When a film is only the second film to win the Academy Award for Best Picture, it’s bound to claim some historical firsts. Simply by default, “The Broadway Melody” is noteworthy in this regard. It is the first talkie to win Best Picture. It is the first musical to win Best Picture. And it is also the first crappy film to win Best Picture.
Maybe I’m being a little too harsh in that last statement. As I noted in my entry about “Wings,” watching a really old film can be tricky business because decades of hindsight can render that film primitive and weak. But in judging “The Broadway Melody” on its own terms, I’m still not convinced it isn’t altogether dull and wooden, no matter what age you watch it in.
Directed by Harry Beaumont, “The Broadway Melody” won Best Picture in 1928/1929, and stars Charles King, Bessie Love and Anita Page. The latter two play Hank and Queenie, a sister act from the Mid-West looking to make their mark on the New York stage. However, when Queenie’s ingénue sweet looks capture the attention of a slick playboy, loyalties and bonds are put upon perilous ground.
From a narrative standpoint, the story barely dips below the surface and if any of the characters turned sideways, they might disappear altogether from lack of development. Instead of portraying real flesh-and-blood characters, the actors end up merely playing Broadway caricatures: Bessie Love is the tough-talking broad always pointin’ her finger in somebody’s face. Anita Page is the “aww shucks” cutie pie with mile-long eye lashes and a downward gaze. Charles King is the cool crooner of the theater with his thumbs hooked into his suspenders. Without any depth between them, the plot just skips ‘round and ‘round until it comes to a predictable end.
I have this obvious speculation that early filmmakers traveled a learning curve when it came to understanding and drawing out the latent creative potential within this new medium. I’m talking more about the impact of the basic elements of film, such as lighting, editing, framing a shot, could have, and not more advanced elements like special effects. When you watch really old films, like “The Broadway Melody,” it can feel like they are just filming a piece of theater. The scenes are long and play out with a minimal number of edits. The shots are always wide and unvaried, encompassing most of the scene into one frame, much like watching actors on a stage. And, in many examples, the actors seem driven by the old adage that you have to act to the back of the theater, which on celluloid results in messy overacting.
|From left to right: Anita Page, Bessie Love and Charles King in "The Broadway Melody."|
In the case of “The Broadway Melody,” it seems to me that the filmmakers behind it had not even started the car to begin the journey toward the learning curve of making a picture. Of course I realize at that point Hollywood was still a juvenile industry. But other films like “Wings” and “All Quiet of the Western Front” displayed far more advanced technical and narrative savvy. For one thing, the sound recording is awful. Why does everyone have to sound like Betty Boop?! Then there is next to no camera work, such as character close-up shots, robbing the film of any emotional impact. (To be fair, it’s not like it was in any danger of having any emotional heft anyway.) And finally, even the musical numbers are plain and stale, which is inexcusable for a film about backstage, Broadway life.
As it turns out, I’m not alone in my opinions regarding “The Broadway Melody.” From a variety of Google searches, other reviewers and Oscar experts have generally pegged the film as one of the weaker Best Picture recipients. But the fact that it emerged victorious, despite delivering a steady stream of clichés and melodramatic moments, made me wonder how bad the competition was in 1929. The other films nominated that year must have just been a bunch of “War Horse” and “Juno” equivalents.
However, for all of my griping about “The Broadway Melody,” there were a couple of things that I did find interesting about it. For starters, whenever the location changes in the film, a title card is displayed with a brief description of where the proceeding action it to take place. This caught my interest because I think it shows that in the transition from silent to talking pictures, not all elements from the silent era were immediately discarded.
The second point of interest from “The Broadway Melody” concerns Anita page. As I mentioned, in the film she plays Queenie, a baby doll blonde who all the fellows are sweet on. Throughout the film, a good percentage of the dialogue outlines how beautiful and inspiring Queenie’s looks are. But here’s the thing, and this is where watching a really old movie can definitely be tricky business, Queenie isn’t really anything to write home about. To be perfectly frank, in the movie I thought she looked like a bit of a disheveled frumplestiltskin.
|Left to right: Anita Page and Bessie Love in "The Broadway Melody."|
By today’s standards of silver screen beauty, Anita Page probably wouldn’t even get a casting call back for a part like Queenie, let alone land it and convincingly pull it off. I think this harsh truth reveals an interesting insight into the definitions and standards of beauty back in the 1920s. I think there has always existed consistencies in the definitions of beauty throughout the ages. However, I think some modern-day definitions have edged what it means to be beautiful more and more beyond a realistic and healthy grasp. The comparison of an actress like Anita Page with Angelina Jolie and her ilk illustrates how times have really changed in that regard. But maybe time periods are irrelevant, as Anita Page must have truly been a knockout because she apparently received several proposals of marriage in letters from Benito Mussolini.
Anyway, I’ll give my regards to Broadway, but I don’t think I’ll be giving them to “The Broadway Melody,” anytime soon. The only context in which I could ever really recommend this film is if you wanted to be able to say you watched every film that ever won Best Picture. However, if you’re not one of those people, then skip this picture because this is one melody that is off-key from start to finish.
Favorite Line: After a backstage tussle with a rival chorus girl, Hank shakes her fist and declares, “Another minute and I’m going to lay that dame like a roll of linoleum.”