Musical Monday: The Broadway Melody (1929)

It’s no secret that the Hollywood Comet loves musicals.
In 2010, I revealed I had seen 400 movie musicals over the course of eight years. Now that number is over 500. To celebrate and share this musical love, here is my weekly feature about musicals.

This week’s musical:
The Broadway Melody” (1929)– Musical #121

Studio:
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Director:
Harry Beaumont

Starring:
Anita Page, Bessie Love, Charles King, James Gleason (uncredited), Carla Laemmle (uncredited), Mary Doran (uncredited), Jed Prouty (uncredited), Eddie Kane (uncredited), Kenneth Thomson (uncredited)

Plot:
Sisters Queenie (Page) and Hank (Love) travel from the Midwest to New York with dreams of making it big on Broadway, where Hank’s boyfriend Eddie (King) is now progressing in his career. When the sisters try out for producer Francis Zanfield (Kane), he (and everyone else) is more interested in beautiful Queenie than Hank, which causes a rift in the sisters.

Trivia:
-“Broadway Melody” was MGM’s first all-sound picture. Promoted “All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!”
-The first of the “Broadway Melody” series. The plots aren’t connected but the others were “Broadway Melody of 1936,” “Broadway Melody of 1938” and “Broadway Melody of 1940.”
-“The Wedding of the Painted Doll” was originally filmed in two-color Technicolor
-“Two Girls on Broadway” (1940) was a loose remake of this film.
-First musical and first sound picture to win the Academy Award for Best Picture
-Music was written by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed. Freed went on to be a big musical producer at MGM and Brown married and actress Anita Page in 1934.

Anita Page, Bessie Love and Charles King in “Broadway Melody” (1929)

Awards and Nominations:
-Won the Academy Award for Best Picture

Highlights:
-Overheard shots of New York at the start of the film

Notable Songs:
-“Broadway Melody” performed by Charles King
-“You Were Meant for Me” performed by Charles King
-“The Boyfriend” performed by Anita Page and Bessie Love
-“The Wedding of the Painted Doll” performed by James Burrows (off-screen)

My review:
When it comes to the dawn of sound in motion pictures, “The Jazz Singer” (1927) starring Al Jolson is often cited. The Warner Brothers film was the first feature-length sound film with a synchronized score.

And as Jolson said in the film “you ain’t seen nothin’ yet” when it came to what else films had to bring. Following “The Jazz Singer,” the other studios scrambled to start this new talking film “fad.”

And what Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer had to offer is now considered the great-granddaddy of the movie musical: “Broadway Melody” (1929).

Not only was “Broadway Melody” MGM’s first musical, it was also their first full-length talking picture. Advertised as “All Talking, All Singing, All Dancing,” MGM wasn’t sure if audiences would like musicals, so MGM studio executive Irving Thalberg said the film was shot as cheaply and quickly to save money if it failed. But it didn’t fail.

Bessie Love and Anita Page play sisters in “Broadway Melody”

Motion Picture News reporter and critic Edwin Schallert wrote that the film would revolutionize talkies, which it did and started the trend of musicals.

The story type is one that was patterned and reused for the next 30 years: behind the rehearsals of a new Broadway show, we see backstage romances, dilemmas and catfights among the cast. Humorously, the producer of the show is Francis Zanfield, which I’m guessing is a play on the producer and impresario Flo Ziegfeld.

The plot isn’t terribly interesting and feels old hat after watching other musicals over the years with a similar storyline. However, while watching I had to remind myself how it must have felt to see this movie for the first time in 1929. While improvements would be coming in the near future in the early 1930s, this is still pretty impressive from a technological standpoint.

The songs are also great, and familiar, if you are a fan of “Singin’ in the Rain” (1951), where they later were reused.

The songwriters, Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown convinced Irving Thalberg to let them write the music, which included “Broadway Melody” and “You Were Meant for Me.” When the film was successful, Thalberg used them again in “Hollywood Revue of 1929,” and they wrote “Singin’ in the Rain.”

The songs are all memorable and hummable, and they should be. The title song, “Broadway Melody” is performed at least five times throughout the film – whether it’s performed by Charles King or played instrumentally.

The only real problem with the film is the staging of the numbers, most notably “The Wedding of the Painted Doll.” The numbers were filmed looking straight at the stage, as if they were being performed on Broadway, so some of the action is lost on the sides of the stage and it’s not very interesting to watch (Busby Berkley was innovative in this area a few years later).

“The Wedding of the Painted Doll” also is a very busy number. During one part, a minister is singing and dancing, there are men in tuxedos flipping around dancing girls, behind them there are ballet dancers pirouetting, and behind them are dancing girls on stairs. At one point, the minister runs by and you know he is dancing his heart out in stage left (you see a whoosh of a leg at one point) but he’s not on screen. I felt sorry for the guy.

I can’t call “Broadway Melody” (1929) my favorite musical. But I respect it for its history. And from this musical spawned the “Broadway Melody” series which I love! To fully appreciate how far musicals came just by 1933, take a look at “Broadway Melody.”

Love musicals? Want to learn more about musicals? Enroll in Turner Classic Movie’s Mad About Musicals online class through Ball State University!

Check out the Comet Over Hollywood Facebook page, follow on Twitter at @HollywoodComet or e-mail at cometoverhollywood@gmail.com

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