AND THE WINNER IS... THE BROADWAY MELODY
Updated: Feb 20
THE FIRST MOVIE MUSICAL
The Broadway Melody was the second film to win Best Picture honors from 1928 and 29. Produced by Irving Thalberg and Lawrence Weingarten, on a budget of $379K, The Broadway Melody was distributed by MGM - becoming a considerable success - returning more than $4.4 million at the box office. The film was directed by Harry Beaumont and written by Sarah Mason, Norman Houston, and James Gleason.
Shot on the MGM lot, the film premiered at Graumann’s Theater on Feburary 1st, 1929.
There was a silent version of the film produced for theaters without sound, and the wedding scene was shot in a two strip red and green technicolor process, though no copy is known to have survived to date.
IS THE FILM WORTHY OF A BEST PICTURE NOD?
The Broadway Melody is the first full length MGM movie musical, though it’s clear that the genre wasn’t quite fully developed yet. This film lacks the craft and pageantry that we’d come to expect from a Louis B. Mayer extravaganza.
The profit margin is the best thing about The Broadway Melody. Although Motion Picture News and L.A. Times, reviewer Edwin Schallert correctly predicted that it would “revolutionize the talkies.”
THE MUSICAL NUMBERS LOOK HIGH SCHOOL
From both a staging and film production standpoint, the numbers aren't quite up to standard. It’s like they hadn’t yet figured out that there was a difference between a musical on film - and one on stage.
Some of that perception may be that from a modern day perspective where we know what’s possible. The film must’ve been impressive in 1928 – at the dawn of the talkies.
IT’S EASY TO SEE WHERE MOVIES ARE HEADED, AND FAST
Within just a few years – 1933 - Warner would release 42nd Street - a visually stunning accomplishment - choreographed by Busby Berkeley - with Ginger Rodgers, Ruby Keeler and Una Merkle, and the movie musical era was underway. The Broadway Melody, is a little flat though by comparison.
THE BROADWAY MELODY HAS SOME ISSUES
There are several problems with The Broadway Melody first -
The audio is bad. It’s an early sound film, and the technology was new, still - but the sound is awful. It did get better as the production progressed, but the crew struggled with it the whole time.
Watching dailies the producers knew there was a problem.
So they went back and redesigned some sets, and moved the orchestra off stage. That all helped, and by the end of principal photography – they were syncing to prerecorded music – a practice still widely in use today. It had to cost a fortune to retool, and redress a film set mid production.
Some of the sound quality issue is due to modern perception. There was s study done some time ago – showing the same film to two groups – one version had bad audio and good visuals, the other had bad visuals and good audio. And the bad audio was perceived to be a bad film – while the bad visuals made little difference in audience perception. It’s ironic that the audio is bad on the first MGM musical - the thing MGM is most known for today.
THE STORY IS FLAT
It’s essentially a backstage musical about a Follies type Broadway production. The producer is un-cleverly named Francis Zanfield – a clear allusion to Broadway impresario Florenz Ziegfeld. The review in The New Yorker said – the Ballet was very pleasant and added...
“Because of that we shall try to forget the dialogue of the play, and that James Gleason ever wanted to take any credit for it.”
James Gleason of course was one of the screenwriters, along with Norman Houston, and Sarah Mason – who was credited as continuity, all based on a story by Edmund Goulding. James Gleason was also an actor. He’s best known as the curmudgeonly newspaper man in the Capra classic Meet John Doe, and as the boxing manager in 1941’s Here Comes Mr. Jordan. A film that would be remade in 1978 as Heaven Can Wait. Edmund Goulding – a British playwright - was an accomplished director who would helm Grand Hotel in 1932 – the fifth film to win Best Picture.
But both writers missed on this one. The story is one dimensional, predictable – and doesn’t hold up today.
NOT JUST A PRODUCT OF ITS TIME
The Broadway Melody, isn’t just dated - which is often the perception. It’s not a very well-developed script for its day. By the time this film came along - Morrie Ryskind and the Gershwin’s had already written Strike Up the Band. George S. Kauffman and Ryskind had written The Cocoanuts, for the Marx Brothers. Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein had written Showboat.
There's no argument to be made that contemporary musicals weren't developed either. Even considering that many musicals are light on plot – this one is weightless.
It’s a story about a guy in love with – and engaged to a girl named Hank – until he meets the her sister – Queenie - but then everybody’s in love with Queenie.
I won’t spoil the ending – just say it’s not very satisfying from the standpoint of the characters, or the audience, and it’s certainly not the ending we’ve come to expect from an MGM musical.
AND... THEN THERE’S THE MUSIC
Six of the seven songs were written by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed.
Freed clearly had talent. He would - in the coming years - produce two Best Picture winning musicals – An American In Paris and Gigi. He and Nacio Herb Brown also wrote the score for Singing In The Rain, so we know they had some game.
While the title song "A Broadway Melody” is a pretty good song, it feels as if it were just dumped into the film. In fact the whole story feels like a bunch of songs were dumped on top of some dialogue. Even for a backstage musical – where you expect to find diegetic numbers - that are being staged as part of the story.
Songs are supposed to do something otherwise impossible on stage or screen. They take us inside the characters thoughts and emotions. In a novel the author can – and often does - write entire chapters on what a character is feeling or thinking. That inner voice in their heads. In movies and theater though, we can only reveal things by what dialogue the actors speak, or what actions they carry out on stage or screen.
HOW MUSICALS WORK
Songs in a musical – are supposed to be how we enter the emotional and intellectual lives of the characters. They take us behind the proverbial curtain, to reveal that inner voice.
The legendary choreographer Bob Fosse said there were only three types of songs in a musical: "I Am" songs – introducing a character/situation,
Think, “I’m Just a Girl Who Can’t Say No,” from Oklahoma. The song tells us exactly who the character is – a girl who can’t say no.
Then there are "I Want" songs – revealing desire and motivation.
Think “Wouldn’t it be Loverly” in My Fair Lady – or “Matchmaker,” and “If I Were a Rich Man” – from Fiddler on the Roof. These characters want to be accepted as in – “Loverly" - a romance “Matchmaker,” - or more money - “Rich Man.” We learn a lot about the characters and their motivations from “I Want” songs.
Then there are "New songs" – songs that do not fit the other types. Usually comedy songs, or songs placed to be hits on their own.
Sometimes songs fall into multiple categories. The obvious one is the hit “Let It Go” from “Frozen” – an octuple platinum record in the U.S., which - while a huge hit as a song - it also serves as an I want song – revealing Elsa’s desire to change.
Unfortunately The Broadway Melody has none of those songs. With the exception of the title track – the songs aren’t that interesting.
“Boyfriend,” is almost embarrassingly mawkish.
There’s "Truthful Deacon Brown" the one song Freed and Brown didn’t write, and it has to be the whitest blues song ever recorded. You can hear W. C. Handy’s chord changes from “Memphis Blues” – but there’s no sense of the blues at all.
None of the seven songs in The BroadWay Melody, further the audience understanding of plot, or character, nor do they provide exposition or theme.
All in - the film is a swing - and a miss.
THE STARS OF “THE BROADWAY MELODY”
The film starred – Bessie Love, Anita Page, Charles King and Kenneth Thompson.
Bessie Love - a British American Actress – played Harriet Mahoney – called “Hank” in the film. She got a best actress nomination for the role. Love’s career spanned 80 years of film, radio and TV. Her first role coming in 1915 - and her final role in Tony Scott’s The Hunger in 1983. She appeared in Warren Beatty’s Reds - Lost World – The Barefoot Contessa and Best Picture Nominee – Ragtime.” She was even in a Bond Film – the original On Her Majesty’s Secret Service.
Anita Page - played the role of Hank’s sister Queenie.
Page is another actor with a long career. Born in Queens New York, she was known throughout the silent film era as the most beautiful face in Hollywood, and as the blonde blue-eyed Latin.
Her first screen role was in 1925. She retired in 1936 – returned to acting in the sixties - retired again - then returned once more. Her final screen role was as Elizabeth Frankenstein in 2010’s Frankenstein Rising. Page died in 2008 before her final film was released. She was the last living attendee of the first Academy Awards ceremony.
Charles King – played the love interest Eddie Kerns in the film.
King - a singer and actor started out in Vaudeville working his way up to Broadway – most notably in George White’s Scandals throughout the 20s.
His film debut was The Broadway Melody – introducing the title song.
He introduced the song "Happy Days Are Here Again," in the 1930 film Chasing Rainbows – but MGM dropped his contract, and King returned to Broadway where he starred in the works of Kaufman and Hart, Rodgers and Hart, and more.
His final Broadway role was in the 1940-42 run of a Cole Porter musical Panama Hattie. It also starred, Ethel Merman, Betty Hutton, and June Allyson.
Charles King died in London 1944 – while on a USO tour. He was 57.
Kenneth Thomson – plays Jacques Warriner – in a role that can only be described as a walking - talking “me too” movement. It’s an unfortunate role by today’s standards, but common place at the time.
Thomson, was born in Pittsburg 1899. He served in the Marine Corp on the USS Fredrick during the First World War. He started out in silent films and was one of the lucky ones able to make the transition to sound pictures. His mother - a concert manager – was widowed when Kenneth was seven. He worked for her, and he worked in the copy department at the “Pittsburg Leader” newspaper as a boy. After the war – he returned to school and graduated from the Drama School at what is now Carnegie Mellon University, one of the premier drama schools in the nation.
He and his wife Alden Gay were founding members of SAG the Screen Actors Guild, and though he was only in movies for 12 years, he appeared in over 60 films.
His last film was in 1937. He died thirty years later in 1967.
There were several remakes including Broadway Melody of 1936 – 38 – 40. There was a planned production in 1942, with Gene Kelly and Eleanor Powell, that got canceled when Kelly was loaned to Harry Cohn’s Columbia to make Cover Girl. That may have broken the spell, because Broadway Melody of 1944 was renamed “Broadway Rhythm” becoming the last of the franchise.
All of the remakes are head and shoulders better than the original.
A PLACE IN HISTORY
The Broadway Melody deserves credit as the first movie musical. It kicked off a genre that would dominate filmmaking for the next four decades, and is still prevalent today – La La Land, was nominated in 2016, and Steven Spielberg’s remake of West Side Story was nominated in 2021. The best thing that can be said about The Broadway Melody today - is that it returned an enormous profit for MGM. $1.6 million on its original run, and more than $4 million since. That’s a success by any standard, and the innovation of seeing the first MGM musical is likely what earned it a Best Picture win.
Unfortunately, the film that is also rated at the bottom of most every list of Best Picture winners.
Bottom line – the 1929 version of The Broadway Melody, is worth a watch – just for its historical aspects, but film hasn’t held up over time. Watch the remakes - they’re much better.