In Defense of The Broadway Melody (1929)

I don’t think any Best Picture winner gets a bad rap more than The Broadway Melody.  And, to an extent, I do agree with it.  I don’t think the story is particularly great.  The premise is pretty basic: two sister vaudevillians move to New York to be in a new show, success drives a wedge between the sisters, drama ensues.  If you want to see some backstage drama, things like All About Eve and 42nd Street would go on to do a far better job.  The acting’s alright, I liked both Bessie Love and Anita Page.  But the thing is, I actually quite like The Broadway Melody.

Even though I admit it’s not the greatest movie in the world, there’s a certain charm to it I find endearing.  I love how everyone in this movie seems enthusiastic about being part of this movie, they’re excited to be part of the first all-talkie musical.  Of course, I love musical numbers and whenever I see this movie, I have to stop what I’m doing for the Broadway Melody number.  It’s certainly no Busby Berkeley, Gene Kelly, or Fred and Ginger number, but it’s that charm that I just like.  It’s so 20s, I love that deco stage set.

(Sorry, that was the best clip I could find.)

A lot of people call this movie dated, and there’s no denying that this movie was definitely made in the 1920s.  But on the other hand, I watch it and know it was made in the 20s the same way I watch Mildred Pierce and know it was made in the 40s and most people don’t call Mildred Pierce dated.

By far, I think The Broadway Melody is most underrated in terms of how groundbreaking it was.  If you try to talk to somebody about landmark or groundbreaking movies, you’ll hear things like The Jazz Singer, Citizen Kane, and Gone With the Wind.  Nobody ever seems to mention The Broadway Melody, even though it invented a whole genre of film and pioneered techniques that are still in use today.  As I mentioned earlier, it was the first all-talkie musical.  The Jazz Singer came out before The Broadway Melody, but it’s just a silent film with musical scenes.  The Broadway Melody was a very experimental movie that came about after MGM’s production chief Irving Thalberg spoke to a theater owner who told him that the problem with talkies was that they had too much talk.  So the idea of doing a talkie with musical numbers to break up the talk was born.  Thalberg had no idea if audiences would even like the idea of a musical movie, so he put The Broadway Melody together as quickly and as cheaply as possible.  It was a gamble that paid off because it went on to be one of the most popular movies of 1929 and was the first talkie to win Best Picture at the Oscars.

Talkies were so new when The Broadway Melody was in production that some techniques had to be invented as they went along.  When they were filming musical numbers, they started out having musicians play the music on set while they filmed.  But at one point, The Wedding of the Painted Doll number had to be re-shot and sound engineer Douglas Shearer (brother of Norma Shearer) suggested that instead of re-hiring the musicians, they could save money by just playing back the sound recording they already had and combining the audio with the new footage later.  This technique proved extremely successful and has been used in everything from musical films to music videos.

The Broadway Melody is also the first film that Arthur Freed worked on.  If you’re a fan of classic musicals, there’s no way for you to not know Arthur Freed.  He’s the guy who gave us classic musicals such as: Babes in Arms, Strike up the Band, Meet Me in St. Louis, Easter Parade, On the Town, Cabin in the Sky, It’s Always Fair Weather, The Band Wagon, For Me and My Gal, An American in Paris, The Barkleys of Broadway, and of course Singin’ in the Rain.  And that’s just naming a few.  In fact, some of the songs from The Broadway Melody are probably best remembered for being featured in Singin’ in the Rain (Wedding of the Painted Doll, You Were Meant for Me, and The Broadway Melody).

I have mixed feelings about The Broadway Melody being a Best Picture winner because it truly wasn’t the best movie of 1929.  In my post about the 2010 Academy Award nominations, I referred to 1929 as the year the Academy was just really geeked up about talkies.  I say that because there was stuff like The Broadway Melody and The Hollywood Revue of 1929 nominated for Best Picture while several far stronger silent films like Buster Keaton’s Steamboat Bill, Jr. and Lillian Gish’s The Wind were not.  But at the same time, The Broadway Melody is often overlooked in terms of its importance even with its Best Picture win.  If it hadn’t won, I’m pretty sure it would be even more forgotten today than it already is.  So if that Oscar win is helping it get the little credit it does get today, I really can’t begrudge it that.  I think time has really proven what the best pictures from that year were so I think it’s all evened out in the end.

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