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The Broadway Melody

by Glenn Erickson Sep 23, 2023

A happy cult of disc collectors aches for titles from the dawn of sound; the Warner Archive gifts them with this much-improved remaster of what’s known as the actual first all-singing, all talking Hollywood musical. It looks so good, we can feel the footlights burning hard on the talent straight from the stage, while the Hollywood actors try out their talkie voices — loudly. You want open-faced emoting, pitched to the back row of the theater?  Many a cliché was born right here. Want to know where many of those Singin’ in the Rain songs came from?  Right here as well.


The Broadway Melody
Blu-ray
Warner Archive Collection
1929 / B&W / 1:20 Movietone / 100 min. / Available at MovieZyng / Street Date July 25, 2023 / 21.99
Starring: Charles King, Anita Page, Bessie Love, Kenneth Thomson, Jed Prouty, Dorothy Coonan, Mary Doran, James Gleason, Carla Laemmle.
Cinematography: John Arnold
Art Director: Cedric Gibbons
Film Editor: Sam S. Zimbalist
Original songs: “The Broadway Melody,” “Love Boat,” “You Were Meant for Me,” “The Wedding of the Painted Doll,” “The Boy Friend,” “Lovely Lady” music by Nacio Herb Brown, lyrics by Arthur Freed. “Truthful Parson Brown” music and lyrics by Willard Robison.
Story: Edmund Goulding. Continuity: Sarah Y. Mason. Dialogue: James Gleason, Norman Houston
Produced uncredited by Irving Thalberg, Harry Rapf, Lawrence Weingarten
Directed by
Harry Beaumont

It’s as if somebody peeled 94 years from the calendar and returned us to the birth of musical movies. The Broadway Melody (of 1929) is the genuine article, the first all-talking, -singing and -dancing musical of the sound era … and it won a best picture Oscar as well. The staging and the acting are as creaky as can be, but the film does have the zing of a killer title song. A happy singer pitches it to the mezzanine seats … about four times.

A Warners laserdisc arrived in the 1990s, and a 2005 DVD was a great improvement on it. This new encoding, a 4K scan given a reverent digital brush-up, looks and sounds sensational. More on the video miracle below.

Songwriter & performer Eddie Kearns (Charles King) has a hit new song, and he wants it included in Mr. Zanfield’s new musical. Sensing that the time is right, he summons his girlfriend Hank Mahoney and her sister Queenie (Bessie Love & Anita Page) to audition their sister act for the big impresario. Hank thinks they’re a hit but finds out that Zanfield hired them on the basis of Queenie’s looks. Worse yet, Queenie and Eddie soon realize they’re in love and don’t know how to give the bad news to Hank. Queenie reacts in the only way she knows, by returning the dishonorable attentions of the wealthy ladykiller Jacques (Jock) Warriner (Kenneth Thompson). Will backstage tragedy be averted?

 

Genuine vintage patter: “Hot Dog!”  “Screw!” “Hotsy tot!”

It’s 1929 and we expect the audio recording to be primitive. But the recording (and editing) capabilities have sprung way forward in just two years or so since the part-talkie The Jazz Singer. We see Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed trying out a new song in a music publisher’s crowded office, with various performers raising a racket from all sides. Right off the top, Charles King does an impromptu rendition of the title tune, the classic most of us know from Singin’ in the Rain twenty-three years later. Other songs that were resurrected for the 1952  Singin’ in the Rain are The Wedding of the Painted Doll, You Were Meant for Me and You are My Lucky Star. Starting with some aerials of lower Manhattan and Times Square, The Broadway Melody gives us a peek at the public image of show biz in an enthusiastic era. The Broadway Melody premiered just a couple of weeks before the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and just a few months before the stock market crash that plunged the world into an economic Depression.

All of the audio recording appears to have been done live on the sets, putting The Broadway Melody in the minority of American films where the performances are being done live as we see them. Those sets look none too sturdy. Footsteps echo loudly and doors really clunk when closed. All are missing the fourth wall, and the camera always stays on the same side of the action.

 

Director Harry Beaumont stages most of the film is flatly, but his actors, as they say, ‘give it their all.’ The chorines’ dancing routines are on the tepid side, and with only a couple of exceptions the dances are staged in a very small space. Bessie Love (of The Lost World) is the smart member of the sister act and MGM star Anita Page the dumb pretty one. Their act looks hopelessly corny. It’s hard to tell how we’re meant to take their dancing. Page and Love appear to be doing their best but not naturally graceful. Were both movie-born stars, not transplants from the stage?  The exodus of New York stage talent to Hollywood was just beginning.

The sisters’ high point is a cute attempt at the song The Boy Friend. They sing it rather squeakily (with the requisite ukelele), sort-of keeping time together. Then Love goes into a klunkily desperate tap that makes Ruby Keeler look like Ginger Rogers. It’s also fun hearing them speak all the latest ‘smart’ patter, like “Hotsy tot.” At one point Besse turns irately to another character and says loudly, “Don’t be a cheapscake, Screw!” (pronounced “Scah-roo!”). It’s a big surprise — we have to assume it meant the same thing then as it does now. Actually, “Screw!” had a second meaning, “Get lost!”

 

Most every cliché of the backstage musical is already fully developed. One member of the act falls in love with the other’s fiancée, which remains a source of concern throughout. Queenie gets her big break when the top showgirl falls from her perch to the stage below, with a heavy KA-LUNK! on the audio track. Stage door Johnnies are always there to harass the showgirls. Queenie is given an apartment and a diamond bracelet by her rich lothario, who cooly announces that he’s spending the night.

With his authentic background, vaudevillian Charles King is probably the best thing in the movie. Bessie Love is okay, but both she and Anita Page seem to be overmodulating to register on the mikes. Some of Page’s lines are pretty horribly overacted, but since she’s supposed to be a ditzy showgirl little harm is done. Jed Prouty does a stammering routine as the girls’ agent, and Drew Demorest is the (natch) swishy costumer, fawning over a fancy fur. William Demarest (The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek) was once rumored to be in there too, but Savant didn’t spot him.

The music publisher is played by James Gleason of Here Comes Mr. Jordan and The Night of the Hunter, and he also is given a credit for dialogue. Gleason wrote a number of movies in the 1930s, and also tried his hand as a director. If I’m looking at the right guy on screen, ‘Jimmy’ Gleason was as bald in 1929 as he would be in his later movies.

My producer on a 2001 documentary on Joan Crawford videotaped an interview with the star Anita Page. She was then only 81, and several years before had been filmed for some TCM reportage. It was only on the set that the producer discovered that Ms. Page was in an advanced stage of dementia, perhaps Alzheimer’s. Her makeup was decent enough, and she sat listening with a sweet smile. But once on camera, she couldn’t understand a question or connect three words together. An answer to a question about Joan Crawford, given after a big pause, was one word: “Yundee.” The producer had to feed her phrases and individual words, which I dutifully cut together. But we got to work with the legendary Anita Page!

Now we need to check out the WAC’s new Blu-ray of Our Dancing Daughters starring Page and Crawford. The disc is said to be an even more eye-opening remaster-restoration.

 


 

“It’s cream in the can, baby!”

The Warner Archive Collection Blu-ray of The Broadway Melody is said to have been remastered from ‘preservation elements’ but the Warner folk haven’t spared the tender loving care. We retained the 2005 DVD for comparison– and the difference is like night and day. A shaky picture is now rock steady, contrast fluctuation is now smooth, and a mountain of dirt and debris is gone. The 2005 audio track was cleaned up, but this new pass must employ tricks that freshen everything. The show plays as brand new.

Many of these early musicals had a sequence or two in color, The Broadway Melody included. But the Two-Color Technicolor material for The Wedding of the Painted Doll  appears to be long-lost.

If the IMDB is correct, the aspect ratio may be the same as Academy 1:37 — this may be from a ‘sound on disc’ negative, in which case we’re looking at an entire ‘silent ap,’ not the narrow Movietone format that takes a big slice for an optical track. The only thing odd to this observation: a shot or two in the opening Manhattan street montage look a little squeezed.

The same ‘dawn of talkies’ program of musical shorts from the DVD have been included, not restored. Five “Metro Movietone Revues” are two-reel musical short subjects, featuring stage talent unfamiliar now. If this is the best of vaudeville in 1929, the musical stage has come a long, long way. Each performer projects his or her personality with everything they’ve got.

Two more short subject entries fill out the menu. Van & Schenck come back for more after appearing in one of the Revues. They inject comedy into the act, and for their first song affect a dated ‘Chinee’ delivery. The Dogway Melody is an elaborate novelty parody with an all-dog cast. One of the filmmakers is Jules White, the future producer of 1001 Three Stooges shorts.

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson


The Broadway Melody
Blu-ray rates:
Movie: Good, historically priceless
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements:
Five Metro Movietone Review musical short subjects
Van and Schenck, a ‘Metro Movietone’ act
Comedy parody short subject The Dogway Melody.
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly? YES; Subtitles: English (feature only)

Packaging: One Blu-ray in Keep case
Reviewed:
September 19, 2023
(6997broa)

Final product for this review was provided free by The Warner Archive Collection.
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Text © Copyright 2023 Glenn Erickson

About Glenn Erickson

Screen Shot 2015-08-24 at 6.51.08 PM

Glenn Erickson left a small town for UCLA film school, where his spooky student movie about a haunted window landed him a job on the CLOSE ENCOUNTERS effects crew. He’s a writer and a film editor experienced in features, TV commercials, Cannon movie trailers, special montages and disc docus. But he’s most proud of finding the lost ending for a famous film noir, that few people knew was missing. Glenn is grateful for Trailers From Hell’s generous offer of a guest reviewing haven for CineSavant.

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[…] 1930s lately, pre-Code and ‘post, and coming up with some real gems — The Devil-Doll,  The Broadway Melody,  Westward the Women — plus a continuing series of Greta Garbo pictures. The label appears […]

Warren Lukinuk

The “Squeezed shot” in the New York montage was lost for many years until found in a 16MM print, and re-inserted into the film. If you watch closely the DVD opening, you’ll hear that the sound is off on the DVD. In fact, you’ll hear a whistle over the skyline of NY which, when viewd on the new Blu Ray, shows it actually comes from a policeman.

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[…] as if she were a good luck charm. She’d peak with the lead in the Oscar-winning musical The Broadway Melody. Her main function is to be both the ‘pretty face’ and the brave woman on the […]

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