Monday, February 25, 2019

The Broadway Melody Made Cinematic History By Being The First Subpar Movie to Win Best Picture

Do you hear that? It's the sound of how much impact introducing sound into motion pictures had on the artform of cinema as a whole. So influential was this technological breakthrough that its widely speculated to be a key reason why The Broadway Melody managed to score a Best Picture win at the second Academy Awards ceremony, the first ever ceremony that saw non-silent films competing for Best Picture. In terms of its technological innovations, The Broadway Melody was a breakthrough (though it was far from the first movie to use sound) but unlike other films that pushed cinematic technology forward like The Wizard of Oz or Toy Story, The Broadway Melody as just a movie is pretty lackluster.

Everybody comes into the world of showbiz with dreams of glitz and glamor and the Mahoney sisters, Queenie (Anita Page) and Hank (Bessie Love), are no different. These two singers and dancers are looking for a big break alongside songwriter Eddie Kearns (Charles King). Though they manage to score some work as stage performers, conflict emerges from how Queenie begins to take off like a rocket as a performer, a career path that Hank certainly isn't on. Further turmoil emerges from a love triangle between the Mahoney sisters and Eddie Kearns. Good luck caring about any of this conflict though given how the movie hits a relentless sour note.

It's established early on in The Broadway Melody that seemingly everybody in this universe hates each other. Especially women, every woman hates any other woman that crosses their path like cats hate water. Everybody is just snipping at each other and trading the most unimaginative wise-ass dialogue back and forth to each other in a manner that quickly grows tiresome and leaves one wishing there was anybody in this movie you could actually like being around. Queenie and Hank's big introduction scene is them going through a convoluted dog-and-pony show so they can get out of tipping a bellhop while Charles King portrays Eddie Kearns in this on-edge manner that makes the character constantly seem like he's two seconds away from snapping and just breaking everything in sight like Mr. Bean in that one scene from Fantastic Mr. Fox. This trio of characters would likely work great as the protagonists of a dark comedy but as the leads of a straightforward romantic musical that we're supposed to get emotionally invested in?

If one wonders if it's only the lead characters of The Broadway Melody that are so immensely off-putting, no worry, consistency in this department is maintained by way of the supporting cast. What brief glimpses we get of other supporting characters in The Broadway Melody have them predominately being either unpleasant grouches or, in the case of Uncle Jed and his stutter, something the film can turn to for mocking humor. There's nobody to like or be entertained by in The Broadway Melody, which is a problem because the story clearly wants the viewer to be invested in the characters and their struggles, particularly any of the struggles that come from the primary love triangle.

Even more baffling than the high dosage of poorly executed unlikeable characters are the assortment of musical numbers, which are filmed by way of some astoundingly bad camerawork. Being one of the first musical films in American cinema, it was impossible for The Broadway Melody to not stumble in breaking new cinematic terrain, but even in that historical context, the musical numbers of The Broadway Melody are filmed terribly. The camera is primarily kept a great deal of distance away from the musical numbers themselves in prolonged wide shots that replicate the experience of being stuck watching a Broadway musical in a terrible balcony seat. With so much distance between the camera and the spectacle-driven musical numbers, it's impossible to be entertained by the song-and-dance routines occuring off in the distance, let alone soak in the small character-based details these numbers could provide.

Whereas today the first instances of Technicolor in The Wizard of Oz or the groundbreaking CGI raptors in Jurassic Park still inspire wonder thanks to the craftsmanship that went into bringing them to life, the musical numbers in The Broadway Melody are filmed in a clumsy manner that feels outdated even just by the standards of movie musicals in the 1930s. The tunes themselves likely wouldn't be all that entertaining even if Gene Kelly were the one directing them though since the songs are all around forgettable. Your run-of-the-mill tepid musical might be able to manage one or two songs worth humming, but not in The Broadway Melody, a movie musical that proves that Spider-Man: Turn Off The Dark was not the biggest disaster to ever hit Broadway.

Note: This review originally said The Jazz Singer was the first film with sound, a distinction that is incorrect. 

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