Directed by: Harry Beaumont
Written by: Sarah Y. Mason, Norman Houston, James Gleason
Starring: Charles King, Anita Page, Bessie Love, Jed Prouty, Kenneth Thomson
Making it in show business comes down not only talent but also the people you know who can lead you in the right direction. If this idea persists today then it can be said, it had much more importance a century ago as these two sisters attempt to make it big in New York City.
Coming from out west, Queenie (Anita Page) and Hank (Bessie Love) arrive in New York City hoping to bring their sister act to the big city stages. They rely on Hank’s fiancee, Eddie (Charles King) to help get them through the door, as he prepares this new sought-after musical number. Things begin to get complicated as producers begin to show more interest in Queenie rather than Hank.
The Broadway Melody begins with the titular song being put together by the very exuberant Eddie, who knows he has a hit on his hands, as does everyone else in the room. Once people hear it, they rush him to be the people to accompany and perform the feature along with him. While tempted, he knows who it must go to. It then cuts to introducing the sister duo of Hank and Queenie, as they check into their hotel. From the onset, it’s made evident that Hank is far more resourceful as she maneuvers her way out of tipping the bellhop helping with their luggage. Hank has more protective features being the older one, but Queenie has something Hank could never possess. That difference lies in the attraction anyone in the room directly has for Queenie. It even happens with Hank’s fiancee, Eddie, who has not seen Queenie since she was much younger. Hank has so much faith in their combined talents that she does not notice the glut of attention her sister receives. Queenie becomes aware of it during their rehearsal, which then shifts the entire plot between the younger sister trying to shine while also shielding Hank from this reality.
I dutifully contend that The Broadway Melody would be much more of a solid feature had it focused solely on these two sisters, as they fight the machinations of this theatrical system. However, as a film of this sort would be in the 1920s, it’s riddled with having to include Eddie and the other men in the feature. It shifts into a love story, which really slows down the momentum of the feature. Queenie and Hank are incredibly compelling because of the culture they came from and how it conflicts with New York and the ultra-competitive environment they have just entered. Instead, the story becomes about Queenie trying to fight off her affection with Eddie and vice versa. The story then feels incredibly plain, seeing as the musical numbers did not provide anything special to distract us from the substandard story.
This film has been dubbed as one of the original musicals, which then launched the genre to dominate in Hollywood for decades to come. The impact cannot be denied, seeing as it was the first sound film to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards. It made the possibility of this genre inevitable, but looking back on it shows just how simplistic and rather maudlin the narrative became.
The actor who truly carried the feature was the person tasked with the thankless character of Hank. Bessie Love brought the spunk and portrayed a character who would not take crap from anyone, but the narrative completely discards her as a character as soon as it can. It made me sad for the character, and also Love because she played the character incredibly well. The character of Hank carried potential, but the storytellers wanted to focus everything on Queenie and how she must fight off the attraction of men, which makes the feature feel incredibly shallow when given several opportunities to be something far more substantial.
Looking back, The Broadway Melody certainly disappoints and stands out as one of the weakest films to ever win Best Picture. It laid down some groundwork but many other features expanded with more musical detail and stories worth telling. This can easily be left in the 1920s and something more to be regarded as a historical part of Hollywood rather than it being celebrated as a feature.