2. The Broadway Melody – A-One Step Forward and A-Two Steps Back

Broadway Melody

Well, I’ve waded through the primordial slime of Wingswhich turned out not to be so primordial – and arrived at my second post! 

Director: Harry Beaumont

Producer: Irving Thalberg

Studio: MGM

Written by: Norman Houston and James Gleason, from a story by Edmund Goulding

Songs: Nacio Herb Brown (music), Arthur Freed (lyrics)

Choreography: George Cunningham

Starring: Bessie Love, Anita Page, Charles King

The Broadway Melody was the second ever film to win the Oscar for Best Picture for 1928/1929 (eligibility was over a two year period initially), and in one obvious way already represents a leap forward: Talking!  Singing!  Unlike Wings, it has sound.

On the other hand, The Broadway Melody was the first ever movie musical, so in some ways it feels like the evolutionary clock has been reset to zero.

Hooray for Hollywood!  I approach the film with ridiculous amounts of excitement!

I may have recorded some ambivalence ahead of watching Wings, but I approach The Broadway Melody with an enthusiasm bordering on fervour: I love Hollywood musicals!  And though I adore many of the lavish technicolor productions of the Forties, Fifties and Sixties, the silvery productions of the Thirties have an elegant brand of magic that’s all their own.  I cut my classic movie-loving teeth getting up at 7am in the school holidays to watch Fred and Ginger season on BBC2, and I’ve never quite lost my fascination with the era.

The Gay Divorcée

People just don’t do The Continental enough any more

(Why is it that any old movies that are any good get shown at such odd times of day?  But channel hop of a rainy Saturday afternoon, and your choice of any black and white movies will be limited to a dreary melodrama – usually with a blandly portentous title such Innocent Lives, or The Lady of the Hall, or From the Mouths of Babes – or a bleached out western, and the western is almost never Destry Rides Again.  This is how you end up watching a triple bill of Don’t Tell the Bride followed by Countryfile.  If any programmers happen to be reading this, answers in the comments please!).

Not that I’m expecting The Broadway Melody to be as good as Swing Time, Top Hat, or (my personal favourite) The Gay Divorcée.  I’m just intrigued to see the first Hollywood musical.  I’m definitely anticipating something with an unpolished air of experimentation: my prediction is that the story will be weak and the direction lacking imagination.  I’ve never heard of any of the actors and I reckon the acting will be reasonably poor.  But I can’t wait to see what the original prototype looks like!

What excites me most, though, is the songs.  I have no idea which ones are featured in the film, but I know it was common to recycle songs in stage and film musicals, and I’m convinced there’ll be a few classics in there.

I watch the film – and am taken by surprise…

Well, for the second time in a row my expectations were confounded.  Only this time, everything that I thought would be fabulous, is bad; and everything that I thought would be dreadful is not so bad after all.

From dogfights to catfights

The Swiss cheese of a plot is as simplistic as I expected, but a brutal dose of reality runs through it of the kind not generally associated with Hollywood musicals.  Like Wings, it features a love triangle storyline, but unlike Wings there is no fourth character to set up an obvious resolution.  The theatrical setting cannot have the same weight as the First World War, but it does provide scope for a wider range of characters, particularly female ones.  If Wings is “man’s film” (according to Clara Bow), rounded female characters are given centre stage in The Broadway Melody.  There are no airborne battles, but the lead women must fight for their places in the show and in their lives.

As anticipated, there is no getting away from the lack of direction – both artistically and technically – and poor cinematography.  However, many a movie musical that is weak of plot and clunky of camerawork has been redeemed with a corker of a soundtrack.  Unfortunately, The Broadway Melody is not one of them.

The songs are neither meaningful enough to move the story on, nor catchy enough to be enjoyed for their own sake.  I found myself wishing it had been filmed as a straight drama rather than a musical, because the songs distract from other aspects of the film which are worth watching for.  At its worst, The Broadway Melody is a hacky and amateurish backstage musical with forgettable songs; At its best, it is a bittersweet and compelling portrayal of sisterly love, set against a surprisingly dark – and at times disturbing – theatrical backdrop.

The plot

The two Mahoney sisters arrive in New York with the hope of turning their vaudeville ‘sister act’ into something big and seeing their name in lights.  Hank (played by Love) is the feisty and protective older girl, and Queenie (Page) her younger, more cautious sibling.

Hank’s sweetheart Eddie Kearns (King) is already in the Big Apple.  He has just sold his song The Broadway Melody to Francis Zanfield, the theatre impresario, and will be performing it at Zanfield’s revue.  Through this connection he gets the sisters an audition with Mr Zanfield to be in the same show.

When the sisters audition, Mr Zanfield selects Queenie but rejects Hank.  However, Queenie secretly persuades him to take Hank too, and he agrees to spare Hank’s feelings by not revealing that he did not choose her outright.

Will the sisters make it on Broadway?  Will Hank prove Mr Zanfield wrong?  And will Eddie stay true to Hank now that he has met her beautiful younger sister?

Talking Singing Dancing!

Yes: but – all at the same time?

The Broadway Melody opens with an aerial view of Manhattan, the camera panning the skyscrapers while the film’s main theme segues promisingly into the old classic, Give My Regards to Broadway.  Then the camera swoops down to Scene 1: a music publisher’s office.

The Broadway Melody - opening

Remember me to Herald Square!

The camera initially cuts between various musicians and performers practising their new material, but then lets them continue simultaneously while Eddie shouts a line of dialogue with another character, over the din.  I found the cacophony almost unbearable, and it was a relief when Eddie gets everyone to hush so that he can introduce his song, The Broadway Melody.

After he’s sung it, Eddie makes an oh-so knowing reference to Give My Regards to Broadway‘s composer George M Cohan: “If you want a song, see Georgie Cohan.  He writes good music too!” 

Oh, Eddie.  Such a wag!  It’s not the only occasion where I was cruelly tantalised by references to the era’s fabled songwriters – “We know…Gershwin and Irving Berlin” the sisters trill during their duet, before dashing my hopes lower than the chorus girls’ necklines.

This was the golden age of American song-writing.  Gershwin and Irving Berlin are just two of many Tin Pan Alley alumni that could have been mentioned: Jerome Kern, Cole Porter, Rogers and Hart, Dorothy Fields and Oscar Hammerstein II, Harry Warren…In the Twenties and Thirties, these great artists were prolific in producing ever more beautiful and inventive songs about love, life and New York City.

Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, by contrast, seem to have had a painting-by-numbers approach to song-writing.  The music is derivative and unadventurous, but Freed in particular (whatever the great heights he would later scale as a movie musical producer) suffers from terminal triteness.  The title song, The Broadway Melody, is a case in point:

“Don’t bring a frown to old Broadway/You’ve got to clown on Broadway…” Apparently, Broadway is basically your 6th birthday party.

“A million lights they flicker there/A million hearts beat quicker there…” Perhaps he should have added, “Epileptics should take extra care!”

“No skies are grey on the Great White Way/That’s the Broadway Melody…”  The ‘melody’ isn’t even a sound, it’s just a tired metaphor for feeling happy that clashes with the image of electric street lights.

Brown and Freed have taken some of the swagger of Give My Regards to Broadway (1904), the romantic possibility of Manhattan (1925), and the notion from both of referencing New York and its landmarks; but with none of the insight, wit or originality of either.  While GMRTB is a role-call of favourite haunts, and Manhattan an ironic tribute to the city’s low-lights, The Broadway Melody says absolutely nothing about either the place’s unique atmosphere or the modern urban experience, and bears no relevance whatsoever to anything in the film’s story.  Lullaby of Broadway (1935) is another famous number that does a wonderful job of making Broadway both the setting and the song, cleverly making music out of the literal noise of the city (“The rumble of the subway train/the rattle of the taxis”), and that’s what I really missed here.

Eddie Broadway Melody

“Broadway, Broadway/Melody, Melody.
Broadway/Melody
That’s the Broadway Melody, yeah!”

Sadly however, this inane ditty is probably the soundtrack’s highlight.  If the sisters’ duet, “We’re two harmony babies, from Melody Lane” doesn’t have you vomiting into your cloche hat, the main love song, You were meant for me/I was meant for you” certainly will.

At the time it was a huge hit, in that inexplicable way that banal and bathetic love songs often are, and was most famously featured in Brown and Freed’s best-known work, the peerless Singin’ in the Rain.  The screenplay was written around their songs, including You Were Meant For Me and The Broadway Melody. (The latter is the centre piece of the movie musical that Kelly’s character pitches to the studio.)  Gene Kelly sings You Were Meant For Me to Debbie Reynolds in a scene which brilliantly layers cliché upon cliché, virtually “de-clichéing” the song through metadrama:  Kelly’s character says he can’t find the right words to express his feelings without the proper setting, and leads Reynolds onto a film set before switching on lights and a wind machine for romantic effect.  It’s the perfect deliberately phoney setting for lines like “I’m content/The angels must have sent you”, and the lush orchestration matches the backdrop.  

Singin in the rain

“Could you take a look at the guttering while you’re up there?”

But sung by Eddie without any warning to Queenie in her apartment, it’s just a bad chat-up line.

Anita Page and Charles King

“Get your coat love, you’ve pulled”

Without the ballast of Betty Comden and Adolph Green’s wonderful script and story, the songs are exposed in all their weakness.

(Also, Gene Kelly could sing Baa Baa Black Sheep and make you fall in love with him).

Production – Acorn Antiques style

After the photographic innovations in Wings, The Broadway Melody is striking in its lack of invention.  Entire scenes appear to be shot in one take, from the same camera: apart from the occasional close-up, and some terrible messy editing, there is little to distinguish the film from a recording of a stage play.  I don’t just mean the scenes that are set on stage – the Zanfield Revue productions – but all of them.  In several scenes, each shot is a couple of seconds too long, so that the actors seem to lose pace and trail off in a self-conscious improvisation.   There’s an impromptu dance number with the three main characters, and Anita Page has her back to the camera for the whole routine.

The choreography in the Revue numbers is as good as you’d expect from routines most probably lifted from the Ziegfeld Follies themselves.  However, it achieves no more than the kind of choreography achievable on stage.  You can see that it wouldn’t be a very big step to move from these to the kind of dance routines that Busby Berkeley would devise which exploited the medium so well, and it’s a step you wish they’d taken.

The amateurish feel is not enhanced by the intertitles, which pop up before each new setting to explain where the action is taking place, in the manner of Law and Order.  They are wholly unnecessary and cut right into the action.  Even worse, some of them are actually wobbly, as if the card is being held up by a shaky pair of hands.  I know that a silent version of the film was released (for those cinemas that did not yet have the talkie equipment) – maybe the titles stem from that?  Or maybe the film-makers were still experimenting with the transition from silent to talkie (any answers in the comments please!).  Whatever the reason, they don’t help.

Having had these impressions, I was tickled to find this review from 1929, in which a Guardian journalist lambasts the Talkies generally.  The reviewer complains of the “inability of writers, directors and actors to adjust themselves to the new technique.  Their first response has been to reproduce stage drama word for word and gesture for gesture.  It ought to be obvious that this is not the final function of the talking screen.  The stage is what it is because it has limitations which it cannot transcend…For the dialog film to discard all the natural advantages in technique which the cinema has acquired in a quarter of a century would be absurd.”

(Quoted from the Manchester Guardian in The Literary Digest for July 13, 1929, ‘A British Jab at our “Talkies”‘).

Another dodgy DVD

Although The Broadway Melody is not mentioned explicitly, the reviewer may well have had it in mind!

In contrast to the fancy Blu-ray version of Wings that was released, the DVD of The Broadway Melody that I ordered from Amazon is a pretty low quality import from Korea, with some of the singing and dialogue barely audible.  I don’t know if this is the DVD release itself or the original movie – the infamous scene from Singin’ in the Rain where Lina Lamont keeps going out of range of the microphone springs to mind!

According to Wikipedia, the original film featured a two-colour Technicolor sequence, in red and green; however “no known colour prints survive”. I’m not really sorry about this, because – red and green?  And I suppose they might turn up in Nigeria one day.

The Mahoney Sisters – worth watching for

So there is much that is wrong with this film, which technically has regressed quite considerably from the achievements in Wings.  But that’s not to say I don’t think it is worth watching.  If the focus of Wings is the “bromance” between two brothers-in-arms, I find it rather pleasing that The Broadway Melody majors on a sisterly relationship.

Soon after introducing his song on Tin Pan Alley, Eddie has to dash off to meet Hank and Queenie, who have just arrived in town.   Charles King may have been given top billing, but these two women drive the story and the pace doesn’t pick up until they arrive on screen.

We quickly learn that the girls have enjoyed comparative success touring the provinces with their vaudeville act, but they are poor and their living standards low.  Energetic Hank is brimming with optimism and Big Ideas, certain that with Eddie’s help they can finally make it big; she reassures and cajoles Queenie, who is timid and not convinced that coming to New York was wise.  We also learn that Hank has been putting off Eddie’s marriage proposals out of compassion for Queenie, believing her priority should be to take care of her younger sister.

Love and Page, The Broadway Melody

The irony is that it is in fact Queenie who spends most of the film protecting her older sister Hank, first from finding out that Zanfield only wanted Queenie and not Hank, and then from finding out that Eddie is in love with Queenie and not Hank.  Both sisters act with the noblest of intentions, each in her own way sacrificing herself for the other, until the climax when the truth must prevail.  As The Coral Island is to Lord of the Flies, so The Broadway Melody is to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

TBM love triangle

Although rather heavy-handed, for me their relationship is the only aspect of the film with any real substance.  The relationship between Eddie and Queenie doesn’t satisfy, because hardly anything in Eddie’s behaviour makes you believe his intentions are any purer than those of his wealthy rival for Queenie’s affections, Jacques Warriner (reputedly a thinly veiled reference to the real life Jack Warner).  “Thanks for being so nice to me,” Queenie says to Warriner after he has presented her with an enormous birthday bouquet.  Had Eddie been wealthy and not attached to Queenie’s sister, I couldn’t help but think he would have been just as likely to give Warriner’s slimy response, “Not half so nice as I’d like to be.”

The feisty one vs the pretty one

While Bessie Love is petite and fine-featured, Anita Page is tall, wide-eyed and sultry; blowsily gorgeous with bad posture and the sort of scruffy blonde bob that, unfortunately, is somewhat Myra Hindley-adjacent to modern eyes (The more I look at photos of it, the more I just want to run a comb through it – although it’s not as bad as Clara Bow’s hideous bob in Wings).  Page was the big sex symbol of the day, so an obvious casting choice as the sister that would turn Eddie’s head.  However, while this is believable enough, for most of the film their relationship seems to consist either of them both concealing their feelings from Hank so well that they appear not to exist, or of Eddie cracking onto Queenie while she makes a big show of resisting out of love for Hank.

Much of the action in the second part of the film centres around Queenie’s attempts to distract herself from Eddie by accepting Warriner’s smarmy overtures (smovertures?).  However, Anita Page can’t act, and her battle with her feelings for Eddie and faked rebellion against Hank’s disapproval of Warriner, come off as hammy and ludicrous.  It is Hank who is the real heart of the film.

Bessie Love had been a successful silent actress, making her debut during the First World War after having started her career as a Ziegfeld Follies girl (which explains why unlike Page, she did all her own dancing in the film).  She was deservedly nominated for a Best Actress Oscar for her performance as Hank (she lost out to Mary Pickford in Coquette), proving that not all silent movie stars struggled to adapt to the new medium.  I was so impressed by her performance, I sincerely wonder why I had never heard of her before.  She was marvellous!

As “the little clucky one” (as Zanfield describes her), in the first half of the film she mixes a breathless optimism with fiery ambition, determined to make it for herself and her sister.  In the second half of the film, she mostly Worried About Queenie, while coming to terms with the fact that the sisters’ Broadway career is not going quite to plan.

Bessie Love and Anita Page

“It’s alright dear, we’ll find your hairbrush eventually”

As character arcs go, it is not subtle; but then Love can only work with what she’s given.

Bessie Love

This might just be the best photo ever

The contrast between Hank at the start of the film and Hank at the very end is a poignant one.  I had the feeling I was supposed to care a lot more about Queenie than I actually did, but Queenie’s character development from shy young girl to lovebird seems to be via a series of teenage temper tantrums.  Love had me rooting for Hank from start to finish.

Showbiz red in tooth and kell-aw

“Zanfield” is a barely-disguised reference to Ziegfeld, the impresario of Ziegfeld Follies fame, and the shows at the Zanfield Revue are as opulent as the real-life Ziegfeld shows reputedly were.  After the wartime austerity of Wings, I enjoyed the ravishing costumes and decadent sets; I loved this fabulous art deco set for example, which lends itself so well to black and white:

The Broadway Melody

The film was criticised at the time for relying on tired clichés to depict the theatrical world, but I was still surprised at quite how unflattering the portrayal is.  There are the usual petty jealousies: A bitchy chorus girl sabotages the girls’ audition; catfights break out in the chorus.  The stage hands are gruff and  impatient, viewing the performers as hindrances to their work.  When the effete costume designer complains that the chorus girls are damaging their hats squeezing through the doorway, he is instantly scolded by the matronly wardrobe mistress as she towers over him.

“I told you [the hats] were too high and too wide!”

“Well big woman, I design the costumes for the show, not the doors for the theatre!”

“I know that! If you had, they’d have been done in lavender.”

Miaow!  (As an aside, let us note that it is the second Best Picture winner in a row to depict homosexuality in the background).  By the time the chorus girls are called to the stage, the frankly terrifying wardrobe mistress is in full Miss Trunchbull mode, actually smacking the girls bottoms to hurry them along.  Once on stage, the hitherto affable Eddie morphs into a petulant leading man.  “Did you hear that, Mr Zanfield?  They trying to drown me out!” he brays, shaking his cane at the conductor.  “Are you trying to drown him out?” enquires Zanfield of the conductor, who retorts, “We’re doing our best!”

But beneath these stereotypes is a more disturbing undercurrent.

During a dress rehearsal featuring a tableau vivant of “The Love Boat”(think Windmill Theatre but with marginally more clothes), the chorus girl whose role is to stand stock still on top of the ship’s prow, faints and falls off.  She may die of her injuries for all we are ever told; the focus in the movie immediately shifts to who will replace her.  Queenie is grabbed, both metaphorically and literally: a stage hand immediately starts pulling her clothes off despite her protests, to get her changed into the scanty ship’s prow outfit.  She wants neither the role (a step down from the song and dance act in the sisters’ eyes) nor the man-handling.  “But I’ve never taken my clothes off in my life before!” she wails, distraught; but she is pushed into doing it anyway, while the Mahoney sister act is cut.

Francis Zanfield is respectfully depicted as an avuncular business man, rather than the predatory creep that Florenz Ziegfeld obviously was.  But that aside, the film does not sugar-coat the sordid reality that the girls in the show are exploited, and irrespective of hard work and talent, are effectively at the mercy of the libido of the theatre’s rich patrons.  I realise this is not news, but I was surprised at how open the film was in depicting said libido.   I was even more surprised that the main female characters are visibly uncomfortable with the exploitation, and even try to rebel against it (given that sexism was presumably taken for granted in 1929).

Queenie’s feelings at the point she is hustled out of her clothes are not fully explored; the next thing you know, she is up on stage, beaming away as the Lady of the Boat while Eddie, and Zanfield’s rich crony Warriner look on admiringly.  The sister act is in tatters, and Hank is made to look horribly naive.  Meanwhile, Queenie is an instant hit and despite her initial misgivings, enjoys her sudden success.

The respective reactions of Eddie and Hank illustrate the sexual politics perfectly:

Eddie: What’s the matter, Hank?  Aren’t you happy? Wasn’t Queenie great?  Aren’t you proud of her?

Hank: Oh, of course Eddie.  I’m glad to see her made good.  Oh but gee, we ain’t never had to get by on our legs before!

Eddie: Aw, that don’t mean nothing Hank!  Those guys aren’t gonna pay ten bucks to look at your face!  This is Broadway!

Hank: Yeah, Broad’s Way.

Eddie: [laughs as Hank looks tearful] Oh, now run along and change.  I’ll get Queenie.  Attagirl!

An evolutionary microcosm of entertainment

This film is clearly flawed both as a movie and a musical, and a dance to The Broadway Melody would probably go, A-one step forward and A-two steps back… But besides the exploration of the Mahoneys’ relationship and the standout performance from Bessie Love, The Broadway Melody captures a fascinating collision of popular entertainment forms from past, present and future in a way that would never be repeated – except self-consciously in Singin’ in the Rain.  The waning vaudeville tradition, typified by the sister act and given prominence by the casting of vaudevillian Charles King, meets the comparatively short-lived Ziegfeld Follies, which themselves grew in part out of vaudeville.  Both forms meet the recent stage musical, meets the Hollywood talkie and the future of entertainment…that’s The Broadway Melody.

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2 thoughts on “2. The Broadway Melody – A-One Step Forward and A-Two Steps Back

  1. Pingback: 3. All Quiet on the Western Front – The Talkies Fight Back | As Time Goes By...

  2. Pingback: 4. Cimarron – Help, Superman, the wheels are coming off | As Time Goes By...

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