Art Vs Commerce: Beginnings (20s/30s)

1929

Now, I’m framing this as “Art Vs. Commerce,” implying that there’s always a gulf between “award movies” and movies that actually earn money, because for most of my lifetime that’s been the case (and we will get to that). But sometimes, sometimes a movie is both the Best Picture and the box office champ, and that used to happen way more often.

Sometimes it would even happen to movies that weren’t good.

The Joint Champion

Well if a partially-spoken movie like The Singing Fool was going to blow audiences away, imagine what the first full-Talkie musical would do. The Broadway Melody had no silent sections, and also included a full Technicolor sequence that, sadly, has been lost to history, so I can’t speak to how that went. So… both the Best Picture and the box office champ, this must be something, right?

No.

It’s not good. It is… very boring.

Harriet “Hank” Mahoney and her younger sister Queenie try to bring their Vaudeville sister act to New York, where Hank’s boyfriend Eddie assures them he can get them into a Broadway revue. Obviously he’s overstating his influence but they do get cast, because everyone who sees Queenie immediately falls in love with her… including an investor in the show, and Eddie. The investor makes a play for Queenie, which Hank and Eddie dislike for different reasons, the investor is a creep, Hank realizes Eddie loves Queenie and tells him to go after her, and then the movie is over and two hours of your life are just… gone.

The musical numbers don’t even help. What few there are just grind the movie to a halt rather than push the plot along. They’re all diegetic, either numbers from the Broadway show or singers at a club, and most of them seem… pointless.

I’m not saying this movie took shots at rival studio Warner Bros, but the wealthy dilettante making sleazy moves on Queenie is named “Jock Warner,” and if I were Jack Warner I’d have taken offense. Also Ziegfeld Follies creator Florenz Ziegfeld probably had something to say about producer character Francis Zanfield. Like… nobody today is making movies about tech entrepreneur Mack Zackerborg, it’s weird they assumed they’d get away with this, isn’t it?

I don’t have a Twitter thread reacting to this one because it took me three goes to get through it, and I was 28 minutes in before I had a reaction worth tweeting, that being “Who in the hell starts dress rehearsal at 10 goddamn 30 PM, what kind of sadists–

I know the stock market had just crashed, but did 1929 seriously not have anything better to do? Like, how was this even good by 1929 standards? Good enough that they made– Jesus God almighty they made three sequels*, this is why God forsaken us

And Rotten Tomatoes Says: With an abysmal adjusted score of 36.257%, The Broadway Melody is RT’s worst-reviewed Best Picture of all time, dead last at 93/93, on a list that literally includes Green Book. RT feels that whatever appeal this movie had died with its theatrical audiences, and I have to agree.

Was this… was this a mistake? No. Push through it. Casablanca is coming… Casablanca is coming… Casablanca is coming…

*Sort of sequels. Same premise, new characters.

Other Events in Film

  • 1929 also saw the release of Hallelujah!, an all-talkie musical featuring Hollywood’s first all-black cast. Nobody talks about this one. Sure, film historians note its importance and call for its preservation, but had you heard of it? Maybe we should have.
  • Other than that, “1929 didn’t have better things to do” seems to hold up. The Marx Brothers had Cocoanuts, one of their more obscure releases, and Germany put out Atlantic, the first movie about the Titanic, and Warner Bros. decided to take the lead with colour just like they had with sound in the first all-colour talkie On with the Show, which somehow couldn’t dislodge Broadway Melody from the throne.

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