Saturday, January 31, 2015

Audient Auscars: The Broadway Melody

Welcome to the first installment of Audient Auscars, my 2015 series that will involve watching one best picture winner I haven't yet seen per month, going chronologically.

Repeating what my italicized intro just told you, welcome to my 2015 series!

I've got 15 Oscar best picture winners that I have yet to see, and in 2015, I'm going to tackle 12 of those. I'm going chronologically from the oldest to the newest, though I may have to skip one or two that I can't get my hands on. (It better be only one or two, though, else this series will end in November.) Tom Jones, for example, is not available for rental on iTunes, so I may have to get creative with that one.

It seems appropriate to start with the first talkie that ever won best picture: The Broadway Melody. The 1928-1929 winner has another special designation that I just learned about. It was not only a first, but it was also a last: the last movie to be selected as the winner by a five-man committee. After the (probably correct) perception of shenanigans surrounding its win, as it was Louis B. Mayer's pet project and he was the guy who started the Academy, voting was undertaken by the entire Academy starting the following year.

I understand The Broadway Melody was also the first MGM musical. Well, there were better ones to come. I don't want to get too nitpicky about the quality of a film this soon into the sound era, but the introduction of sound alone does not account for an uninteresting story and bland production design. Wings the year before is a grand, bustling extravaganza of a movie, set in World War I and featuring all kinds of interpersonal drama and aviation stunts. On the other hand, this is a movie about two sisters trying to make it on Broadway.

However, it manages to be pleasant enough in its own right. A lot of that has to do with the performance of Bessie Love as Hank Mahoney, the less-attractive (but more talented) sister of Queenie Mahoney (Anita Page). Love really puts a lot into her performance as the spurned Mahoney, who ultimately loses her intended to her prettier sister. She seems to have figured out how to deliver a big emotional scene (by herself in her dressing room, since she remains stoical in front of her sister) without going big -- not a simple task for actors transitioning away from the showy traditions of silent film. She really makes her sadness nuanced, and the film is impressive for not giving her quite the ending you would imagine her getting. Unfortunately, most of the good stuff related to her performance doesn't come until the last half-hour or so, and there's a lot of unsatisfying "will we make it on Broadway or won't we?" material to wade through before then.

The Broadway Melody also seems to be one of the earliest instances of the Academy's trademark tendency to congratulate itself. It's not a movie about movies, of course, but it's a movie about show biz, and that's more or less the same thing. Other than the meddling of Mayer, that seems the primary reason to reward a sturdy but otherwise unremarkable movie about people who sing and dance for a living.

Okay, I'll keep it short for this first one as I just don't have that much to say. We'll see if Cimarron (1931) stimulates me more in February.

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