If “Broadway Melody” had a tune there wouldn’t be anything to stop it from being another cinema “Fool.” As is, there isn’t very much that’s going to impede it from being a hit box-office picture either for $2 in the keys or on a grind. It’s the first flash New York has had as to how the studios are going after musical comedy numbers and there’s no question of the potent threat to the stage producers. The boys had better lift the body over to this 45th street corner and take a peck at the latest Hollywood menace.
Paradoxically enough, “Broadway Melody,” the initial screen musical, is basically going to draw on its story, the performances of its two lead girls and simply the novelty rather than the quality of the interpolated numbers. In the sticks the three-minute inclusion of a natural color first act finale, camaraed through a proscenium arch, may bowl them over. But New York first saw this jazz dancing wedding idea as far back as ’14 in “Watch Your Step,” maybe before that. They can’t startle Manhattan by moving the camera up on a couple of mediocre adagio teams and a tap toe dancer.
The possibilities are what jolt the imagination. This particular interlude classes as just a hint at what’s coming. If the talker studios can top the production efforts of the stage and get the camera close enough to make the ensemble seem to be in the same theatre, what’s going to happen in Boston between a musical comedy stage at $4.40 and screen at 75¢.
This picture was written by Edmund Goulding and directed by Harry Beaumont, with the chances that Goulding was in the next chair to Beaumont all the way. Goulding was the first man in pictures to write an intelligent article on sound, his predictions since coming true. Story appeared in Variety of June 13, ’28. Between them and the Houston-Gleason dialog it’s the fastest moving talker that has come in to date, especially in its first half and despite it being all interior. Last half could stand some cutting. Dialog is fast, crisp and marked by a steady stream of laughs. Its technique is strictly a punch formula, in generally ending dramatic situations with a giggle. Arnold has moved his camera all over the place constantly ranging from closeups, to mediums, to full length. It’s pretty near a classic in how to take a talker and then cut it to keep it moving. Once cut, from an exit of Charlie King and Anita Page to their return as newlyweds looked like hundreds of feet had been thrown out. It didn’t hurt the continuity, simply making it abrupt.
In atmosphere it distinctly smacks of Jack McGowan’s “Excess Baggage” (stage), and yet its theme is entirely free from that association. It tells of a vaudeville sister team coming in from the middle west, with the older girl engaged to a song-and-dance boy in a Broadway revue. Latter goes for the kid sister, now grown up, who starts playing with one of the show’s backers to stand off the boy and spare the blow to her sister, despite that she, too, is in love with her prospective brother-in-law.
In between are the troubles of the femme team making the revue grade, with the younger girl finally pulling them through on her looks without the older one being wise.
Corking climax is a dressing-room battle between the trio, the youngster rushing out to the house warming the money John has arranged for her new flat, after the boy has unwittingly exploded to the extent that the older girl realizes he’s in love with the sister she has mothered. In a cold frenzy the elder girl scornfully berates the boy into following and saving the kid by telling him that she, herself, has just been using him as a means of breaking into the revue.
Both girls, Bessie Love as the elder sister and Anita Page as the youngster, are great in their respective climaxes. Especially Miss Love, who has a short session before her makeup table that had some of the women in the house still crying when they left the theatre. And when the women cry, that’s box office.
Not long ago Miss Love came into the local Strand in a Vitaphone short of the late Eddie Foy’s last vaude act and established herself as the best femme principal this isle had seen in talkers. Her performance here just about clinches that rating. They call her a trouper in the picture and that’s what she is, and a sweetheart for the talkers.
Miss Page is also apt to bowl the trade over with a contribution that’s natural all the way, plus her percentage on appearance. Under a handicap during the two instances of the sister team in a tryout and then in leading a number, because she can’t dance, the remainder of her performance is easily sufficient to make this impediment distinctly negligible.
A break for Charlie King, who still sings a neat song and can’t shout as he was prone to do on a stage. King looks as good as he plays and plants comedy lines as they should be delivered, that also going for Miss Love. Other cast support is up to the mark with the exception of Kenneth Thomson, as the chaser, who plays too slow and doesn’t convince amidst the pyrotechnic display going on about him. Jed Prouty is doing a stutter role, as Tom Dugan did in “Lights of New York” and “The Barker,” always for a laugh.
Book carries some satirical flings at show business smacking of Gleason and Goulding, the former briefly flashed in the opening sequence in the professional department of a music publishing office, and pie for a first night picture mob which didn’t expect it. First of the three melodies is launched almost immediately in this scene, King trying it out for the surrounding mob. Note combination isn’t there, the picture’s major lapse, and it might have been better had it been interchanged with “You Were Meant for Me,” which also doesn’t particularly tickle the ear, but is a better bet than the title ditty. “Wedding of the Painted Doll” is the proscenium epic in color with everybody on stage slowly disappearing through trap doors as the curtain drops. No principals involved, it simply being an ensemble number with an off screen voice warbling the lyric to the action. Good looking, but only outstanding from a novelty angle and what it implies for the future. Instance of King singing the love song to Miss Page in an apartment is marked by the theatrical license of bringing in an unseen orchestra for accompaniment, not out of proportion. Chorus numbers are mostly given to time step taps with the color footage also holding ensemble male singing, evidently from an upstage quartet as being about all the volume the microphone could comfortably stand.
Excellent bits of sound workmanship are that of camera and mike following Miss Page and the heavy along a dance floor to pick up their conversation as they glide and a tap routine floating in during dialog in rehearsals. Chorus dance stuff has been aided by dressing the girls in black and white to make them stand in relief. Studio’s trouble here is to overcome the miniature size of the individual images when the camera moves back to cover the full stage. Understanding is that the present theory is to overcome this by shooting from the side boxes, or wings, or with the aid of special wide angle lenses. Perhaps the big screen, used for “Trail of ’98,” might ease this difficulty. It ought to be an effect worth trying as the Astor screen can enlarge and diminish to normal at will.
Somebody has done something with this theater’s wiring since “Valentine” departed. Amplification at this performance was extraordinarily good and delightfully free from ground noises, either during the dialog or instrumental numbers. Also noticeable is the lack of special effort in the picture to make all minor sound register.
“Broadway Melody” has everything a silent picture should have outside of its dialog. A basic story with some sense to it, action, excellent direction, laughs, a tear, a couple of great performances and plenty of sex. It’s the fastest moving talker that’s come in, regardless of an anti-climax, with some of the stuff so flip and quick that when the capacity gets over 2,000 they may not catch everything. It’s perfectly set at the Astor. And will it get dough around the country. Plenty.
1928/1929: Actress (Bessie Love), Directing (Harry Beaumont), Outstanding Picture (Metro Goldwyn Mayer)