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Saturday, August 25, 2012

Criterion's Broadway Bonus

The big noise for me on Criterion's Lonesome Blu-Ray was not the main attraction, but the Broadway extra that finally gives us access to a historic 1929 musical that Universal, by their account, sunk a million into. For decades, Broadway was thought to have survived only in battered silent prints, but here it is talking and singing to archaic rhythm that so endears many to clompety-clomp revues done when sound was evolving. All I knew about Broadway was what William K. Everson had written in Huff Society notes and his Citadel book, The Detective In Film (it's since been covered admirably by Richard Barrios in definitive A Song In The Dark, his study of early musicals).

Broadway is crime-thrilling in addition to music-making, so pudding is thick and varied. You could say it was a picture with everything, opening in crazy quilt '29 when all-singing-dancing rivals were elbowing each other on and off White Way screens, too many in fact for even an eager public to absorb. Any big picture was a gamble for Universal, their engine run primarily on serials, westerns, action what-nots. To drop a million, or whatever it actually cost, the company would sweat from there to hopeful recovery of investment.

Newspaper Ad for The Original Stage Play of Broadway
The meter had run from purchase of the stage property by Philip Dunning and George Abbot. Universal publicity said the play took place entirely on one set, with night club happenings only referred to by characters. If true, this must have been murder to sit through. From taking screen initiative, U put chief imagineer Dr. Paul Fejos (a real doctor, or researcher, or something) to design and directing. He conjured a night club set to dazzle senses and be a largest such in the short history of talkies so far. Seventy feet high and 340 feet long seems enough to house a dozen working crews. Uni cowboys Hoot, Ken, and big-hat Tom Mix could have done whole seasons with money pumped in here. Broadway's camera captured it all only with assist of a tallest ever crane that swooped like Rodan and must have scared hell out of actors it closed in upon.

"Cubistic shapes" dominated. There were twenty box seats with tables up and down walls continually assaulted by the roving camera. Many will say the crane and massive set it traversed was the whole show and sole point of modern interest, but Broadway's story and dialogue, admittedly languid at times, capture Prohibition flavor and high-life as lived just ahead of the Crash. There's enough slang here to generate a dictionary. Talk, dress, and manner among characters would have been stylized even then. Fast-pace New Yorkers really were a different breed of cat, especially to rurals who never experienced so much as a stop signal, and it was this fascination that allowed shows like Broadway to flourish.

Precode moralities are observed. A murder is committed and police excuse it. The cast isn't special to us, but patrons then knew Glenn Tryon from years doing comedy, and Merna Kennedy had been Chaplin's lead lady in The Circus. Evelyn Brent was surest bet for recognition, having come off similar-in-ways Underworld of a couple seasons back. Others in the cast were repeating stage roles, so were sure-footed (the play had sold tickets for nearly two years, plus more on the road). Gangster element is thick, though none claim individual notice as a later Robinson or Cagney would.

Broadway Premieres at Broadway's Globe Theatre

How Universal bally'ed Broadway at its own Broadway open is at least as interesting as the movie we're left with. Modern was a byword and selling focus. The Globe Theatre's lobby was jiggered to a deco polish. You could stand entranced by displays for as long as it took the show inside to unspool. Radio announcers were said to be working entrance areas for a first time in New York. Can't confirm truth of that claim, but Broadway had to be at vanguard of tying a premiere to live broadcast. You could buy piano rolls for "mechanical" keyboards, but also records on 78 RPM that pointed in a future's direction. Unique too was a sold at five-and-dimes "Movie Box"  you'd peek into and turn a crank for flip-viewing of Broadway highlights. It was a cardboard novelty that Universal promised kids would "go wild" for.

Hitting hard at Gotham/Globe open gave Universal impetus to sell Broadway at highest terms for subsequent play, but though it lured multitudes off the street being celebrated, that didn't mean Podunk patronage would similarly respond. You could argue then that Broadway was done as much for prestige and urban recognition as dollars. Certainly it was pictures like this, Showboat, and upcoming All Quiet On The Western Front that made Universal a company to reckon with. Of relics surviving from transitional Hollywood (and Universal), Broadway stands tall as its fabled club set. Visual pay-off alone is breath-taking. Was there anything so audacious in formative years of screen talk? Criterion tenders what is surely best-extant quality. This one plus Lonesome on a same Blu-Ray ticket amounts to bargain of a so-far summer.


Anonymous mido505 said...

Credit must go to the great Hal Mohr, who designed the crane that enabled Fejos to get the most out of his magnificent set. Beginning in the silent years photographing for such demanding patrons as Mary Pickford (Sparrows), Michael Curtiz (Noah's Ark), and Paul Leni (The Last Warning), Mohr helmed several key transitional sound films (The Jazz Singer, Broadway), that demonstrated that visual inventiveness would not fall victim to the tyrannous microphone. Mohr went on to win an Academy Award (on a write in vote!) for his staggering work on A Midsummer Night's Dream; and another for the rich Technicolor photography of The Phantom of the Opera (1943). Mohr continued to do masterful, innovative work right into the 60's (The Wild One, Underworld U.S.A.), and finished up on Andy Warhol's favorite picture, Creation of the Humanoids.

6:23 PM  
Blogger Samuel Wilson said...

Don't forget that Fejos's The Last Performance is part of that package as well, which should put it over the top as Disc of the Season.

11:57 PM  
Anonymous Dbenson said...

Saw the place in a college production years ago. The single set was a backstage room at a nightclub, where chorus girls would line up just before hopping onstage and gangsters, stage door johnnies and cops seemed to congregate. It was entertaining, with enough wise guy comedy that they didn't have to camp it up.

Remembered line: A comic henchman explains his attraction to the club's formidable torch singer. "Give me a girl who can sit in a morris chair and fill it!"

2:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The star of the original production of Broadway was Lee Tracy - which led to his starring in The Front Page.

Tracy's understudy was a young and inexperienced Jimmy Cagney


9:39 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

What could have been? If Lee Tracy had the lead in BROADWAY it would have been a vastly better film!

Glenn Tryon is just not likeable and Merna Kennedy is also unattractively clueless! And the police inspector---if he talked any slower he'd be a great cure for insomnia!

When I ran this film on the big screen, I was thinking "Where is Busby Berkeley when you need him?"
Despite the over done and over the top set and tiring crane shots framing ant-sized performers, totally amateurish production numbers or panning WAY too fast in several shots, there is a very slight charm in BROADWAY. Where else can you see a sober Arthur Houseman??? (answer: NIGHT LIFE IN RENO (1931)

The Paradise Night Club has to be the most UN-intimate space ever conceived as a showplace. Imagine what their heating and a/c bills must have been with a 60 foot ceiling?

There are many better art deco films---sorry to say BROADWAY isn't even in the top 20.

Lyric Photoplay Society
Toledo, Ohio

11:29 AM  

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