- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 22, 2009

By a curious historical coincidence, the nominees for the second annual Academy Awards, which covered features released between August 1928 and July 1929, were announced the day after the stock market crash.

Considering that “The Broadway Melody,” the first musical (and first talking picture) completed by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, was destined to win as best movie, a plausible case could have been made for hastening awards night, held a leisurely six months later, and spreading a timely bit of cheer.

Though hard-boiled in certain respects, “The Broadway Melody” was anything but defeatist. Its immortal title song, by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed, argued that “Your troubles, here, they’re out of style, for Broadway always wears a smile.” Alas, there was no best song category at the time. In fact, there were only seven categories, down from 11 at the inaugural event. Sunday’s 81st annual renewal of the Academy Awards will accommodate two dozen categories and perhaps twice that many commercials. This aggrandizement might have been unreachable without the resilience championed in song and story by “The Broadway Melody.”

The 1928-29 cycle included suspicion about the award presented to Mary Pickford as best actress in “Coquette,” regarded as the least worthy of the eligible contenders. A charter member of the Academy, Miss Pickford had hosted a tea party for the board of governors. In retrospect, this gracious gesture was seen as dirty pool, since the board controlled the balloting process. Discontent led to a tenfold expansion of the voting pool in the next Oscar year.

Miss Pickford’s rivals included Bessie Love, who had also been a D.W. Griffith protegee when breaking into the business. In fact, her professional name was coined by Mr. Griffith. She was born Juanita Horton in Midland, Texas, in 1898. Miss Love played the plucky, hot-tempered heroine of “Broadway Melody,” a hoofer with the curious nickname Hank, obliged to weather a demoralizing emotional shock — romantic competition from her own dishy but seemingly dependent kid sister, Queenie (Anita Page). They’re partners in a small-time song-and-dance act, the Mahoney Sisters.

Semi-reluctantly, Queenie, who seems a fascinating study in schizophrenic impulses much of the time, alienates the affections of Hank’s beau, Eddie (Charles King), also a performer. Hank can take a wallop. At the fade-out, she’s prepared to rebuild her act with a new partner, Flo, who looms as a sarcastic mismatch in the person of Mary Doran. Queenie and Eddie are envisioned as ecstatic newlyweds as Hank soldiers on, although the staying power of their match looks hazardous at best, given the aptitude Queenie has displayed as a potential consort for playboys.

Bessie Love and Anita Page proved hardy survivors of the silent and early talkie periods. Miss Love, who moved to England in the 1930s, was still playing occasional supporting roles in the early 1980s — in “Reds,” “Ragtime” and “The Hunger,” for example. She lived to be 87. Miss Page died in September at 98 and will no doubt be recalled during the “In Memoriam” segment of the Oscar telecast. Both actresses had fleeting liaisons with the songwriters of “The Broadway Melody.” Miss Love was the fiancee of Arthur Freed at one time; Miss Page was married to Nacio Herb Brown for a year during the 1930s.

A prodigious box-office success for its time, “The Broadway Melody” grossed about $2.8 million domestically and $1.6 million abroad on a production cost of $379,000. The send-off inspired a brilliantly emphatic and redundant advertising slogan from MGM’s publicity department: 100 percent “All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!” While waxing euphoric, MGM contrived a prompt follow-up that was also nominated as best movie of 1928-29: “The Hollywood Revue of 1929.”

Back-to-back hits, premiered in February and June, these films set patterns for movie musicals that have proved remarkably durable. The romantic rivalries and the aura of backstage promiscuity that distinguish the melodramatic appeal of “The Broadway Melody” remained reliably provocative into the period of “Showgirls” and “Chicago.” The sexual opportunism that seems so dopey and apologetic in Charles King’s Eddie had been revamped into a knowing outlook by the time Gene Kelly originated the role of Pal Joey on Broadway a little more than a decade later.

Structurally, “The Hollywood Revue” forgoes any of the advantages of a musical with a backstage romantic plot. It compensates with a sense of playfulness and invention that seems to promise a genre with infinite possibilities for stylistic experimentation and humorous diversion. Still not available on DVD (it was released on laserdisc in the 1990s but hasn’t been transferred to newer formats), “Hollywood Revue” is a delightful hodgepodge of skits, specialty acts and production numbers. An irrepressible parodistic impulse unifies much of the miscellany — and conveys the absurd but happy delusion that MGM must be a gleeful workplace, more fun than a barrel of monkeys.

Almost every performer at the studio, circa 1929, pitches in to greet the advent of talkies with a game or rollicking or self-mocking response. The co-stars of “The Broadway Melody” are prominent participants, along with colleagues whose fame outlasted or outshone theirs: Jack Benny, Buster Keaton, Marie Dressler, Laurel & Hardy, John Gilbert, Norma Shearer, Joan Crawford.

The spirit of the enterprise is reincarnated in the gusto of the ensembles in last year’s “High School Musical 3” and the systematic nuttiness of “Hamlet 2.” Musicals are not exactly a resurgent genre, but the needs and aspirations showcased in a “Broadway Melody” and the screwball tendencies encouraged in “Hollywood Revue” are still alive and kicking 80 years later.

TITLE: “The Broadway Melody”

CREDITS: Produced by Irving Thalberg (uncredited). Directed by Harry Beaumont. Screenplay by Sarah Y. Mason, Norman Houston and James Gleason, based on a story by Edmund Goulding. Original songs by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed. Ensembles staged by Sammy Lee and George Cunningham. Cinematography by John Arnold. Art direction by Cedric Gibbons. Recording engineer: Douglas Shearer.

RUNNING TIME: 100 minutes, plus supplementary shorts and trailers

DVD EDITION: Warner Bros. Home Entertainment

WEB SITE: www.warnervideo.com

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TITLE: “The Hollywood Revue of 1929”

CREDITS: Produced by Irving Thalberg (uncredited) and Harry Rapf. Directed by Charles Reisner and Christy Cabanne (uncredited). Dialogue by Al Boasberg and Robert E. Hopkins. Ensembles staged by Sammy Lee and George Cunningham. Cinematography by John Arnold, Irving Reis, Maximilian Fabian and John M. Nickolaus. Art direction by Cedric Gibbons and Richard Day. Recording engineer: Douglas Shearer

RUNNING TIME: 130 minutes

DVD EDITION: None

Both movies were released in 1929, decades before the advent of the film rating system.

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