I was a bit surprised by the number of people who pushed back against my plan to watch all the winners of the Oscar for Best Picture from beginning to the present day. Sure, I take the point that the Oscars have not always got it right. I also take the much more serious point that they are heavily slanted towards Hollywood with very little input from the world outside the United States (and certain gaps within it). If I wanted to watch the 90 or 100 best movies ever, there are a large number of potentially better sources to go to than the list of Oscar winners.
And yet, it’s always going to be a bit arbitrary, isn’t it? And I have to be honest and say that my interest isn’t (or isn’t only) in the potential of cinema as a medium. I am also interested in the history of culture in the Anglosphere, and in the Oscars as a political process. Any set of Best Films that I choose to pursue is going to be someone else’s choice; I choose the Academy Awards, not because I expect them all to be good but because I expect them to be interesting.
So, having got my throat-clearing out of the way, on with The Broadway Melody, which won the Academy Award for Outstanding Picture presented in 1930. There were seven awards in total that year, and every one went to a different film, the first and last time that has ever happened; this also means that The Broadway Melody was the first of three films to win Best Picture (or equivalent) and no other award on the night. For context I will note that the other films in contention that year were Alibi, In Old Arizona, The Hollywood Revue (which featured the first performance of “Singin’ In the Rain”) and The Patriot. None of the other Outstanding Picture nominees places higher than 30th on IMDB’s ranking of the 1929 films. The IMDB rates The Broadway Melody as the second most popular feature film of 1929 after Alfred Hitchcock’s Blackmail (which was presumably too British to get nominated for the Academy Awards) or possibly third after Pandora’s Box (presumably too German). I have not seen, or even heard of, any of the above.
The Broadway Melody was apparently the first real musical film, with both a plot and songs that made sense in the context of that plot, taking advantage of the brand new talkie technology. Apparently it was also the first to use sound dubbing and had a brief colour segment (which does not survive); more on that later. So my expectations are somewhat shaped by nine decades of subsequent Hollywood musicals, of which the most recent one I have seen is Les Miserables, or maybe The LEGO Movie. Even so, it holds up pretty well – sometimes ground-breaking stuff loses because of subsequent treading on that ground, but this is not one of those cases.
As before I’ll run through the bits that struck me in reverse order of favourability.
Whiteness: This is a film set in the musical world of New York. Not a single black face to be seen, not even among hotel attendants.
Comic disability: A character with a speech impediment which is awfully funny.
Plot and script: Boy is engaged to girl; boy meets girl’s pretty young sister and instant spark ensues; pretty young sister allows herself to be distracted by a cad but ends up with boy. Meanwhile they are all on stage, or trying to get there, apart from the cad who picks up stage girls as a hobby. Characters all speak in grating Twenties slang which must have sounded cool at the time. There are no particularly memorable lines.
Acting: This is a mixed bag. Bessie Love is really really good as the older of the two sisters, who eventually accepts with fairly good grace that her man has fallen for her sibling. I was really surprised that I had never heard of her before. (Also striking that this is two films out of two where I felt the female lead was by far the strongest of the performers.) Anita Page as the younger sister has a really rocky start – in her first couple of scenes I wondered if she was even awake – but livens up considerably as it goes on. Unfortunately she can’t dance, mostly but not completely disguised by cunning direction. Charles King as the chap they both love is a good singer and plausible heart-throb. Kenneth Thomson as the cad is a bit flat.
Music: With the exception of “Love Boat”, whose words I simply couldn’t make out, the songs are an excellent combination of talents by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed. (And one by Willard Robison). The title number is ridiculously catchy.
Several references suggest that the same song is used again in Singin’ in the Rain, but as far as I can tell the music for that film’s amazing “Broadway Melody” dance sequence is quite different. Singin’ in the Rain does however recycle a lot of the Brown and Freed tunes (as noted above, the title song was used in another 1930 film) and perhaps the best is You Were Meant For Me. (Edited to add: As pointed out in comments, Gene Kelly does sing the “Broadway Melody” 75 minutes into Singin’ in the Rain, but it’s really a case of blink and you miss it, as I did.)
Cinematography: After Wings, I thought this was another well-made and beautifully shot film. The opening sequence, set in the office of Mr Zanfield (a thinly disguised Ziegfield) is particularly good with different groups of musicians in different corners rehearsing:
The stage shows are well done, but in particular the director pulls off the feat of reminding us that there are human beings involved with putting on these spectacles, without breaking the mood created.
The Wedding of the Painted Doll: This deserves its own note, as the high point of the film. Apparently this stage sequence was originally filmed and shown in Technicolor, unlike the rest of the film which was monochrome. It must have been spectacular; sadly most of the original colour sequence has been lost. Also apparently when they had to remount it, rather than pay the orchestra to play the music again live, they played back the previous recording, thus originating the practice of soundtrack dubbing. I can’t find an embeddable link but here’s Turner Classic Movies’ presentation, with subtitles:
Apart from the excellent choreography, I think it has a fascinating hint of subversion. The song is in fact in a minor key, rather than celebratory. The lyrics are about people being pushed into marriage by the expectations of society, without much hope for success. It’s a very downbeat note in the story, which casts the rest of it in quite a different light.
Anyway, that’s two films in a row which were more enjoyable than I had expected; rather encouraging for the long term prospects of this project.
Next up is a film I have actually seen before, on TV when I was a teenager: All Quiet on the Western Front.
1920s: Wings (1927-28) | The Broadway Melody (1928-29)
1930s: All Quiet on the Western Front (1929-30) | Cimarron (1930-31) | Grand Hotel (1931-32) | Cavalcade (1932-33) | It Happened One Night (1934) | Mutiny on the Bounty (1935, and books) | The Great Ziegfeld (1936) | The Life of Emile Zola (1937) | You Can’t Take It with You (1938) | Gone with the Wind (1939, and book)
1940s: Rebecca (1940) | How Green Was My Valley (1941) | Mrs. Miniver (1942) | Casablanca (1943) | Going My Way (1944) | The Lost Weekend (1945) | The Best Years of Our Lives (1946) | Gentleman’s Agreement (1947) | Hamlet (1948) | All the King’s Men (1949)
1950s: All About Eve (1950) | An American in Paris (1951) | The Greatest Show on Earth (1952) | From Here to Eternity (1953) | On The Waterfront (1954, and book) | Marty (1955) | Around the World in Eighty Days (1956) | The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) | Gigi (1958) | Ben-Hur (1959)
1960s: The Apartment (1960) | West Side Story (1961) | Lawrence of Arabia (1962) | Tom Jones (1963) | My Fair Lady (1964) | The Sound of Music (1965) | A Man for All Seasons (1966) | In the Heat of the Night (1967) | Oliver! (1968) | Midnight Cowboy (1969)
1970s: Patton (1970) | The French Connection (1971) | The Godfather (1972) | The Sting (1973) | The Godfather, Part II (1974) | One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) | Rocky (1976) | Annie Hall (1977) | The Deer Hunter (1978) | Kramer vs. Kramer (1979)
1980s: Ordinary People (1980) | Chariots of Fire (1981) | Gandhi (1982) | Terms of Endearment (1983) | Amadeus (1984) | Out of Africa (1985) | Platoon (1986) | The Last Emperor (1987) | Rain Man (1988) | Driving Miss Daisy (1989)
1990s: Dances With Wolves (1990) | The Silence of the Lambs (1991) | Unforgiven (1992) | Schindler’s List (1993) | Forrest Gump (1994) | Braveheart (1995) | The English Patient (1996) | Titanic (1997) | Shakespeare in Love (1998) | American Beauty (1999)
21st century: Gladiator (2000) | A Beautiful Mind (2001) | Chicago (2002) | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) | Million Dollar Baby (2004, and book) | Crash (2005) | The Departed (2006) | No Country for Old Men (2007) | Slumdog Millionaire (2008) | The Hurt Locker (2009)
2010s: The King’s Speech (2010) | The Artist (2011)