Tuesday, December 10, 2013

The Broadway Melody

Film: The Broadway Melody
Format: DVD from Galena Public Library through interlibrary loan on laptop.

So I was warned about The Broadway Melody. It was going to take a complete stinker to take the place of Gigi on the bottom of my personal rankings of Best Picture winners. And yet here I am in a quandary. This is objectively a worse film than Gigi, but I’m not sure I liked it less. It’s a worse film, but Gigi is morally objectionable, but it’s really well made. The Broadway Melody is silly, stupid, maudlin, melodramatic, and annoying. The film runs 100 minutes. It feels like 1,000.

This is a pretty typical “behind the scenes” style of musical, the sort that seemed to be popular as all hell through the ‘40s and crop up now and again. Everyone we see is connected to show business in one respect or another. We start with Eddie Kearns (Charles King) who has just penned a new song called “The Broadway Melody,” which would be a snappy name for a new picture. Anyway, he’s giving it to a sister act called the Mahoney Sisters. These are Harriet “Hank” Mahoney (Bessie Love), the older and smarter sister, and Queenie Mahoney (Anita Page), the younger and prettier one. As it happens, Eddie is engaged to Hank, and has promised them big things if they come to New York. He’s sold his new song to Francis Zanfield (Eddie Kane) for one of his new stage shows, and he wants the girls to sing it with him.

So there are a couple of plots going at the same time here. First, Eddie suddenly realizes that Queenie has grown up and is, in the world of the film, more attractive than her sister. When the audition of the two sisters goes badly, it’s Queenie who steps in and rescues the act, at least temporarily. However, the act gets cut in the final rehearsal (which is complete bullshit—things don’t happen that way), but Queenie gets a new job in the show when another dancer is hurt. And the budding relationship between Queenie and Eddie grows. However, since Queenie would rather not hurt her sister, she starts dating a rich jerk named Jock Warriner (Kenneth Thompson) just to protect the relationship.

Eventually, Hank figures out was is going on and gets her own terribly depressing ending while Eddie and Queenie get a happy one. Along the way, there are a bunch of song and dance numbers.

What I find interesting with this is to see the style of acting. This is a year or two out of the silent era (in fact, a silent version of this was produced, although it seems like an oxymoron to have produced a silent musical). Because of this, the acting is incredibly broad and silly. It’s aggressively stagy. Everyone in the film is someone I want to reach in and shake by the shoulders. It’s also evident that no one had really figured out how to act on screen, since the dialogue frequently comes off as if playing to the back of the auditorium.

Look, this really isn’t a good film by any stretch. That’s the biggest problem here. While there’s nothing particularly objectionable here, it’s just really not very good. The numbers are fine, but even they pale in comparison to just about everything else produced in the years after it. While I haven’t seen the other nominees from 1929, I can’t help but think that the Academy was so enamored of the idea of a musical that the award was handed to this for no other reason.

And so, the unthinkable happened. I’ve found a Best Picture winner I like less than Gigi. What it comes down to is the production itself. I find Gigi objectionable because of the story. As a production, Gigi is pretty grand, and the musical numbers are beautifully filmed. There’s plenty of spectacle if you don’t mind not paying any attention to the story. With The Broadway Melody, we have a story that is flat stupid. Eddie is a heel, to put it nicely, and he’s managed to make family gatherings weird by ending up with the sister of his fiancĂ©e. And beyond that, the numbers, which should be the focus here, aren’t that much to look at.

As much as I’m not generally a fan of musicals of this era, I’d rather watch just about every other one I’ve seen before instead of watching this one again. Even with my low expectations, I was disappointed.

Why to watch The Broadway Melody: It’s the first talkie Best Picture winner.
Why not to watch: It’s genuinely not very good.


  1. If I had to pick a least favorite Best Picture winner, it would probably be Around the World in 80 Days. But that's probably only because I've never seen Broadway Melody.

  2. Yeah, that one is probably in my bottom five. I'd say avoid this one unless you're a completist.

  3. "And so, the unthinkable happened. I’ve found a Best Picture winner I like less than Gigi."

    I thought this might happen. The sheer badness of the film, combined with it being a musical, meant I thought it would do poorly in your esitmation. And it's not just you. While there are Best Picture winners that I simply hate (I've discussed my feelings for Annie Hall and The English Patient before) I can acknowledge that they are either very popular (Annie Hall) or well made (The English Patient).

    And there are other Best Picture winners that get named as being bad, but they aren't really; they just weren't worthy of winning Best Picture. They are still entertaining in their own ways.

    So for me, if I had to pick a Best Picture winner that is just simply bad in all respects it would be The Broadway Melody of 1929. As you said the acting is bad, the musical numbers are bad, and the story is bad. While I didn't out and out hate this, it's my choice for the worst of the Best Picture winners. My default response whenever I see someone write "[fill in the blank] is the worst Best Picture winner of all time" is "I guess you haven't seen The Broadway Melody of 1929 then."

    And by the way, the only other film I've seen from the nominees that year is Alibi, which I just watched, and it's one I really liked. I left some comments on Letterboxd about it (no spoilers).

    1. In the "unfairly maligned" category, my go-to is Crash. Of the nominees that year (I've seen all but Munich), it would be my last choice to win Best Picture. In the rage that people have from Brokeback Mountain not winning, though, Crash has become a film to despise. That's too bad, because it's really a good film. It's just not deserving of its win.

      You know a movie is bad when I'm praying for the musical numbers to take me away from the story. With The Great Ziegfeld, the musical numbers were a balm to a lackluster story. Here, they were just as lackluster. Worse, they were frequently amateurish, like we were watching an early rehearsal.

      What it comes down to is that I can't recommend anything about this film. I can for Gigi; it's well made and the musical numbers (aside from the creepiness of "Thank Heaven for Little Girls") are good. Here? There's nothing. My problem with Gigi is the morality. My problem with The Broadway Melody is...everything about it.

  4. I know I will never change your mind about Gigi but I just have to pipe up to say that I don't share your interpretatiion of "Thank Heaven for Little Girls". For me, the character is thanking heaven because without little girls there would be no women. Similarly, the "miracle" is that the young Gigi grew up to be such an alluring woman. I have never thought that anybody was interested in Gigi sexually until she grew up. Of course, I have to agree that it is a musical!

    1. You're right--you're not going to change my mind about Gigi. I'd accept the non-creepiness of "Thank Heaven for Little Girls" if it hadn't been sung by a guy pushing 70. I'm not entirely convinced that a 70-year-old man singing that song to an 18-year-old is significantly better than him singing it to a 16-year-old. Couple this with Gigi's aunts' insistence that she look for older men to have sex with so she can get jewelry, and you've got a recipe for something morally repellent, at least in my world.