The Broadway Melody is a curious little film, and certainly a testament to the mythos of the Academy, and the weight that a term like “Oscar-winner” is expected to imply. It was the first sound movie to win that now-coveted Best Picture award, but in revisiting it, viewers may find it a little… lacking.
Now, I think it’s a fine picture, and I think its reputation would actually be better had it NOT won the award, and could exist as a technologically and creatively innovative film from the early days of the medium. But its story is now irrevocably linked with the Oscar name, so there’s an inherent expectation of greatness that it just can’t quite deliver.
It’s also the only film in the Broadway Melody series that does NOT feature Eleanor Powell, which is a much more serious docking in my book than any of its other faults.
The adorable Bessie Love and Anita Page star as the Mahoney sisters, a vaudeville act eager to make it big on the Great White Way. Hank (Love) is the practical older sister; Queenie (Page) is the gorgeous, impulsive younger sister–though let’s face it, they’re both knockouts. Hank’s fiancee (Charles King) ends up kinda falling in love with Queenie, much to MY distress as I’m never prepared for unhappy endings in musicals.
The first thing that struck me about this film is that it’s noisy. They have sound now and they are not afraid to use it. The bustling streets of New York are captured in a way that widespread audiences hadn’t been able to experience, with this marriage of picture and sound.
I also loved their use of sound as comedy, and they had some fun using this new tool to their advantage: a stuttering character routinely rephrases his troublesome words; a drunk’s voice seems to vibrate in pitch; a singer’s voice slightly out of tune–all utilized for the ensuing comic effect.
There are a few leftovers from the silent era, of course… full-screen title cards appear to signal the audience the location of the following scene. A hard habit to shake, to be sure, and perhaps contemporary audiences at the time would have relied on these markers as well. We also have the great pre-Code sauciness as evidenced above. There’s a long, lingering undressing scene that serves no real purpose, except to be cheeky and fun. Love and Page have lovely 1920s style undergarments on display, so I suppose we can accept it as a historical document as well.
As far as the film as a musical goes, it’s so interesting to see that the way musicals are filmed is literally being invented before your eyes here. I can totally see why the film caused as much of a public stir as it did–going from silent films to seeing and hearing people sing and TAP was an incredible innovation. Seeing tap being introduced so early makes a lot of sense, as it’s equal parts visual and auditory. There would have simply been no real point to showing a tap dancer in a silent film, so it was very cunning call to bring this theatrical dance form over to film.
The musical numbers aren’t staged in any particularly interesting fashion other than that, for a modern viewer, but I was kind of astounded by the toe-tap number–tap in ballet shoes, en pointe. The fact that I haven’t really seen anything like that since then makes me think it must have been absolutely unbearably painful for the dancer. But damn, did it look good.