Earlier this week, I sat down to watch The Broadway Melody, winner of Best Picture from 1929. My review in a nutshell is this: The movie is a must see for cinophiles and film historians or fans of the principal actors. If you don’t fit into one of those three categories, you might consider taking a pass.
The reason the film is fascinating from a historical perspective is that it is one of the first “talkies”–so it’s located very close in time to silent films and makes a fascinating snapshot of that transition. Some conventions from the time of silent films remain while other issues arise from the relatively new process of sound for film:
1. Scene Cards: Some modern films still use a version of this, giving us a date, time, place stamp to help us locate where we are and when we are. But these are done in the silent film tradition where the screen goes black and a card comes up telling us where the next scene will be located. Interestingly, this is not done for every scene. From this I surmise that the film’s director felt the audience might need more help in one place or another.
2. Histrionics: One hallmark of silent films was the tendency to portray emotions in an over the top manner. Again, I surmise that this was done to compensate for the lack of dialog. Since The Broadway Melody was filmed so soon after the transition to talkies began (indeed, it was the first sound film to win Best Picture), it’s only natural that the acting needed to convey emotion on a silent screen bled over into the first talkies.
3. Abrupt Cuts: Although this is more due, from my small amount of research, to the fact that cameras were still largely stationary, the film carries over the convention of isolated closeups where the actor is “in” a group scene, but we cut to a shot of them where no other actors are visible while they react to bad news, unwelcome advances, etc.
4. Sound: For the modern viewer, sound quality is very spotty in the movie. Most noticeably, there are instances where loud events are taking place just next to the actors, yet there is no background noise. During some scenes, there are long periods of silence as an actor emotes. And more than a few lines are lost in general hubbub. Again, this all makes sense given the historical context of the filming.
From an artistic point of view, I found little to recommend the film. The only noteworthy song, in my opinion, is “You Were Meant For Me.” History bears me out as I believe this song is still frequently performed while most of the others in the film are not. “Give My Regards to Broadway,” which is found in many versions of this film, was alas not in mine…and it was an add-on to the musical rather than part of the original.
There is one noteworthy performance during one of the big production numbers, a tap-dancing ballerina who was fascinating to watch. Sadly, her identity is lost to history as she is not credited.
Of the acting, the only performance I found remotely interesting was that of Bessie Love, the smarter of the two sisters in the “sister act” come to Broadway that the film is purportedly about. Although she has a loyal following, I found Anita Page to be alternatively bland and over-the-top in her performance. Lead actor Charles King did absolutely nothing for me…I couldn’t understand why either sister would love him, let alone both. Some of that was writing and time period dissonance, but at least 50 percent was acting.
I enjoyed watching the film as an example of an art form in transition. I’ll be very interested to compare it to The Jazz Singer in the weeks to come.