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The Broadway Melody (1929), which premiered at Grauman's Chinese Theater on February 1st, 1929, was MGM's first all-talking picture. According to Magill's Survey of Cinema, "It set the entire attitude toward filmmaking in that year, and in 1929 alone no fewer than seventy-five musicals were released." This groundbreaking film is a backstage musical about a vaudeville sister act. The sisters, Hank and Queenie, move from their small hometown to Broadway in hopes of making it big. But romantic troubles get in the way when Hank's fiance, Eddie, falls in love with her younger and more beautiful sister.
Since The Broadway Melody was MGM's first all-talking film, producer Irving Thalberg told his staff it was an experiment, "we don't know whether the audience will accept a musical on film. So we'll have to shoot it as fast and as cheaply as we can." The finished film cost around $350,000 but within a year it had earned over four million dollars.
Several technical developments made during The Broadway Melody left a lasting impact on future films. With silent movies, the camera was free to move around, but with sound, the camera had to be placed in a sound proof booth to avoid picking up noise from the camera's motor. Director Harry Beaumont and cinematographer John Arnold created what they called a "coffin on wheels." The new camera booth was compact enough that it could follow Queenie and her dance partner as they moved around the room.
Another innovation came during "The Wedding of the Painted Doll" number. Thalberg saw the film and thought it looked like a stage production. He wanted the number reshot with bigger sets. Since it would be expensive to rehire both the dancers and the orchestra, Douglas Shearer, a recording engineer, suggested the dancers go through their routine again and the technicians could combine the new film with the old soundtrack in the lab. This began the playback system which has been used by musicals ever since.
Thalberg hired composers Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed to compose the film's score, the first to be conceived and written especially for the screen. Both men were hired at $250 a week, but they would earn a half-million dollars in royalties. Arthur Freed eventually became a producer for MGM. He was responsible for such films as Meet Me in St. Louis (1944) and Singin' in the Rain (1952), which used three Brown-Freed songs from The Broadway Melody.
The Broadway Melody won an Academy Award for best picture, the first talking picture to receive the award. Within the next ten years, MGM made three other films with a similar title and plot (Broadway Melody of 1936, Broadway Melody of 1938, & Broadway Melody of 1940) and remade the original 1929 version in 1940 as Two Girls on Broadway.
Producer: Irving Thalberg
Director: Harry Beaumont
Screenplay: Edmund Goulding
Cinematography: John Arnold
Costume Design: David Cox
Film Editing: William LeVanway
Original Music: Nacio Herb Brown
Principal Cast: Charles King (Eddie Kearns), Anita Page (Queenie Mahoney), Bessie Love (Hank Mahoney), Jed Prouty (Uncle Jed), Kenneth Thomson (Jock Warriner), Mary Doran (Flo)
BW-101m. Closed captioning.
by Deborah Looney