2. The Broadway Melody (1929) Dir. Harry Beaumont

Viewed on Saturday 4th March 2023

It’s not a great film. Let’s be honest, it’s not even a good film.

The plot is desultory. Songwriter and performer Eddie Kearns has a number in an upcoming musical extravaganza. He encourages his girlfriend, Harriet ‘Hank’ Mahoney and her sister Queenie to audition and they get in. During rehearsals, a romantic conflict develops: Queenie and Eddie are torn between their love for Hank and their growing attraction to each other.

The Broadway Melody was the prototype Hollywood musical, made early in the development of sound. Its director Harry Beaumont had to work out his technical approaches on the fly, much as William Wellman had for the previous year’s winner, Wings. Wellman, however, was (dangerously) obsessed with the idea of making the best film possible; Beaumont evidently took more of a ‘that’ll do’ approach, hoping the novelty of staging some musical numbers would be enough secure an audience. He was right. The film was one of 1929’s biggest draws, though the cinematography is basic at best and much of the acting’s downright terrible.

Both female stars had already built their reputations in silent movies, and these were their first speaking parts. Bessie Love (Hank) turns in a creditable performance, sometimes almost turning the script’s base metal to gold, while Anita Page (Queenie) starts atrociously then improves a bit. I wondered if the film was shot more-or-less in chronological sequence, and Page gained skill and confidence at delivering her lines as the production went on.

Even bad movies are often interesting socio-historically, and The Broadway Melody opens a window into the sexual politics of 1920s showbiz. 

Anita Page was 18 at the time of filming; Charles King, as Eddie, was 43, and his character’s behaviour towards Queenie now feels creepy and controlling throughout. Tellingly, Page’s own career as ‘the girl with the most beautiful face in Hollywood’ ended in 1933 after she refused to go to bed with a movie producer. She went on to make a brief comeback in the 1960s, and in the early 2000s she took a few roles in ultra low-budget horror movies. By the time of her final filmed perfomance she was 97.

Look hard enough for subversion, and you can usually find it. Hank is an early incarnation of the proto-feminist feisty types Katharine Hepburn would later specialise in. Boyishly nicknamed and resistant to male power, it’s not a total stretch to read her as a coded lesbian character. I probably wouldn’t write a PhD proposal based on the idea, though.

There were further four Broadway Melody movies (1936, 1938, 1940 plus The Broadway Rhythm from 1944). All were based on the ‘putting on a show’ trope, and none featured the cast or director of the ur-text.

We saw the film on the only available cut – an unrestored DVD version imported from South Korea. The soundtrack is mainly fine, but there are occasional missing frames and some sequences are quite severely damaged. Apparently there was an early Technicolor sequence, but that now only survives in monochrome.

Extras include one of the worst things I’ve ever seen – a fifteen minute ‘parody’ called The Dogway Melody with all parts played by obviously maltreated animals. There’s also a racist musical number in which a white man does his impersonation of a Chinese person, and trailers for all the later Broadway Melody films.

3rd Academy Awards 1930

Winner: The Broadway Melody – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer

Also nominated:

Alibi – Feature Productions
Hollywood Revue – Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer
In Old Arizona – Fox
The Patriot – Paramount Famous Lasky