It’s safe to say that the first musical to take home an Outstanding Picture Award (1928-9) is a lullaby of Broadway but—aside from two hits: the title song and “You Were Meant for Me”—the film is nearly destroyed by stereotypical characterizations and a plotline from hell. Of course—not dissimilar to Grand Opera—the narrative quite happily plays 2nd violin to the music if—and this is vital—the score and its practitioners are first rate.
Vocally, The Broadway Melody hasn’t much to sing about. The original Mahoney sister act audition (Anita Page as the vrai beauty Queenie; Bessie Love as her bossy sibling, Hank) is mercifully truncated by the antics of a jealous blond (Mary Doran) in the early going while the reprise (now with a different co-star due to sudden marital bliss…) is equally out of tune and time.
Leading man, Eddie (Charles King) does much better as the love-struck crooner/composer (it gives nothing away that, as the show opens, he’s promised to Hank but it’s love at second sight when golden-garter Eddie discovers that Queenie has filled out in places only dreamed about by her cantankerous elder sis).
Uncle Jed (gamely rendered by Jed Prouty) is saddled with a debilitating stutter that brings no real mirth in our physically challenged consciousness of 2013.
Finally, the gay costume designer Turpe (this swishy part comes naturally to Drew Demorest) is as over-the-top as his producers/cheque signing mockers (one of which, Unconscious, wears the perpetual drunk badge with little valour much less faux honour—where was W.C. Fields when needed?).
The only real fun was to see and hear composer-pianist Nacio Herb Brown expertly tickle the ivories and gently chide his artistic competitors.
The production numbers (chorus lines rising and falling on platforms beneath the stage) looked better than they sounded. The solo tap went on too long, but managed to save face with a scintillating finish. Sadly, the contributions by the glittering belles unleashed were far too “untogether” (heels, toes and gestures) to produce anything near the level of showstopper.
From a strictly cinematic point of view, it is fascinating to see how John Arnold’s camera largely relies in talking, singing heads (with the notable exception of a couple of overhead shots) even as the editing (Sam Zimbalist, William LeVanway) takes full advantage of the storyline graphics and playbill announcements to shift from scene to scene.
Best to rent rather than buy; repeated viewings won’t reveal any hidden gems. JWR