The Broadway Melody (1929)
Directed by Harry Beaumont
100 min; U.S.A.; Black and White; Mono
The Broadway Melody (1929) is a backstage drama centered around a love triangle between a sister song-and-dance act and a singer/songwriter named Eddie Kearns (Charles King). Kearns has just penned the theme song for Florenz Ziegfeld, I mean, Francis Zanfield's (Eddie Kane) latest Broadway revue. It's his big break, and he wants his friends the Mahoney sisters to perform it with him. The trouble starts when the sisters, after spending ten years on the road circuit, arrive and Eddie discovers he's fallen out of love with Hank (Bessie Love) and in love with Queenie (Anita Page) and they're both in love with him. What's more, after blowing their audition for Zanfield its not the talent of the former sister but the long-legged blonde looks of the latter that gets them a part in the show. The tangled triangle is further complicated by the arrival of rich playboy Jack Warner, sorry, Jacques Warriner (Kenneth Thomson) who wants to play Stanford White to Queenie's Evelyn Nesbit and install her in a Park Avenue apartment as his mistress. But this is MGM's "all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing" picture so in spite of Eddie, Hank and Queenie's personal struggles the show must go on. As the title song by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed says, "Your troubles there are out of style / 'Cause Broadway always wears a smile."
You were meant for me: Queenie, Hank and Eddie form a tragic love triangle in The Broadway Melody.
Audiences in 1929 came to hear the singing and see the dancing but they got something extra: the original release featured a song-and-dance sequence in Technicolor. Sadly this sequence is missing from the Warner Home Video DVD version that I saw. It didn't really mar the experience, after all I don't know what I'm missing, but I'd like to see how color developed since The Toll of The Sea (1922). The Broadway Melody received an Academy Award for Outstanding Picture 1928/29. From all accounts the film was extremely popular. Motion Picture Almanac 1934-35 lists the film as one of the most successful rental's up to that time and it enjoyed box office success in the U.S. and abroad, particularly in England.
I think it's fair to assume that a major reason for the success was the picture's use of sound. In 1929 the major competing sound systems were sound-on-disc and sound-on-film. MGM and the rest of the Big Five studios chose the more versatle sound-on-film system over sound-on-disc, but some exhibition houses were wired for sound-on-film, some for sound-on-disc, some still unwired. Comments made by Harry Beaumont, director of The Broadway Melody, about sound recording for the film confirm that his crew recorded for both sound systems, apparently keeping in mind those theaters that had not yet updated: "we make an A and B sound track recording and an A and B wax recording of the same scene. Then we play back the poorer wax record...if it is all right, the better wax is treated so as to harden it, and the better sound track is used, and we are all set."1 The advantage of using the sound-on-film system became apparent to Beaumont when his engineers were able to record and replace a dropped "s" in the sound track. A similar edit could not be done with a sound-on-disc recording without a retake of the entire scene—which means that the two types of soundtracks for this movie are at least slightly different (Beaumont didn't mention any other edits). Beaumont's skillful sound team was led by Douglas Shearer, brother of star Norma Shearer; he previously worked on the part-talkie White Shadows in the South Seas (1928) and would earn a total of fourteen sound recording and technical Academy Awards over the course of his career. An oustanding moment in sound occurs in the opening sequence of The Broadway Melody. Inside Gleason Music Publishing Co. four disparate musical acts practice different song material, and we hear all the musicians singing and playing at the same time. Shearer and his team guide our ears through this chaos of music until they settle on the stand-out title song of the picture (already familar to us since it's played in a medley with George M. Cohen's "Give My Regards to Broadway," from the 1904 production of Little Johnny Jones, over the credits) as Eddie Kearns runs through it.
When Kearns performs the song with a small combo of musicians the limitation of recording for both sound systems becomes obvious because the song has to be performed in a single take as edits cannot be made on the sound-on-disc system. A whole song performed in a single shot can be very boring— watch the rendition of "Truthful Deacon Brown" later in the movie for an example. Beaumont might have wanted to break up the stable image by moving the camera, but the limitations of the early sound technology got in the way. To keep the sounds of the motion picture cameras from being picked up by microphones the cameras were placed in large soundproof booths with limited mobility. Beaumont and cinematographer John Arnold (who worked with Victor Sjostrom the previous year in The Wind (1928)) appear to have developed a creative answer to this problem: have the actors and musicians change positions during the number to break up a static shot without cutting or moving the camera (see images below). There is only one cut (compare photo at top with those below) that occurs at the completion of the song but this performance doesn't grow stale thanks to the change in position. I should add that capturing a complete take can sometimes result in a superior performance of a song. Just compare the warm energetic feeling of Eddie's opening peformance of "The Broadway Melody," accompanied by just piano, guitar and clarinet, with the lame orchestral version later in the movie and you'll hear what I mean.
The free-flowing dialogue in this film is a refreshing change from the slow mumbling in Lights of New York (1928). On the other end of the spectrum the speaking parts don't rival something as slick as the witty banter in Lubitsch's The Love Parade (1929). Still, the quick unpredicatable language was enough to make some contemporaneous critics bristle with indignation. Mordaunt Hall complained in the Times, "it is..rather disappointing to hear Miss Page's none-too-bell-like tones ejaculating word barrages in which there may be: "Boloney," "guy," "lay off," "hot dog," "gee," "wow," "big sap," "kinda," "gonna" and other such classical epithets."2 Perhaps Hall was one of those yearning for the talkies to increase the audience's vocabulary and teach proper pronounciation. I think the use of slang helps us to better imagine a Broadway backstage in 1929.
Harry Beaumont directing on the set of A Man and His Money (1919).
Director Harry Beaumont was more qualified than we might expect to helm MGM's first talking musical. Before working on The Broadway Melody he directed Joan Crawford doing the "Charleston" in Our Dancing Daughters (1928). That film featured synchronized music and sound effects and was successful enough to spawn sequels. I did a little more digging and discovered something fascinating about Beaumont's history with sound pictures. Beaumont directed movies for Edison, Essanay, Warner Brothers, Sam Goldwyn and MGM, directing since 1914, but he also worked as a writer and actor for the Edison Company. Waaaay back in 1913 he performed in a talkie, a Kinetophone film, that was shown at Union Street Theatre by the Edison Company when that firm was taking a (ultimately unsuccessful) stab at marketing synchronous sound films for projection. Beaumont reflected on the film to the Times in 1929, "my recollection of the world premiere of the first all-talking piece of work is that I was very thankful that I was in blackface so that no one would recognize me as the chap who sang, 'When That Midnight Choo-Choo Leaves for Alabam.'"3 None of Beaumont's acting jobs listed for 1913 on IMDB agree with his recollection, but maybe the list is incomplete. What was this early sound film he's talking about? One of the Kinetophone films listed in the Edison archives is titled Minstrel Show-first part. That film is not included on the Edison: The Invention of the Movies four DVD set, I checked, but the title does jibe with Beaumont's description of the film he sang in. There is a film listed for the Edison company at IMDB as A Minstrel Show(1913) but it doesn't list Beaumont in the cast. A check through the archives of the Times uncovers a review of the aforementioned Kinetophone exhibition on February 17, 1913: "The second number was a minstrel show [my emphasis] with orchestra, soloists, end men and interlocutor, large as life and quite noisy."4 I'm going to take a leap and suggest that this is the same film listed in Edison's archive, listed on IMDB and mentioned by Beaumont. If so, what a strange and winding path Beaumont's career had travelled. He'd gone from singing in an all-but forgotten music film to directing one of the most popular musicals of his time.
1. "Film Plays Then and Now,'" New York Times (10 February 1929): 117.
2. Mordaunt Hall, "Fair Faces and Wild Slang,'" New York Times (17 February 1929): 119.
3. "Film Plays Then and Now,'" New York Times (10 February 1929): 117.
4. "New York Applauds the Talking Picture,'" New York Times (18 February 1913): 3.
Rosalind Rogoff, "Edison's Dream: A Brief History of the Kinetoscope" Cinema Journal 15, no. 2 (Spring 1976): 65.
John Belton, "Awkward Transitions: Hitchcock's 'Blackmail' and the Dynamics of Early Film Sound,'" The Musical Quarterly 83, no. 2 (summer 1999): 227-236.
Photo of Harry Beaumont reprinted from J. Berg Esenwein, Writing the Photoplay, 258. © 1919 by The Home Correspondence School.