The Broadway Melody was a technological innovation: a moving picture with sound. This is an in-depth look at the historical impact of the movie, with dozens of photos, audio and video. Called a “talkie,” dramatic Broadway stage acts and chorus lines were shown to the masses across America for the first time. Released during the boom that preceded the Great Depression, The Broadway Melody brought the most popular Broadway stars and acts to the big screen. I dug through video, audio, and newspaper archives to find out what people thought of the film, its technology, and how America anticipated the wonder of the “talkies.”
The second Best Picture winner and feature in The Best Picture History Project, The Broadway Melody gives us a glimpse into the prosperity and excitement in America just before the Great Depression took hold. The sexual norms had changed, making pictures with nudity and sex a draw at the box office, something that would change for decades thereafter.
The Broadway Melody was the perfect film to introduce the new technology to audiences. The musical presented beautiful visuals of women in scantily clad costumes dancing in chorus lines. These visually impressive choreographed chorus line dance moves were legendary at that time, and few people had actually seen them. They could enjoy not only the speaking voices of the actors for the first time, but the singing voices of famous Broadway stars. Prior to this period of time, people could only listen to records or radio, and neither of these were in the majority of homes.
The 2nd Academy Awards was controversial because many of the winning films and people were closely related to people on the board of judges. It was this controversy that led to all academy members getting one vote, from the cameramen to the studio heads. I do not consider this to be an “illegitimate” win. Looking back at the historical context, this movie was true to its time and was the best use of technology to date. Mary Pickford’s win for Best Actress in Coquette was seen as undeserved. She had been the first actress to campaign to win the award, a common practice today.
Some homes had radio but had never seen radio with a moving picture together. Usually there were musicians playing the score alongside the picture. In fact, many theaters didn’t even have electronic speakers, so MGM released a silent version of The Broadway Melody. For those that lived near enough to a theater with sound technology, this was the modern equivalent of us seeing Tupac perform as a hologram.
The Brownsville Herald published an article on their local theater upgrading to Vitaphone technology for the premier of The Broadway Melody. “Inaugurating a Vitaphone with “Broadway Melody,” . . . the lobby was packed with a long line practically throught (sp) the afternoon and evening and at times ticket sales were halted entirely.”
The weather in Brownsville that day was in the low 80’s (F) with cloud cover. The theater was premiering a technology that the people of South Texas had heard of – a wax disc could be played on a Victrola-like machine in perfect synchronization with the moving picture. At this point, early in 1929, only about 40% of Americans had a radio in the home. People came out in droves. This happened in theaters all over the nation. The Broadway Melody cost $379,000 to make but made $4.4 million at the box office. That is the equivalent of $66.7 million dollars today.
Advertisements for the movie proclaimed, “Talking! Music! Dancing!” and included drawings of scantily clad women. Times were good and people had a few extra dollars to go and see the most hyped movie of the day. If only they knew how bad they’d need those dollars in just a few months, when the market crash sparked the Great Depression.
As we watched the Best Picture winners, one after another, we noticed the energy of the films change along the mood of the country. Watching The Broadway Melody, with its joyful celebration of excess, the knowledge of what was about to happen to these people casts a shadow over the film. You and I know that in just a few months, the markets will crash and everything will change. The legacy left by The Broadway Melody is a glimpse into a carefree, progressive America fully of prosperity and glee; a frozen moment of time before decades of depression, war, and struggle.
Two sisters, Harriet (Hank) and Queenie, take their vaudeville act to New York to become Broadway stars. Hank, the older, more sensible sister, is engaged to a fellow named Eddie. Apparently they have been separated for some time but continued the engagement long distance, because Eddie has not seen her or her sister for several years. When they are reunited, Eddie is stunned at how grown up and beautiful Hank’s little sister Queenie has become. Later, when the man they audition for rejects Hank, Queenie convinces him to hire both of them for one wage. Eddie overhears this and is further intrigued by Queenie, who I need to remind you is HIS FIANCE’S LITTLE SISTER.
Queenie takes up with a guy named Jock, because she reciprocates Eddie’s feelings and knows it is wrong to want to break up your sister’s engagement. Jock is a jackass, and when he tries to sleep with her and she rejects him, he becomes nasty. Eddie breaks in to defend her, but Jock knocks him out with a clean blow. Queenie fusses over Eddie. Hank can clearly see that Eddie loves Queenie, so she lies and tells him she never loved him and was just engaged to him to advance her career. With the engagement broken, Eddie and Queenie can be together. Hank goes back to her room, distraught.
Queenie and Eddie get married, and invite Hank to live with them. She does, for a while, and then exits with a friend to take another chance at Broadway, without her sister. She says something to the effect of ‘We’ll be in a show within six months.’ I cringe because I am from the future and I know that the Great Depression is just around the corner and is going to ruin any plans she has for Broadway. So she loses the man to her sister, goes off into the sunset alone while they live happily ever after.
Just as the technology has become outdated and out of favor, so did the plot. I wanted to love this movie so much because of the historical impact, but the plot just does not stand the test of time. The music and hype around the movie paint this as a happy ending. I couldn’t help but think that it was a TERRIBLE ending for poor Hank, who sacrificed everything so her fiancé could marry her little sister. I mean, Jerry Springer would be involved if this happened today, and rightly so!
I found two differing critiques of The Broadway Melody, which I will present in their original form. In one, a critic declares that no one will ever enjoy musicals on screen, and the other loved it.
A major feature of this film was that it had synchronous sound. Not only could you see the chorus girls dancing but you could hear the actual audio from Broadway. Most Americans simply did not have the money for travel and tickets to a show. This made the movie a technological marvel. This new technology allowed Americans to hear the music as played. This also greatly decreased the costs of putting on a “picture show” – the theaters did not have to wait for entire orchestras or certain musicians to be available.
Thanks to archive.org, these recordings are preserved and able to listen to. I’ve included the original recordings right here – feel free to have a listen! These are not remastered like what you see if you rent the movie. These have the scratches from the needle and all of the beautiful imperfections that make listening to a record on vinyl a unique experience.
The Broadway Melody
This song is preserved at archive.org in several formats. I chose the recording of a 78 RPM (revolutions per minute) album. Charles King, the male lead actor, sings the song accompanied by an orchestra. These were recorded in one take, unlike recordings of today where different instruments and vocals are spliced together digitally.
Love Boat was performed by Charles King. His beautiful tenor is a wonderful match with this song.
You Were Meant For Me
You Were Meant For Me is the most recognized song from The Broadway Melody. It has been remade and used in many soundtracks – most notably Gene Kelly singing it to Debbie Reynolds in Singin’ in the Rain. Eddie serenades Queenie, no longer able to pretend that he loves her older sister. I’ve included a youtube recording of this song because the quality is better. Enjoy!
Wedding of the Painted Doll
Wedding of the Painted Doll was a scene filmed from the audience’s perspective. This is one of the scenes we talk about when we say it brought Broadway to the masses. There is a YouTube video that shows the entire scene. Imagine seeing this a small child in a rural town – it would be mesmerizing!
This number features Hank and Queenie singing “He’s our Boy Friend,” which is appropriate since they’re both in love with the same man. The producers of the movie were offering some comic relief along with more stunning visuals of Broadway stage production at its finest.
Truthful Deacon Brown
Written by Willard Robison, I had difficulty finding any recordings of this song other than what you see when you watch the movie. Fortunately, I’m a trained librarian and that degree is finally good for something. Knowing that Willard Robison wrote the song, I checked out the archive.org audio recordings for him. I found “Truthful Parson Brown.” It’s my favorite song in the movie. It’s jazz, it has character, and tells a great story. This is probably my favorite find while looking into this movie. Enjoy!
Lovely Lady was written by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown. I was unable to locate any recordings of this song. Please send any info you may find to firstname.lastname@example.org
The Broadway Melody Trivia
When Anita Page died on September 6, 2008, she was the last living person who attended the 1929 Academy Awards, where The Broadway Melody won Best Picture.
The technology was so new that film directors did not quite know how to get the sound right. After listening to the recordings, they would sometimes need to change the set to achieve better acoustics and re-film the entire scene.
The silent version of the film showed one scene with red and green filters, bringing color to the big screen and enticing people to see the film in different areas. This also gave incentive to theaters who weren’t equipped for sound to run the film.
The film spurred three sequels, called “The Broadway Melody of 1936,” “The Broadway Melody of 1938,” and The Broadway Melody of 1940.”
Bessie Love was nominated for Best Actress by the Academy.
The Best Picture History Project
This has been the 2nd installment in The Best Picture History Project. Using many different types of media, I look at each film and how it reflected the American people at the time. Many films bring to light the mood of the country. Sometimes somber, sometimes filling the need for escapism, and sometimes celebrating new technology or societal barriers that are close to being broken, these films give you a peek at what life was like for those that came before us. At the very least, it’s fun to go back and sort through old photos and videos, and that’s what I hope you come back each week to do!
Next week, we will take a good look at All Quiet on the Western Front. Grab a copy of the book and movie and I’ll see you back here soon!