“All singing! All dancing!”
Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer touted its first full-length musical sound film with these lines that now are immortalized in Hollywood history.
And in February, when lists come out about the best and worst Best Picture winners, TheBroadway Melody is often ranked as one of the worst. But this really isn’t a fair assessment, because in the sense of film history and movie musicals, this is an important movie.
But MGM’s The Broadway Melody (1929) is now considered the great-granddaddy of the movie musical. It was MGM’s first musical as well as the studio’s first full-length talking pictures.
MGM later became known for their movie musicals but – uncertain how musicals would succeed with audiences – Irving Thalberg instructed for the film to be shot quickly and cheaply to save money in case it bombed.
But The Broadway Melody didn’t bomb — it revolutionized talkies and made musicals popular.
The film is about two sisters Queenie (Anita Page) and Hank (Bessie Love) who travel from the Midwest to New York with dreams of making it big on Broadway. Hank’s boyfriend Eddie (Charles King) is progressing in his own Broadway career and hopes to help the sisters out. However, when the sisters try out for producer Francis Zanfield (Eddie Kane), Eddie is more interested in beautiful Queenie than Hank, which causes a rift between the sisters.
The movie is a “backstage musical,” which revolves around the issues going on backstage and between the actors, with numbers interspersed in the plot. This plot formula would be reused for the next 30 years.
After watching other movie musicals, The Broadway Melody may feel old-fashioned, but you have to remind yourself that audiences were seeing a full-length musical for the very first time.
You will recognize several songs from this musical, written by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed (who later became the great MGM musical producer). Brown and Freed’s songs include “Broadway Melody” and “You Were Meant For Me” which was later reused for Singin’ in the Rain (1952).
Some of the staging of the musical numbers may seem a bit muddy. This is because the camera is aimed straight at the stage trying to capture the overall choreography, rather than having the camera move along with the dancers and dance moves, as musicals did later on. This straight-on camera approach can be seen in the “The Wedding of the Painted Doll” musical number which features lots of dancers on the stage who seem to be dancing around in an uncoordinated fashion.
While The Broadway Melody (1929) may not be the best musical released by MGM or any studio, it should be respected for its place in film history. To fully appreciate how far musicals had come in just a few years, you can compare The Broadway Melody with films from 1933 like 42nd Street.
– Jessica Pickens for Classic Movie Hub
Jessica can be found at cometoverhollywood.com and on twitter at @HollywoodComet. In addition to her overall love of classic movies, she has ongoing series on her site including “Watching 1939″ and “Musical Monday.”