Saturday, January 9, 2010

The Broadway Melody: Avatar 80 years earlier?

The Broadway Melody (1929)

Directed By: Harry Beaumont

Starring: Bessie Love, Anita Page, Charles King

Studio: Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (MGM)

The Broadway Melody is notable for being the first talking musical. As the poster advertises—it is “All Talking, All Singing, All Dancing”. The Broadway Melody also featured the first-ever Technicolor sequence (during the “Wedding of the Painted Doll” number) which now, unfortunately, is lost. The film, in 1929, was a technical marvel, and offered moviegoers an attraction the likes of which they had never seen before. The technical innovations of the film—not the story—allowed The Broadway Melody to walk away with the Best Picture Oscar. Technology and innovation versus quality story and filmmaking is a conflict that has always provoked debate amongst cinephiles, and the Academy more often than not is wowed by the film which advances the technology of the medium.

The story of the film is very simple. Two sisters have a vaudeville act that they are bringing to New York City in hopes of making it big. Hank (yes, Hank is a woman’s name in the film, believed to be short for Henrietta, but never mentioned) is the veteran of the pair—older, wiser, and generally responsible for the well being of the younger and na├»ve Queenie (Page). Of the pair, Queenie is considered more beautiful, but it is Hank who has a relationship with Eddie Kearns (King), a singer-songwriter. The Mahoney sisters hitch onto Eddie’s wagon, but Eddie falls for Queenie in a big way. Queenie brushes his advances off at first, not wanting to hurt her sister, and she is pursued by a wealthy “stage-door Johnny”. Eventually, Hank realizes that Eddie and Queenie are meant for one another, and she steps aside, and recruits another girl to be part of her act.

Of the actors, only Bessie Love really comes of well in her role as Hank (she was the only member of the cast to be nominated for an Oscar, in this case Best Actress). Love not only sings, dances, and plays the ukulele; she has by far the most complex emotional role. In contrast, Anita Page is simply a pretty face—though she does look ravishing in a shimmery dress. None of the men are standouts.

As for the direction by Harry Beaumont, it is very basic, as filmmakers of the time had to make a transition in style from silents to talkies. Many of the shots are mid-range, basic, with no major camera movements. It is in many ways, like in the style of a sitcom. Also, Beaumont allows the actors to over-gesture instead of letting the dialogue and the emotions on the actors’ faces tell the story. Actors in silent films needed to exaggerate their movements to convey the story, and The Broadway Melody suffers from this transition. That said, the musical set pieces are well-staged. Beaumont certainly knew what the main attraction of his film would be. However, those expecting Busby Berkeley-style choreography, the grace of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, or the spectacle of the musicals from the 1950’s and 60’s are going to be disappointed. The Broadway Melody represents the movie musical in its infancy.

Weaknesses in the story aside, it must have been thrilling to be in a theater in 1929 and see and hear a musical come to life on screen. What once could only be experienced live in a theater could now be reasonably replicated on film for all to see. The innovations of sound and color must have left audiences breathless.

To bring the film into modern discussion one might think a pair of vaudeville sisters and ten foot tall blue aliens may not seem like they have much in common, but I think it is very fair to compare The Broadway Melody to the current Avatar from James Cameron. Many Oscar prognosticators believe Avatar is a sure-fire Best Picture nominee—if not the outright favorite to win the Oscar and global audiences are being thrilled by the use of motion capture technology and the most realistic use of 3-D yet. It is as if the viewers themselves are being transported to the planet Pandora. Once again, filmmaking innovations have enchanted audiences, so much so that the story of the actual film itself is being overlooked. Cameron himself has said Avatar certainly resembles another Best Picture winner—1990’s Dances With Wolves—and he has said that it is also similar to 1991’s At Play In the Fields of the Lord. He’s also ripped off his own Aliens in more than one instance, and there are similarities with The Matrix. A friend of mine also pointed out that Cameron seems to have borrowed elements from Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonriders of Pern novel series, and almost any message board discussing Avatar is finding Cameron’s film to have influences from all across many mediums of entertainment. Aside from the borrowing, I didn’t feel Avatar’s plot was anything new either and the performances as a whole were to be expected. Which begs the question: are we as moviegoers so willing to be enraptured by technical innovation that we ignore the quality of the story?

I don’t think that either Avatar (which to be fair, I enjoyed very much) or The Broadway Melody (which was charming in places but is dated) are terrible films. An awful film wouldn’t appeal to the massive audiences these films have attracted. I do think they represent films where innovation has trumped story. Both films have artistry, but is it right to call a film Best Picture simply because a new technology was advanced forth, or should story and acting count for something too?

We will see what Oscar has in store for Avatar but The Broadway Melody is the first of many choices the Academy has made where bigger, better, and newer (which “All Talking, All Singing, All Dancing” is code for) means Best Picture.

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