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Monday, March 25, 2019

Greenbriar's Broadway and Vaudeville Week

The Broadway Melody Looms Large For 1929

Jack Cummings Presents Ceremonial Megaphone to Broadway Melody's Director Harry Beaumont

Denounced by some as The Worst Movie To Ever Win Best Picture, this a matter of opinion and shouldn’t apply anyway to something this old. Why not award a historic first, which The Broadway Melody certainly was/still is. Did they like it in 1929? Well, The New York Daily News began their review with “Zowie!,” praise upward from there. There had not so far been such a pro-job of a talkie. Metro knew that and crowed accordingly. Their souvenir book for The Broadway Melody (yours for a quarter in the lobby) had a page headed “The Quality Talking Picture,” which minced no words: “not a talking picture scene … was “shot” … until months of painstaking production under expert supervision made it apparent that everything was in readiness to produce dialogue films technically and artistically as good as the best silent dramas.” Florid to a fault, as was most studio handouts, but also a rag on Warner Bros. for “haste-make-waste” in rabid pursuit of sound from 1926. Metro waited, bided time, let rivals test viewer patience with inferior product. The Broadway Melody would demonstrate how things could be done where highest standards were applied. February 1, 1929 open at Broadway’s Astor Theatre settled any question that talkies were here to stay.

First impression being critical, Leo tech staffers sifted everything but the carpet (maybe that too) at the Astor and West Coast host Grauman’s to rid both of gremlins that may upset smooth presentation. Not for Metro was synch bumps and speaker gaffes that sent many a patron home disgruntled. These shows had to be perfect to a tee, word-of-mouth never so critical as now. “Two great sound stages at Culver City” were devoted to The Broadway Melody and talkers to come. Silents weren’t done for, of course, not yet anyway. Too many small venues needed them, so Leo got out a voiceless version of The Broadway Melody, which had Broadway, but no melodies, lest those supplied by piano tinklers in hick houses not yet wired. Ones of us in the wilds were resigned to urban keys being a most vital source of life blood to filmmakers. We were lucky, in fact, that they let us see their output at all. As to impact on Gotham, the real Broadway that is, movies laid a haymaker. Given song and dance, and at such bargain admission, why buy tickets to plays and revues aimed more at high hats/deep pockets? But then modest vaudeville took its lick, a TKO on grand and organized scale. Cheering was now sole province of film folk, for they had drubbed all of entertainment rivals and need only pick bones for what performers they could use.

Bessie Love Plies Variety Trade Ahead of Her Broadway Melody Casting

The Broadway Melody stayed at the Astor from February 1929 into August, attendance records predictably crushed. Policy was strictly roadshow, $2 tops, men often as not in formal attire. Hollywood coveted everything the Main Stem had, especially perception of class. Too many remembered the stink of nickelodeons, but progress had been made, and none represented it so well as The Broadway Melody. Latter was scarcely a patch on the best a White Way had to offer (even the worst, some said), but welcome mats were laid to all, with popular prices the promise of sub-runs and nabes that would get The Broadway Melody eventually. Not to be forgot is what sock amusement this was in 1929 --- still is to my of-late estimate at TCM, where The Broadway Melody plays HD and, blown up to large image, has or least suggests grandeur first-run watchers knew. If it’s insight to the era you want, this has it by yards, insider talk so rife that you need a glossary, as in Bessie Love saying to Anita Page that “we’re as good as the Duncans,” further explanation not needed, at least back then. The Duncans, of course, were a sister act that Love/Page duplicate in The Broadway Melody. Bessie refers to doing “Sun time,” which was variety shorthand for small-time trouping for the Gus Sun circuit, him tiers below better known and bigger-time vaudeville. The Broadway Melody squares away total conviction in its opening scene set at NY’s teeming Tin Pan Alley, a demo of MGM grasp of sound what with a beehive of singers, piano smiths, pluggers, all shilling at once, an exhilarating starter gun.

Bessie and Anita Make a Harry Beaumont Sandwich
Bessie Love wrote an enchanting memoir about her life in pictures called “From Hollywood With Love.” Who dreamed this woman lasted so long at the plow as from Intolerance to final bow that was The Hunger in 1983? That’s giving Lillian Gish a run for money. Love had been busy in silents, tried vaudeville when chips were reduced, then got a spike where musicals saw her dance-song skills noticed. She talks at length about The Broadway Melody in her book, as in chaotic grind it was. Twelve-or-more hour workdays, with no overtime, was the norm. Recording was strictly trial-and-error, mostly error. Whenever you thought something was got right, the recording disc would jump its track. Anita Page had a nervous crack-up one day and had to go home early. Thalberg gave Love a contract which paid her for forty weeks a year even though she'd work like a dog for fifty-two. She gives a best explanation of falsity behind “time off” those twelve unpaid weeks were supposed to represent. There was never time off at Metro, or any of the studios. If you could be got to work, you went. Even out of town, or on so-called vacation, there was press and promoting to do. Love tells about The Broadway Melody playing Grauman’s on a virtual loop, and how she was obliged to head down after grueling days to intro or outro the show, greet the audience, “to clown or do something.” Shouldn’t the theatre have paid her? --- no matter, they didn’t.

Songs in The Broadway Melody veer from to-be standards to oddballs like “The Boy Friend,” another of paeans to morality loosened by the jazzy age. Fact they were girly-sang made lyrics the more a stimulus. Love and Page dance out with a chorus, both in brief attire, Bessie strumming a uke. Words go thus: “Clear the decks, when he necks, there’s no other in his sex …” Love recalled an orchestra seated just off-camera to accompany. Everything had to be caught live, or go uncaught, and done again. “If he’ll say, come my way, I’m ready now,” is shorthand for yes to advances, “He’s so hot …just a great big hotsy-tot” the sum-up. I’m guessing there were hundreds of songs as suggestive as this. Vitaphone shorts and precode features are full of them. They didn’t call it “hot jazz” for nothing. I wonder if parents, especially of adolescent girls, forbade radio, gramophones, even sheet music, to spare offspring this stuff. Anyone who imagines the 20’s to be an age of innocence need to plow deeper.

Back in the day of Hollywood Collector shows, when old-time celebs hawked autographs, someone pointed out an elderly lady seated at the Beverly Garland Hotel’s restaurant. “That’s Anita Page,” they whispered, and sure enough, sixty-five years after The Broadway Melody, there she was. Wish now I had spoken, just to say from then on (and here) that I met Anita Page. Maybe just seeing her was enough. Melody’s souvenir book had a column called “Adventurous Anita,” which said she enrolled in a “university class” for voice culture, two hours a night after work. If this were true, which I doubt, when did our girl sleep? Anita mentions a device called “the voice dissector” that had been installed at USC, “a great help to many persons starting talking picture work.” What a crazy and confused era this was. Anita Page lasted but three years at MGM after The Broadway Melody. She claimed later that Louis Mayer made a pass at her (unsuccessful, natch). The Broadway Melody can be had on DVD in addition to the TCM runs. The disc also has a group of “Metro Movietone Revues,” which are Leo-equivalent of Vitaphone shorts WB did. They are alone worth the price of purchase.


Blogger radiotelefonia said...

This was the very first talkie to be released in most of the world with no silent version available, even if there was one. It was also the very first talkie to be shown in Argentina and it was the very first movie to be shown with Spanish language subtitles when it was released in June 1929.

9:10 AM  
Blogger Scott MacGillivray said...

Mr. Mayer's advances notwithstanding, Anita Page probably lasted there only three years because of her speaking voice. Like Clara Bow and especially Sally O'Neil, she spoke with a pronounced New York accent. It didn't matter much with Clara Bow because her speech fit her established working-girl personality, but M-G-M's writers may have winced when their romantic, sophisticated dialogue came out different when Anita Page recited it.

Like other M-G-M ingenues who didn't stay there (Marceline Day, Mary Nolan, Edwina Booth, Dorothy Sebastian), Page was hired by smaller studios anxious to use an M-G-M name, so her career lasted a bit longer than the three years.

10:10 AM  
Blogger Randy Jepsen said...

The dancing in this creaky curio is LOL. Anita Page sure looks good in the third photo from the bottom.

12:00 PM  
Blogger Marc J. Hampton said...

Never knew there was a Bessie Love autobiography ...thanks for the heads up. Just watched a fascinating Thames interview with her on You Tube from the 70s. The Broadway Melody has a fantastic opening scene...wish the rest was as snappy and fun.

5:32 PM  
Blogger Reg Hartt said...

That 1929 $2 ticket is but a few pennies shy of $30 today. This was no cheap flick. MGM knew the value of a raised price to raise expectations. so do I. The trick is to surpass expectations. That I do nightly. Show Business is no longer a business as the shop has been turned into a five and dime.

3:38 PM  

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