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DVD SAVANT

The Broadway Melody


The Broadway Melody
Warner DVD
1929 / B&W / 1:37 flat full frame / 100 min. / The Broadway Melody of 1929 / Street Date February 1, 2004 / 19.97
Starring Charles King, Anita Page, Bessie Love, Kenneth Thomson, Jed Prouty
Cinematography John Arnold
Art Direction Cedric Gibbons
Film Editor Sam S. Zimbalist
Original Music Nacio Herb Brown, Arthur Freed, George M. Cohan, Willard Robison
Written by Edmund Goulding, Norman Houston, James Gleason
Produced by
Directed by Harry Beaumont

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

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 song and a happy singer to put it across ... about four times.

There was an MGM laserdisc of this in the middle 90s but Warners' DVD bests it for quality, The audio has been cleaned up but not enough to harm the original feel of the tracks.

Synopsis:

Song writer & performer Eddie Kearns (Charles King) has a hit new song to put in Mr. Zanfield's new musical. Sensing that the time is right, he summons his girlfriend Hank Mahoney and her sister Queenie (Bessie Love and Anita Page) to audition their sister act for the big impresario. Hank thinks they're a hit but they are really hired on the basis of Queenie's beauty. Worse than that, Queenie and Eddie soon realize they're in love and don't know how to tell Hank the bad news. Queenie reacts in the only way she knows, by returning the dishonorable attentions of the wealthy ladykiller Jacques (Jock) Warriner (Kenneth Thompson).

We see Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed trying out a new song in the crowded office of a music publisher, with various performers raising a racket from all sides. Right off the top, Charles King does an impromptu rendition of the title tune, the killer song that most of us know from Singin' in the Rain twenty-three years later. "Hot Dog!" A lot looser and with far better audio recording than the part-talkie The Jazz Singer, The Broadway Melody gives us a peek at the enthusiasm of the time ... 1929, the same year that the stock market crashed; the same year as the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.  1

All of the audio recording appears to have been done live on the sets, putting The Broadway Melody in the small minority of American films where the performances are being done live as we see them. Those sets are none too sturdy, with echoing footsteps and doors that really clunk when they're shut. All are missing the fourth wall, and the camera always stays on the same side of the action.

Most of the film is flatly staged by director Harry Beaumont but the actors are certainly lively. Bessie Love (of The Lost World) is the smart member of the sister act and MGM star Anita Page the dumb pretty one, and their act looks hopelessly corny. It's hard to tell how we're meant to take the dancing, whether they're supposed to be maladroit or Page and Love were just doing their best. All of the chorus dancing we see is on the tepid side, and with only a couple of exceptions the dances are staged in a very small space.

The sisters' high point is a cute attempt at the song The Boy Friend. They sing it rather squeakily (with the requisite ukelele) and 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, "Screw!" (pronounced "Scah-roo!"). I assume it meant the same thing then as it does now, and it's a big surprise.

Most every cliché of the backstage musical is already fully developed. One member of the act falls in love with the other member's fiancée, which becomes a source of concern throughout the whole movie. Queenie gets her big break when the top showgirl falls from her perch (with a "ka-lunk!") to the stage below. 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. The music publisher is played by James Gleason of Here Comes Mr. Jordan and Night of the Hunter, and he also is given a co-screenplay credit. Jed Prouty does a stammering routine as the girls' agent, and Drew Demarest is the (natch) swishy costumer, fawning over a fancy fur. William Demarest (The Miracle of Morgan's Creek) is said to be in there too, but Savant didn't spot him.


Warners' DVD of The Broadway Melody looks fine; the film shows some wear here and there but is basically intact. The special features menu is packed with early musical goodies. Five different Metro Movietone Revues feature talent of the day; the one name I recognize is Fred Waring. Van & Schenck is a recording of a comedy act (I wonder if the Schenck is related to the MGM financier), and The Dogway Melody is an elaborate novelty parody with an all-dog cast.

There's none for this title, but an added gallery has trailers for four or five other Broadway Melody movies, the kind that frequently featured Eleanor Powell, Robert Taylor and Buddy Ebsen. The box cover and all the menuing is done with vintage ad art of the time ... lots of snazzy showgirl illustrations.


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor, The Broadway Melody rates:
Movie: Very Good
Video: Excellent
Sound: Excellent
Supplements: Early musical Movietone shorts, trailers
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: February 11, 2005


Footnote:

1. Other songs from Singin' in the Rain are The Wedding of the Painted Doll, You Were Meant for Me and You are My Lucky Star.
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DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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