the mental hang-up of the transition from silent to sound reflected in the handful of title cards announcing the scenes and the silent close ups shots of the characters’ reactions. Some things they just weren’t ready to leave behind, but considering the lightning fast jump the industry took into this new, noisy world, I think they did a pretty decent job of diving right in.
How does it hold up today?
Definitely not. Out of all the best picture nominees this year, this one appears to have held up least. To 1929 audiences, Broadway Melody was not only novel, it was exciting. To many, it represented the future of film and opened doors into new worlds. So while I can watch it on my laptop 90 years later and think, “Really? This?” as I cringe through the thinly veiled “lavender” jokes about the wardrobe man, I have to remember that to 1929 audiences, it was simply amazing. Still, I can see why other modern viewers wouldn’t be (and aren’t, noting the scores below) so generous.
- IMDb rating = 5.6 out of 10
- Rotten Tomatoes rating= 35% out of 100% fresh by critics (7 fresh vs. 13 rotten) and 21% by viewers.
Would this be my pick for 1928/29 Best Picture?
I guess it would have been hard for the Academy to just ignore the top grossing film of the year, but I wouldn’t throw a Best Picture Oscar at it either. Then again, I haven’t seen the other nominees yet…
Liebman, Roy. The Wampas Baby Stars: a Biographical Dictionary, 1922-1934. McFarland, 2009.