Monday, February 1, 2016

Nothing But the Best: "The Broadway Melody" (1929)

Scene from Broadway Melody
Welcome to the series Nothing But the Best in which I chronicle all of the Academy Award Best Picture winners as they celebrate their anniversaries. Instead of going in chronological order, this series will be presented on each film's anniversary and will feature personal opinions as well as facts regarding its legacy and behind the scenes information. The goal is to create an in depth essay for each film while looking not only how the medium progressed, but how the film is integral to pop culture. In some cases, it will be easy. Others not so much. Without further ado, let's start the show.

Background Information

The Broadway Melody 
Release Date: February 1, 1929
Director: Harry Beaumont
Written By: Edmund Goulding (Story), Sarah Y. Mason (Continuity), Norman Houston & James Gleason (Dialogue), Earl Baldwin (Titles: Silent Version)
Starring: Bessie Love, Anita Page, Charles King
Genre: Musical, Romance
Running Time: 100 minutes

Oscar Wins: 1
-Best Picture

Oscar Nominations: 4
-Best Director
-Best Actress (Bessie Love)

Other Best Picture Nominees

-In Old Arizona
-Hollywood Revue
-The Patriot

And the winner is...

In the echelon of film, there are few genres that are specific as the studio musical. Over the years, they have developed from the Busby Berkeley model of bright and colorful sets by which bombastic show tunes would play. They evolved into a dramatic art form, telling more coherent stories through songs. However, they weren't always as polished and interesting as they are today. Back in 1929, director Harry Beaumont's The Broadway Melody came out at the genre's juvenile stage, and by which it helped to shape with ravenous tunes, including a George M. Cohan standard. While it may not go down as anyone's favorite Oscar-winning (or even nominated) musical, it's an intriguing watch, solely because of how much of the modern genre's DNA can be found in a film nearly 90 years old.

The year is 1929 and film is still relatively new. More than that, the invention of "talkies" were so new that theaters were still upgrading to meet the demands. Two years prior, The Jazz Singer premiered as the first talkie as well as the first full length musical, starring Al Jolson in the lead role. Speaking as most of film's early actors transitioned from live theater, it makes sense then that a lot of the original stories were adapted from the stage as well. This included musicals, which wouldn't boom until 1929 when the production from the previous year grew by 30 times as many (albeit, there were only two musicals in 1928). Everyone was in love with the idea of spectacle, and it makes sense then why MGM would hop on the bandwagon.

It should be noted that MGM wasn't the same studio that it would be known for in the age of Berkeley. At least not right away. Among many other honors, The Broadway Melody was the first musical released by the studio, and it turned out to be more innovative than many of its peers. The one unfortunately dated aspect of the film is the studio's belief that spectacle trumped talent, and thus the acting came across as secondary. However, there was the innovative tool of incorporating the songs into the actual story, such as when a potential investor comically critiques a trial run. Among the film's honorable mentions, it features the first cinematic use of Cohan's "Give My Regards to Broadway" as well as the original "You Were Meant For Me."

The film was in some respects ahead of its time. It was one of the first films to use color with a two-film Technicolor technique  during the "Wedding of the Painted Doll" sequence. However, future releases would lose access to this print. During the film's initial theatrical run, there was also a silent print that would play in theaters without access to projectors that could play talkies. It was fortunate, as critics of the time would claim that the film featured a visual competence that would still work in silent films. The film was such a success with its razzle dazzle that it managed to become the highest grossing film of 1929, setting it on pace to break all sorts of records for the second annual Academy Awards. It should be noted that while the awards were announced, there were no official nominees given. It took the American Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences (AMPAS) some research to discover who the nominees actually were. Still, the one thing that was always known was that The Broadway Melody would win Best Picture.

The Best Picture award itself was new in 1929. The original trophy gave out two awards: one for Production (Sunrise) and Picture (Wings). The latter would evolve into what the Best Picture category is. So technically, The Broadway Melody is the first on every account, including winning Best Picture as it is officially called. If Wings is counted, that makes this film to win the first talkie, musical, a win without a writing nomination, featuring colored footage, and a win without any additional nomination. In fairness, this was also the only year where all of the winners in the 7 established categories had only won one award each. Still, it was the beginning of The Academy's love affair with musicals, which would last consistently for the remainder of their existence.

The film helped to establish MGM's brand as the eccentric showstopper company that produced cheerful musicals. Just within The Broadway Melody's existence, the film spawned three sequels (in name only) in 1936, 1938, and 1940 (all named The Broadway Melody... of their respective years). The films highlighted the power of stage performing, including appearances later on by Judy Garland and Fred Astaire. There were plans to keep the franchise running with a 1943 version starring Gene Kelly - which didn't happen. The film was remade into Two Girls on Broadway in 1940. While The Broadway Melody hasn't aged well, it is one of the first musicals to establish the visual essence of what the genre would have. As of 2015, it is the lowest rated Best Picture winner on critics aggregate website Rotten Tomatoes with 42%. Still, it is easy to see how the film inspired the golden era of the musical, and for that it deserves some credit.

Even if The Broadway Melody isn't the best musical in The Academy's history, it still feels like an important one in what it achieved. With glamorous visuals and flashy show numbers, it was a sign of what Hollywood would want from musicals. It was an excuse to explore escapism and show what the medium could achieve beyond the humdrum melodramas. Even if the film is likely less revered than its flashier sequels, it was the film that helped to make musical juggernauts MGM into the powerhouse that they were. Was the acting great? Not necessarily. However, the song and dance routines were, and that's all that mattered in 1929. It was now up to everyone else to find a deeper and more compelling magic within the format.

No comments:

Post a Comment