The Good: Historical value, Moments of song/plot/character
The Bad: Acting is almost homogeneously bad, Characters make little sense/are unlikable, Editing, Light on plot
The Basics: An early film about people trying to make it on Broadway while love rears its problematic head, The Broadway Melody is an awkward film that has unlikable characters.
For virtually every milestone that comes from being first there is the honest acknowledgment that if the one that made it there first hadn't done it, someone else would have. There is inherent value to enterprise, but simply being first wins no points with me. So, for example, my distaste of The Book of Margery Kempe is not lessened simply because it is generally credited as the first autobiography written in English. If she hadn't done it, someone else (hopefully a better writer!) would have. Similarly, The Broadway Melody was the first all-talking musical feature and the longer the movie went on I considered "if Harry Beaumont hadn't done it, someone else would." Frankly, the longer I consider this old movie that spawned almost a dozen sequels, the more I think cinema would have been better off if the writers had developed to meet the demands of "talkies" before the technology was there.
I say this not because there are not any enjoyable moments in The Broadway Melody (otherwise known as The Broadway Melody of 1929), but because this is essentially a soap opera and unfortunately it has many of the weaknesses of a soap opera, including shallow characters, quick turns of the storyline and terrible production values. The Broadway Melody is less the beginning of a serial or series and more a melodrama that is spliced poorly together using performers from the silent movie days who might not have been ideal for the talking pictures.
Eddie Kearns, a writer and performer for productions on Broadway comes up with a song that he is convinced will make him even more of a star and will help him launch the career of the Mahoney Sisters. Hank and Queenie Mahoney arrive in Manhattan to try to make it big and Hank's fiance, Eddie, promises them they have a place in an upcoming production where his "Broadway melody" will be performed. While Eddie tries to get the sisters work through his boss, Mr. Zanfield, he finds himself attracted to Queenie.
As Queenie and the more boisterous Hank attempt to get and keep their jobs on stage, Queenie finds herself the object of the wealthy Jacques Warriner. As "Jock" attempts to woo Queenie, Hank gets into tousles with costars and Eddie tries to keep himself interested in her. Soon, though, Hank's lust for Queenie becomes undeniable and he tries to woo her, sending her into a more rebellious streak and damaging her relationship with Hank.
To its credit, The Broadway Melody captures a time and place very well. This is Manhattan in the Roaring Twenties, complete with flappers, women smoking, and everyone believing the best is yet to come with opportunities right around every corner. It is, honestly, refreshing to watch a film like The Broadway Melody as a person who despises the Hollywood ideals of beauty. This film captures women who look like women; the dancers in the chorus lines have legs to them and they are women of substance, not stickfigures! Sadly, these benefits do not outweigh the detractions of this film by any means.
Starting to list where the film goes wrong could begin with the authenticity to the time and place, where one of the female characters uses "Jew" as an insult. Rather enlightened, though, The Broadway Melody depicts gays in New York theater with no real sense of homophobia. Gays here simply are, much the way it does not seem odd to either of the sisters to strip and bathe in front of one another. Still, The Broadway Melody is pretty family-friendly, though I suspect younger people will be quite bored with it.
What isn't boring is almost laughable, from the editing to the unending sense of repetition throughout the movie. The theme that Eddie comes up with in the opening scene is played at least twice more in its entirety throughout the movie and The Broadway Melody is far less a musical than it is a movie about musicals. To be more clear, characters do not sing all their lines to one another in this movie, but there is music and the camera stays on leads for musical dance numbers they perform as part of their association with Broadway theater. The characters play characters in musicals and only sing when they are performing.
The print for the DVD looks great, which is where the editing seems even more troublesome. The Broadway Melody is marred by bad cuts and noticeably missing frames at points and the sense of movement is not as smooth as a result. There is some irony to the obvious bad editing when there are points where the film could seriously have used an alternate take. Prominent among these is a joke near the very beginning told by Hank to her stuttering uncle Jed where Bessie Love's delivery is flat and her presentation of the line is broken at the wrong time. As a result, the joke falls flat and the viewer is left wondering if these silent movie stars who worked on The Broadway Melody were just high school actors who just got very lucky.
To be fair to the performers, the characters in The Broadway Melody are almost homogeneously unlikable, so it is not like the actors have a lot to work with. Eddie is pretty sleazy with the way he dumps Hank for her hotter younger sister (we know she's more attractive because Hank constantly tells her that Queenie has the look and Hank has the talent of the two; they are virtually identical as far as appearance goes to those of us watching) and Hank happily uses anyone who will let her. Queenie retains her sense of self and naivete throughout Mr. Warriner pursuing her, which only makes her reversal at the end even more dumfounding.
Finally, The Broadway Melody suffers because the plot is almost nonexistent and the conflicts are often more melodramatic than real. Hank pushes her way into situations, Queenie smoothes them over, Eddie tries to get with Queenie while he is still engaged to Hank, the plots are simple and their resolutions are simple. So most of the movie is simply waiting between song and dance numbers for the characters to deliver their direct lines about how simple the situation is.
On DVD The Broadway Melody comes with a pretty frightening "The Dogway Melody" where the movie is remade with dogs (and they do not look happy!). As well, there is a featurette on the making of the movie and the original theatrical trailers. These are not enough to make the source material better nor make it worth watching, much less buying.
[As a winner of the Best Picture Oscar, this film is part of W.L.'s Best Picture Project, which is available by clicking here! Please check it out!]
For other works concerned with performance or theatrics, please check out my reviews of:
30 Rock - Season 3
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© 2009, 2010 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.