Even after we’ve already squared the “First Best Picture” discrepancy, the Oustanding Picture slate for the 2nd Academy Awards is quite tricky. Movies get lost. That’s simply what happens. We can (and should) push for preservation of our art in this industry, but despite our best efforts, we might lose prints completely. And so it is a common tragedy that The Patriot, one of the nominees for Best Picture in that very ceremony, has no complete print remaining in the world and we might never see it ever again. I can’t speak to its quality, but given that it’s directed by the brilliant Ernst Lubitsch, I like to imagine it worthy of standing amongst the masterpieces in his career. At the very least, I like to hope it’s a good movie.
Its absence from the world means that we filmgoers are left with four nominees from the 2nd Oscar ceremony and bruh… they’re all fucking bad. If I were to group the nominees of the first ceremony of the Oscars to be broadcasted (on the radio) and count their collective redeeming features, I’d be able to do it on one hand and spare fingers. So, in this lost cause, I’m not sure we could do worse than the actual winner of the evening The Broadway Melody (itself having a lost Technicolor part), but I’ll tell you something… we could do much much better.
In retrospect, it’s easy to see why The Broadway Melody was selected to take home the top prize: it’s about show business, it had the powerful Irving Thalberg of MGM producing it (Thalberg had another nominee within the slate – the variety special Hollywood Revue), but the most obvious one is a matter of historical precedence: The Broadway Melody is not only the first sound picture to have won the top Oscar prize, it is also the first all-talking musical (The Jazz Singer obviously predates it as the first sound musical, but is mostly made up of silent soundtrack-less moments).
There is one thing that is certain: it didn’t win that shit with merit. The Broadway Melody is one of only three movies to win the Best Picture Oscar without receiving ANY other Oscars at the ceremony (the others are Grand Hotel and Mutiny on the Bounty; also no film won more than 1 Oscar at this ceremony) and that says quite a lot.
The story is cookie-cutter showbiz, even as early as 1929: The Mahoney Sisters – Hank (Bessie Love) and Queenie (Anita Page) show up in New York to rendezvous with Hank’s fiancé Eddie Kearns (Charles King), who also happens to be a singer, songwriter, and their potential in on the Broadway stages. Indeed, they try to show off their nonexistent talent to producer Francis Zanfield and are barely able to get their approval to be in the play when the three of them make their appeal (Queenie having the most influence). The very number they try to show off to Zanfield is a good synecdoche for the quality – the girls’ voices of the screechiest quality and barely able to keep tempo, their dancing even clumsier and that’s even when them holding on to each other in the most boring fashion, the song (which I honestly don’t think I can identify) was hokey in the worst way, and the performance keeps getting stilted by the piano’s malfunction. “I’ve seen enough,” Zanfield eventually declares and he made it through the performance farther than I did. I hate to use a better movie to dig on something that already is poor on its own merit, but The Broadway Melody until this point basically promises the same type of backstage making-of-a-show drama that was more less perfected in 1933 with 42nd Street. While it tries to stick to the sameof structure in which dialogue scenes go long and far between poorly sung musical numbers (almost all composed by legendaries Nacio Herb Brown and lyricised by Arthur Freed, who have both obviously seen better days), things get more melodramatic but only less interesting.
During their lucky break on the show, Queenie – whom practically nobody can pass by without commenting on how beautiful she is – gets the attention of rich playboy Jock Warriner (Kenneth Thomson), to the dismay of Hank at the potential of it breaking the duo up and Eddie as he slowly discovers that the empty air between him and Queenie must mean that the two of them truly love each other, since he has even less chemistry with Hank. In the meantime, the two girls’ Uncle Jed (Jed Prouty) keeps offering Hank a part in his 30-week traveling show and Hank considers it for longer than necessary. This all comes ahead to the most protracted and unengaging climax of shouting and manly punching with the sense that it’s more dramatic than it is (the wikipedia summary makes the ending sound more cynical than the vanilla film bothers to present it). I’m not sure if I don’t prefer the bad singing to the melodrama, since at least the terrible show performances have inadvertent humor in them. The first big revue we watch is the most laughably simplistic modeling of New York to the titular song where it’s just the flattest full frame shot director Harry Beaumont could come up with of Eddie and the girls finding their way around it (and filling it up later with a chorus line didn’t miraculously help). Its hilarious incompetence is the closest this gets to entertaining.
I’m not sure I can recommend this to even completists about film history, that it spawned a franchise to rival the Gold Diggers is a sham, and there’s much better movies that revolutionize musicals and sound within the same era (and without the poor sound quality of scratches and volume inconsistency either, but innovation means flaws with happen). It’s morbid mistake of the Academy to award such a film on their second year, but they got it right the following year, thankfully…