The late 1920s saw cinema undergo a revolution with the emergence of “talkies”. Among the earliest talkies to integrate sound and image was The Broadway Melody, MGM’s pioneering backstage musical romance. Its massive success kicked off a decades-long genre boom, while making history as the first Best Picture Oscar winner. Now on Blu-ray from Warner Archive, The Broadway Melody offers an invaluable glimpse at a formative moment in Hollywood history.
The Dawn of Movie Musicals
Since the earliest days of silent cinema, musical performances had accompanied films in theaters via orchestras and live singers. But synchronizing sound directly within movies long seemed an impossible feat. MGM production chief Irving Thalberg helped realize this longstanding ambition, pushing his studio to innovate despite the immense challenges.
After trial runs on musical shorts, MGM gambled big on The Broadway Melody, budgeting over $400,000 to integrate musical numbers into a feature narrative. To helm this technically daunting project, Thalberg hired Harry Beaumont, known for nimble films like Our Dancing Daughters. The simple backstage storyline provided ample excuses for performances while downplaying flaws in primitive recording.
Leading the cast were vaudeville sister act Anita Page and Bessie Love as small-town singers seeking their big break. Charles King brought Broadway experience as their producer/love interest. And established stars like Eddie Kane and Jed Prouty lent credibility in supporting roles. But the real star was sound technology making movie musicals possible for the first time.
Janky Story, Jazzy Numbers
Viewed today, The Broadway Melody suffers from an utterly rudimentary “story”. Threadbare even in 1929, the plot mainly functions as scaffolding on which to hang musical sequences. Creaky comic relief also hampers pacing, with baffling detours involving gangsters and marital spats. Dialogue scenes expose the primitive state of early sound filming.
Thankfully, the musical numbers themselves remain charming time capsules. Charles King’s relaxed crooning techniques fascinatingly predate more polished studio-era styles. And standards like “You Were Meant For Me” tap into the emerging jazz and swing trends of the late 1920s. Bessie Love’s rendition pleasingly fusion soft jazz vocals with toe-tapping energy.
Anita Page’s standout dramatic solo “The Wedding of the Painted Doll” showcases Broadway Melody’s pioneering marriage of image and sound. As Page mournfully sings, the camera slowly dollies in, amplifying her emotional crescendo through intimate close-ups. It’s a striking sequence that demonstrates early musical cinema’s raw power and potential.
Stunning A/V Upgrade for the Blu-ray era
No original film elements survive for The Broadway Melody, long presumed lost. But Warner Archive’s restoration team has pieced together the best possible version using multiple archive prints. Considering the minimal materials available, this Blu-ray still manages to impress.
The 1.20:1 picture looks nicely filmic throughout, with healthy grain and strong contrast. Fine details in costumes and sets emerge despite the age and multiple sources. The 2.0 mono soundtrack has also been cleaned up substantially. Some buzz and hiss remain, but overall fidelity is quite robust for a 90+ year old optical mix. The musical numbers display decent range, avoiding shrillness. This loving restoration gives The Broadway Melody new vibrancy.
The Broadway Melody is an Indispensable Cinematic Relic
The Broadway Melody rightfully stands as a seminal entry in Hollywood’s musical lineage. It forever transformed public perception of what cinema could achieve. Coming of age alongside movies themselves, the musical genre has permeated every decade since this milestone debut.
Modern viewers must adjust expectations when revisiting primitive talkies like The Broadway Melody. Technical crudity and stagy storytelling inevitably betray the film’s genesis in vaudeville and silent cinema. But appreciating this evolutionary starting point only enhances enjoyment of its still-potent charms. Warner Archive’s restored version provides the best means of experiencing a transformative film that made Hollywood history.
What do I get for special features?
- 5 different Metro Movietone Revues
- A collection of musical shorts