The second Best Picture Oscar winner finally gets a Blu-ray release, and though The Broadway Melody creaks a bit around the edges, this 94-year-old film remains an impressive production and stands as the blueprint for the Hollywood backstage musical. Warner Archive once again works its magic with a spectacular transfer struck from a 4K scan of the best preservation elements and remastered audio that masks most of the sonic imperfections of this early talkie. Some vintage extras add to the appeal of this top-notch release. Recommended.
"No skies of gray on the Great White Way, that's the Broadway melody..."
Many film fans credit 42nd Street with launching the movie musical and drafting the backstage blueprint that would fuel the genre for years, but if truth be told, that distinction goes to The Broadway Melody. The movie that coined the tagline "All talking, all singing, all dancing!" not only made more money than any other film in 1929, it also won the second Academy Award for Best Picture and was the first sound film to be so honored. Though its well-worn story of theatrical aspirations, heady success, and personal heartache may seem stale today, The Broadway Melody was hot stuff 94 years ago and earned considerable acclaim.
When you think of all the challenges movies faced in the early talkie era, many of which are hilariously lampooned in Singin' in the Rain, it's impossible not to admire what The Broadway Melody achieves. Yes, it shows its age in many ways - static camera angles, actors slightly out of microphone range, harsh audio quality - but considering it was MGM's first all-talking film and first musical, the craftsmanship is quite impressive and the two big production numbers - the title song and "The Wedding of the Painted Doll" - provide glimpses of the style, showmanship, and opulence that would soon define MGM musicals. (The latter number was originally shot in two-color Technicolor, but alas, the color footage no longer exists.)
Because musicals were an unproven commodity at the time, The Broadway Melody features more backstage drama than tuneful interludes as it chronicles the adventures of the Mahoney Sisters, a small-town vaudeville duo, who hope to make it big in New York City. Level-headed, brunette "Hank" (Bessie Love), short for Harriet, has the brains and drive, while the beauty belongs to blonde, mercurial Queenie (Anita Page). In true Ziegfeld fashion, Queenie catches the eye of impresario Francis Zanfield (Eddie Kane), as well as Hank's fiancé, leading man Eddie Kearns (Charles King), who hasn't seen Queenie since she was a young teen.
Though Queenie and Hank realize their mutual attraction, neither wants to hurt Hank, who's deeply devoted to them both. Tensions mount when Queenie becomes a star, allows success to go to her head, and begins hanging around rich playboy Jacques "Jock" Warriner (Kenneth Thomson), whose intentions are anything but honorable. (Whenever his name is uttered it sounds an awful lot like Warner Bros studio chief Jack Warner.) As Queenie hurtles headlong toward destruction, Hank tries to save her sister and salvage both her crumbling career and relationship with Eddie.
The story, written by established director Edmund Goulding (Grand Hotel), contains plenty of show business clichés. The question is...were they already clichés when the film was produced? The answer is probably yes, but director Harry Beaumont, who earned an Oscar nomination for his consummate work, handles the slight, uneven tale with finesse. (If you're a history buff, the aerial shots of New York's 1929 cityscape that open the movie are fascinating.) Though Beaumont fails to tone down Page's wild histrionics in her first talking picture, he draws a nuanced performance from Love, who nabbed a Best Actress Oscar nod for her sincere, understated portrayal.
The score by composer Nacio Herb Brown, who married Page in 1934, and lyricist Arthur Freed, who would begin his legendary tenure as MGM's flagship musical producer a decade later, not only contains the familiar title tune, but also the lovely ballad "You Were Meant for Me," which most of us remember from Singin' in the Rain. (Gene Kelly croons it to Debbie Reynolds on an empty soundstage.) Many of us also recall a portion of "The Broadway Melody" number at the beginning of the 1974 MGM musicals documentary That's Entertainment! (Narrator Frank Sinatra snarkily points out the "slightly overweight chorus girls" - a line that would rightly incite derision today.) Though it's a bit amateurish and can't compare to the lavish, polished, and innovative MGM numbers of the 1940s and '50s, "The Broadway Melody" works within the film's context and the era's production constraints and actually looks like a number that would - and more importantly could - be performed on a Broadway stage.
The Broadway Melody would spawn three follow-up films - The Broadway Melody of 1936, The Broadway Melody of 1938, and The Broadway Melody of 1940 - all of which are more elaborate, sophisticated, and captivating than the 1929 original. While that's not surprising given their far more illustrious casts (Eleanor Powell starred in all three, Robert Taylor, George Murphy, and Buddy Ebsen appeared in two, and Fred Astaire and Judy Garland each graced one) and all the cinematic advancements that occurred at a fast and furious clip throughout the 1930s, we should never dismiss the franchise's first installment or minimize its historical significance. Anyone who loves musicals owes The Broadway Melody a huge debt. It's the movie that gave birth to a beloved genre that still wows and exhilarates us almost a century later. That's entertainment, indeed!
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Broadway Melody arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.
The Broadway Melody is 94 years old(!), but thanks to a brand new 4K scan of the best preservation elements it looks decades younger. What an advertisement for film preservation and restoration this transfer is! WarnerMedia Library Historian George Feltenstein recently noted on The Extras podcast that because only portions of the original negative have survived (several reels decomposed over the years), various 35 mm prints filled in the gaps. A 16 mm print also yielded "snippets" that the 35 mm prints did not contain. (Those snippets do not appear on the 2005 DVD.) The result is the definitive home video presentation of The Broadway Melody.
Despite the use of multiple sources, picture quality remains remarkably consistent throughout. Clarity, contrast, and grayscale are spectacular, producing a vibrant, contoured image that exhibits a surprising amount of depth. Though some grain reduction techniques have been applied, their judicious use ensures the picture still exudes a palpable film-like feel. Some shots appear soft and a bit fuzzy, but it's easy to forgive the slight decrement in quality because of the movie's (very) advanced age. Blacks are rich, the bright whites never bloom, and shadow delineation is quite good. Sharp close-ups nicely showcase the often tear-stained cheeks of Page and Love and only a few errant specks dot the otherwise pristine print.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track is equally impressive. It's unfathomable that an early talkie track can be almost completely devoid of surface noise, but aside from a few faint instances that's the case here, thanks to the excellent remastering performed by the Warner Archive audio team. Yes, some of the limitations of the primitive recording equipment are evident - thin, shrill-sounding voices, brittle tones, and dialogue that's sometimes indistinct and muffled - but that's to be expected. The stationary microphones also occasionally produce spatial anomalies.
That said, the track delivers solid audio as it nicely balances music, dialogue, and effects. The songs and orchestrations sound especially fine, with very good fidelity and tonal depth helping them fill the room. Within the context of the era in which it was recorded, the audio here ranks quite highly, especially when compared to other films from the same period that have been released on Blu-ray. I'm sure The Broadway Melody sounds a helluva lot better here than it did during its original theatrical engagement.
All the extras from the 2005 DVD have been ported over to this Blu-ray release.
Metro Movietone Review Shorts (SD, 58 minutes) - Five editions of MGM's early-talkie musical shorts series (#1, 2, 3, 4, and 7) are included and feature a number of novelty acts. Opera and pop singers, sister acts, tap dancers, and orchestras all perform, but none of the acts make a lasting impression. As a historical record of the times, however, these shorts are priceless.
Van and Schenck Metro Movietone Act (SD, 5 minutes) - The popular vaudeville duo of Gus Van and Joe Schenck (who also appear in one of the shorts above) sing a couple of songs in this brief short.
Vintage Short: The Dogway Melody (SD, 16 minutes) - This rare two-reeler features an all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing, all-dog cast that cleverly spoofs The Broadway Melody.
The three follow-ups to The Broadway Melody may be more fun than the original, but this lavish early talkie put the movie musical on the map and remains an impressive production more than nine decades after its premiere. A Best Picture Oscar winner, The Broadway Melody looks like a million bucks on Blu-ray, thanks to a brand-new 4K scan of the best preservation elements. The remastered audio and all the extras from the 2005 DVD also distinguish this superior release. Recommended.