Sunday, March 21, 2010

The Broadway Melody of 1929

"100% All Talking! 100% All Singing! 100% All Dancing!"
-Publicity Slogan for The Broadway Melody of 1929
Much as I'd like to pick a quote from the movie itself, I thought this slogan best fit this 2nd winner for "Best Picture."  While I was thrilled to at last have some sound, the movie serves better as a history piece than anything else.  It's clear that movie studios were so thrilled to have sound, it didn't really matter too much if people could sing, or act, or if the movie had any real plot at all.  Not a complete waste, though.  I did enjoy myself.  But not something I would watch again any time soon.

The Plot:
The movie opens on a cacophony of sound.  Eddie, played by Charles King, works in a music publishing studio, where several groups are rehearsing and creating their own new songs at the same time. (See movie goers!  Sound!)  Eddie has written a sure hit, The Broadway Melody, and is thrilled to be performing it in producer Frances Zanfield's new show (obvious take on producer Florenz Ziegfeld).  He convinces his fiance and her sister to join him in New York City and be part of his show, giving up their small town tours.  Hank, his fiance played by Bessie Love, is excited to advance their career, but Queenie, her sister played by Anita Paige, is unsure about life in the big city.  But Queenie always listens to her older sister, and Hank convinces her they will be fine.

The sisters audition, but hot-tempered Hank causes Zanfield to ignore her and focus on her sister.  Sweet, beautiful Queenie begs the producer to take them both, however, but to never tell Hank this.  Eddie overhears, and realizes he is falling in love with Queenie, while he regards short, spunky Hank as more of a friend.  Queenie ends up reluctantly getting more of the show's spotlight, while Hank gets pushed out a few numbers.  At the same time, Queenie realizes that Eddie loves her, and that she might have feelings for him.  Terrified at hurting Hank, she quarrels with them both and goes out with Jock Warriner, a "Stage-Door-Johnnie" that they both disapprove of.

The weeks pass and Queenie consistently quarrels with both Hank and Eddie over Jock Warriner, who is showering the lovely Queenie with presents.  Hank is distraught, having never fought with her sister before.  Eddie is angry, as he cannot fight Jock for Queenie the way he wants to.  On Queenie's birthday, Eddie sings a song he wrote for her, You Were Meant for Me, and confesses, again his feelings.  They almost kiss when Hank walks in.  Queenie angrily pushes him away, claiming that no one will stop her from seeing Jock.  Queenie goes to a lavish birthday party thrown for her by Jock instead of staying home at the party thrown for her by her friends and family.  Hank, distraught and confused, decides that maybe she will just marry Eddie and leave show business for good.  She cries, telling Eddie he is the one good thing left in her life just as he is about to confess everything.

It is one of the last shows.  Tensions are running high, and Queenie is threatening to take Jock up on his offer to live alone in an apartment he has bought for her.  She doesn't really want to date him, and knows he will never marry her, but she cannot be around Eddie without hurting her sister.  Hank, upon hearing that Queenie is planning on moving, begs her not to go.  Eddie comes into their dressing room and grabs Queenie telling her not to go.  She leaves anyway, but Hank has seen enough to know that Eddie is really in love with Queenie.  Hank pretends that she was only using Hank to get the job, and calls him a coward for not going after her.  Hank collapses crying after he leaves.  Eddie goes to the apartment and pulls Queenie away from a lechorous Jock, before getting punched and thrown out of the apartment.  Jock sees that Queenie loves Eddie and lets her go to him as the two reconcile and marry. Hank finds another girl to join her and puts on a brave face as she leaves her newly married sister to go back to small town tours.

The History:
In 1929, the Academy attempted to clean up the awards, dropping the "Best Artistic Picture" award, the "Best Engineering" award and the short-lived "Best Title Writing" award.  They also decided not to announce the winners ahead of time.  This time the nominees wouldn’t get scrolls; you either won or went home empty handed.  1929 was a frenetic year in Hollywood.  With the advent of money making talking pictures, everyone was jumping on the bandwagon, and silent movies were a thing of the past.  Unfortunately, the technology was very new, and not everyone really knew how to work it.  The Broadway Melody is perhaps one of the best efforts of the time; newspapers raved at the ability of the director to get the sound equipment into small areas and still allow the actors such mobility.  The Broadway Melody is known as a movie without much plot that won while studios were still confused by new technology.  Most of the films of that year were mediocre, with technology being far more important than other cinematic devices.  While the film has faded into obscurity, it is probably best recognized as the film that was the inspiration for Gene Kelly’s smash hit, Singing in the Rain.

The Verdict?
While the movie might have stunned people at the time, the effect is more comical on audiences today.  There are moments where the actors clearly move away from the sound boom, causing their words to get much quieter.  There are still title cards, almost as though the director can’t help himself, to show changes in time or scene.  It also appears as though the director, Harry Beaumont, is saying, “Look!  Sound!  See, we can hear people sing and talk!”  Every opportunity for the audience to hear sound, and lots of it, is taken.  For example, the opening sequence is filled with different musical acts all playing at once.  What we’re not supposed to notice, however, is that not everyone can sing.  Certainly both of the lead actresses do not have the best voices, and their few warbles are like nails on chalkboard.

This movie is completely harmless, a mildly amusing story of showbiz and love triangles.  What makes it more interesting is the transition it shows between silent films and talking pictures.  The movie is an amalgam of both.  It has the drama of a silent film with the sound of later pictures.  The actors seem confused, the plot is slightly off-kilter, and everyone still seems blown away by the fact that they are speaking to be heard.  It’s clear why no one made it big after this picture.  But it is 1929, the beginning of The Great Depression, and the ushering in of a decade that would change the world in more ways than one.  Mary Pickford, queen of silent film, won an Academy Award for best actress that year for her first (and pretty much last) talking film.  The film, The Coquette, wasn’t very good, and afterwards people grumbled that her win was completely political.  But it marked her way out of films, and the end of an important era.  Films were changing, the world was changing, and Mary Pickford would never be nominated for anything, ever again…
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