Sunday, February 8, 2009

It was 80 years ago today...

Broadway Melody, the first talkie musical had its celebrity premiere February 1st 1929 at Grauman's Chinese Theatre in Hollywood. The public premiere was held a week later, February 8th in New York, making it exactly 80 years ago today. Historically, Broadway Melody is a very important movie, not only for movie musical lovers but for numerous other reasons as well.

Broadway Melody was the first talkie to have a score and songs specifically written for it by a songwriting team set up by a major studio. Former vaudeville artist Artur Freed wrote the lyrics and former tailor shop owner Nacio Herb Brown wrote the music. The two were hired by MGM in 1928. The story was written by Edmund Goulding and adapted for the screen by Sarah Y. Mason, Norman Houston and James Gleason. Harry Beaumont directed the picture. The three leading roles were played by Bessie Love, Anita Page and Charles King. Broadway Melody was shot on 26 days between September and November of 1928.

Bessie Love & Anita Page

At this time MGM only had one operable soundstage so Broadway Melody had to share space with the studio’s first all-talking dramatic film, The Trial of Mary Dugan (1929), starring Norma Shearer. During the morning and early afternoon, the Trial of Mary Dugan company would use the studio, and in the evening, the Broadway Melody cast and crew moved in.

Typical talkie set 1929

This is the original backstage musical and it tells the story of Hank and Queenie Mahoney, a sister act arriving in New York hoping to hit it big time on Braodway. Bessie Love plays Hank, the pepperpot of the sisters who's also running the act. She is in love with Eddie Kerns, an upcoming songwriter (Charles King) who eventually falls for Queenie, the younger sister (Anita Page). Rather than hurt her sister, Queenie starts running around with a scummy playboy. The truth about who loves who finally comes out and Hank backs off in a very memorable heart-breaking scene, giving up Eddie and the act, and clears the way for Queenie and Eddie.

The story is said to be loosely modeled on the life of The Duncan Sisters who also were sought after to play the leads in the movie. But for various reasons the leads instead went to Bessie and Anita. The Duncan's later got a consolation price in It's A Great Life which had a very similar plot but lacked the novelty value of its predecessor. It's A Great Life was to be The Duncan's only full length feature.

Bessie Love was nominated for an academy award for best actress in a leading role but lost to Mary Pickford in Coquette. Broadway Melody had three nominations and won the Oscar for best picture 1929-30.

Let's take a look at one interesting scene.
The movie starts off with a firework of sound at a Tin Pan Alley music publishing company. If we look closely we can see the composer Nacio Herb Brown at the piano and a glimpse of Arthur Freed as a spectator towards the end of the clip. The sound is noisy, the cutting is rough but the use of sound like this in a motion picture was something completely new to the audience.

The scene was orchestrated by the pioneering and inventive sound engineer Douglas Shearer who by no means was an experienced sound man at this time. Shearer was running the sound department at MGM as a one man operation and this was his third assignment. Maybe it tells something about MGM's look at the new talkie fad.

A proud Douglas Shearer with his 1930 Oscar for The Big House

Douglas Shearer was Queen Norma's older brother who came down to Hollywood from Canada one day to visit his sister. Norma quickly got him a job at MGM and almost by mistake he was chosen to set up the brand new sound department. As talking pictures was something new both to Shearer and to the world he had to be resourceful. In what seems to be a couple of weeks Shearer more or less invented how to make talking pictures.

A color frame from The Painted Doll number

Originally the film included a brief color sequence. The Wedding Of The Painted Doll, a ballet number sung by James Burroughs off camera. The sound was fine, however the dancers were not well rehearsed so Beaumont ordered a retake, but instead of letting the orchestra work overtime Douglas Shearer came up with the idea to use the soundtrack of the first take and let the dancers dance to the music coming from a loudspeaker. No one had an idea that the sound actually could be stiched on afterwords. Douglas Shearer had just invented the audio dubbing, a technique used in almost every single motion picture made ever since.

Broadway Melody is available on DVD


Raquel Stecher said...

A million lights they flicker there.
A million hearts beat quicker there!

I love this movie!

Great post as usual. Thank you so much for enlightening us on Douglas Shearer (Norma's bro). I always get excited when I see his name in the credits of any movie.

Can I ask a question Professor Jonas? Why is Anita Page hunched over in this movie? Is she trying to compensate for Bessie Love's lack of height? Or maybe she just had bad posture?

Jonas Nordin said...

Good question! Actually I think both ladies lacked height. Bessie of course was the shorter, clocking in at a petite 5'. Anita was always described as a "tallish blonde" but I could never call 5'2" tallish, but maybe this measure was taken while she was hunching :)

Anonymous said...

Hey!Raquelle pushed me out the window in her quest to post first!

Jonas, that color frame from "Painted Doll;" is there actually a surviving color print of the scene or is it hand colored for effect?

Jonas Nordin said...

King Of Jazz,
To be honest I don't really know if it's a "real" frame or not. The colors are quite awkward for two-strip Technicolor and to my knowledge there's absolutely no color elements left from it. But as it is an intriguing picture I decided to use it nevertheless.

Anonymous said...

Ah, okay. I didn't want to think I missed out on something!

Now to return to my sideline of looking in old cupboards and closets for overlooked nitrate prints from 1929 or so.

Jacqueline T. Lynch said...

Great post. Thanks so much for the interesting information on Douglas Shearer. I hadn't known he was the one who came up with film audio dubbing. Fascinating.

Unknown said...

My husband and I giggled through this movie last night. It was so interesting for us to observe the huge contrast between then and now. I could tell it was one of the early talkies, but I didn't know how early. The way the actors delivered their lines was frequently unnatural, and I noticed that the facial expressions were really broad, like they had to be during the silent movies to convey all the feeling that speech could not.

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