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The Broadway Melody

Although MGM was late accepting the sound revolution, once the "fad" started wowing ticket-buyers Louis B. Mayer committed to it with a vengeance. So MGM's The Broadway Melody was the Star Wars of 1929, a pioneering surprise so packed with technological newness that audiences happily overlooked the shortcomings in its dialogue and acting to make it the top box-office smash of the year. The first true Hollywood movie musical, its no-holds-barred use of synchronized sound made it both the first talkie and the first musical to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. Today, as we slog through its corny plot, glacial pacing, static camerawork, graceless musical numbers, and acting that's anything but Method, we notice that cinematic evolution long ago froze The Broadway Melody in Precambrian amber. But while the movie is hopelessly dated now, it was the bee's knees in its day. It premiered on February 1, so here's the Moulin Rouge! that Al Capone might have enjoyed just before the St. Valentine's Day Massacre.

Its dragged-out story places songster-hoofer Eddie Kerns (Charles King) in a love triangle between two Midwest vaudeville hopefuls reaching for stardom on New York's Great White Way, "Hank" Mahoney (Bessie Love) and her sexy but dim kid sister Queenie (Anita Page). Eddie gets the Mahoney sisters into the latest Francis Zanfield musical revue, "The Broadway Melody," where he belts out his title song (three times, in fact). Their romantic entanglements can't stop their "the show must go on" pluck, with filler coming from backstage wisecracking, a theatrical agent with a low-comedy stutter, a sabotaged audition, a poofy costumer, the understudy's big showbiz break, and an oily playboy pitching woo with one of the girls. (Said Variety at the time: "A basic story with some sense to it, action, excellent direction, laughs, a tear, a couple of great performances and plenty of sex," which helps us realize how far bars have been raised since then.)

The Broadway Melody has none of the artistry of the best Hollywood silent films that just preceded it (e.g., Sunrise). Instead, it's the "all singing, all dancing" musical numbers that made it "the new wonder of the screen" and lined the audiences around the block at 35 cents a ticket. Most of the songs by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown (who appear in the film) were masterfully reprised 23 years later in Singin' in the Rain, which satirized the era's troubled transition from silent to sound pictures. Besides the title number, we get the first screen incarnations of "You Were Meant For Me" and "The Wedding of the Painted Doll" (an extravagant Art Deco plodder). Also making its debut in the talkies is George M. Cohan's melody to "Give My Regards To Broadway."

The clichés stack up fast, the acting by all those former stage and silent-film talents is arch to the hilt, and the dancing can be frankly embarrassing, with chunky chorines sloppily choreographed. Those early sound cameras are bolted in place and every shot is boxed within proscenium staginess, so visually there's little life onscreen. Yet with patience this klutzy vanguard holds an antiquated charm. The authentic hotsy-tot period argot is certainly voh-doh-de-oh-doh, and how. And Best Actress nominee Bessie Love (who only four years before was menaced by dinosaurs in The Lost World) still delivers genuine appeal when playing "a born trouper."

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Warner Home Video's DVD edition of The Broadway Melody will please vintage-film fans and dedicated archivists. The black-and-white print is in good shape, with fewer scratches than you might expect and no frame-skipping. The film's original two-strip Technicolor sequence ("Painted Doll") remains lost, so that footage is black-and-white. The DD 1.0 audio is very good too, though be forewarned that the primitive sound technology sometimes helped background jabber dominate foreground dialogue, and on-stage sounds (footsteps and doors, for instance) remind us of how quickly movie audio evolved from this point.

This disc's extras have been available only on the Dawn of Sound series of Laserdiscs, so now they leave the UCLA video library to distribute a fine collection of period artifacts. Students of the vaudeville era get five Metro Movietone Revues (totaling 71 minutes), shorts featuring some of the famous stage acts of the day. The performers include popular emcee Harry Rose, Baby Rose Marie (singing "Frankfurter Sandwiches" 32 years before she co-starred on TV's Dick Van Dyke Show), The Capitolians, the Ponce Sisters, George Dewey Washington, Tom Waring, and the Happiness Boys. Separately, the harmonizing headliners Van & Schenck appear in their own Movietone short (5 mins.) singing "Chinese Firecracker" and "Way Down South in Heaven." As creaky and hokey as they are, these are rare and valuable records of a lost age. Also here is The Dogway Melody (16 mins.), MGM's 1930 spoof of the feature film starring a cast of all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing (and uncomfortable-looking) dogs. It's stunts like this that spur donations to the SPCA.

Finally, there's a Broadway Trailer Gallery with previews for the subsequent Broadway Melody series entries for 1936, '38, and '40, and Broadway Rhythm ('44). Keep-case.

—Mark Bourne

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