A Century of Film is Devin Wilger’s attempt to watch a film from every year between 1917 and today. This time, it’s 1929’s The Broadway Melody.
Taking home the top prize at the second Academy Awards, The Broadway Melody has since gained a reputation for being among the worst films to take home best picture. It does have the lowest score on the internet’s Rotten Tomatoes, for example. I don’t think people are being fair to it. The film is actually a lot better than its reputation suggests, not only besting the thoroughly terrible Cimarron from 1931, but also The Greatest Show on Earth, a slog which probably won because everyone thought Cecil B. DeMille was going to die without an Oscar trophy. I can certainly understand why modern audiences haven’t embraced it with the fervor as the audiences of the day, it takes a bit of context to understand its achievements, but there is some good here, and the win makes sense.
Let’s be clear here, the Oscar was for technical achievement rather than artistic merit. From the first scene it becomes apparent that the film was conceived from the ground up as a way to play around with sound. Starting with a chaotic soundscape of several musicians working on their own little projects at once, and then moving towards a performance of the title song, it experiments with overlapping dialogue, dissonant sounds, creative sound editing, and various tricks that the filmmakers just couldn’t do before. The opening is a sonic playground.
The introduction of sound seems to drive most of the creative decisions, whether it’s making it a musical, making a character a stutterer, or throwing in a scene where two characters run a bath just so you can put running water in there. They’re not playing around with the images very much - it’s not an exciting film to look at, even when people are taking their clothes off - but everyone is very intent to do as much sound editing as they possibly can.
The story isn’t bad, and has a surprising amount of emotional complexity. It’s a dance of three people so desperate to avoid hurting each other that they just hurt everyone. You have Hank (Bessie Love), who is in love with Eddie (Charles King), who is in love with Queenie, Hank’s sister (Anita Page). Queenie is in love with both of them, the relationship between her and Hank being much stronger than with her and Eddie, but they’re sisters so it would be weird. Queenie, in an effort to drown her sorrows with diamonds, starts dating Jacques (Kenneth Thomson). Attempts to draw him as the villain feel kind of weird until the final act - the audience only sees him being generally genial until he makes a sudden heel turn. If anything, Eddie comes off as the biggest creep in the movie, since he starts pursuing Queenie without breaking up with her sister, and then makes eyes at a different character after the supposed happy ending.
Though I question whether or not the ending was meant to be happy. Certainly Love’s character doesn’t get happiness, and Love’s performance is actually pretty amazing, as she gets to the roots of her character’s emotional complexity. She was nominated for the Oscar, and honestly she should have won, she elevates the script and it’s weird perspective on relationships purely through her acting. Page is also excellent, and does tiny things throughout to clue the audience in on her character’s own insecurities. Even if she loves Eddie, it’s clear that Queenie doesn’t completely trust him, and Page does many subtle things to clue you in on this. Both women get very difficult roles and succeed in making complex characters out of them. Their performances are the reason why the movie works, because they’re so good in the role, and give the characters a rich inner life, they make it about the pain that their characters feel thanks to the relationships depicted in the movie. It works whether or not you think the male lead is a hero or a cad, though I personally think he’s the latter.
So why the bad reputation? The acting might be great, but it’s a musical, and for a film about song and dance the songs are merely decent and the dance is mostly bad. The centerpiece of the film, the Wedding of the Paper Dolls number - originally printed in early Technicolor, but only surviving in black and white - is photographed blandly and simply badly done - dancers aren’t well synchronized, their movements aren’t very interesting, and the choreography is surprisingly inept. It was possibly the worst dance number I’ve seen in my life. An awkward somersault by a man dressed as a priest is a low point. Plus, this number is just out of nowhere and doesn’t really have much to do with the rest of the film - it’s the kind of sequence that survives because it was expensive to film, not because it has any reason to be there. Everywhere else, the camera is largely static and uninteresting, a flaw of many early sound productions, and it just doesn’t do anything interesting with the spectacle it thinks it has.
There are also a couple of odd touches, like title cards that announce the location of most scenes, as though someone on the production really liked their favorite title card designer from the silent era and didn’t want him to go broke. It breaks up the film in really strange way, and while this can be effective it was slightly jarring in this film.
The Broadway Melody is more interesting from a technical standpoint than an artistic one, but it actually isn’t bad. It has some good actors, it does some fun things with sound, and it’s a good way to sell the idea of sound to a skeptic. It only ages badly because they were still learning, and as such we have discarded the film’s bad ideas while keeping the good ones.
Next time, another Oscar winner, but one with a better reputation, with All Quiet on the Western Front.