Awkward Early Talkie Theatre: "The Broadway Melody"

Star-struck sisters coming to New York, struggling songwriter, backstage drama, misguided love -- it's all there, and more, in the 1929 film "The Broadway Melody." It's like a cliche incubator. It also has those awkward little touches we love in early talkies -- hammy acting, stilted silences and a musical soundtrack that makes it sound like the orchestra's in the bathroom.

To the concrete canyons of Broadway, where there's a broken light for every heart, or something like that, come the something-something sisters, Queenie (Anita Page) and Hank (Bessie Love). Queenie is blonde and stauesque, if you know what I mean and I think you do, and Hank is a little pepperpot of personality. ("I'm gonna lay that dame like a roll of linoleum," she says of a rival at one point.)

Hank's boyfriend Eddie (Charles King) has just joined the Zanfield Follies, and he's promised Hank that she and Queenie can join the show. We first meet Eddie at the Ye Olde Gleason Music Publishing Company, overseen by character actor James Gleason, who also co-wrote the dialogue. Eddie has just put the finishing touches on the movie's title song: 



Eddie and the girls are reunited, and since he hasn't seen Queenie since she was a little princess, he's surprised, to put it mildly, that she's grown so tall -- and stuff.

Meanwhile, there is backstage drama aplenty. Queenie and Hank get jobs in the chorus, and Queenie ends up as the main visual attraction, if you know what I mean and I think you do, in a big production number. There she attracts the attention of oily rich guy Jacques (Kenneth Thomson), who, in a bid at regular-guy status, signs his calling card "Jock." Queenie is attracted to Eddie, but out of loyalty to her sister she starts hanging with Jock.

Time out for some backstage banter:

Gay designer on his outlandish costumes: I design the costumes for the show, not the doors to the theatre.

Chorus girl: I know that -- if you had, they'd be painted in lavender.

Then it's time for the big-time production of "Broadway Melody":




Hank is mystified by Queenie's behavior. Eddie, mixing his metaphors, says, "I guess the bright lights just got under her skin." Then Queenie and Eddie have an awkward scene all their own:


There's a lot to like in "Broadway Melody," and if you don't like you can pass the time by counting how many times Queenie and Hank undress and slip into skimpy costumes and/or underwear. We also see them performing their vaudeville act, "Two Harmony Babies From Melody Lane," which includes the line "We can do more with a vo-de-oh-doh/Than Mr. Rockefeller can do with his dough."

When it's all said and done, Hank realizes that Queenie loves Eddie, and she steps out of the picture. At the movie's end, she's ready to go on a vaudeville tour with a new partner, and with the advice of her stuttering agent (Jed Prouty):        
     



Here are the complete credits, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.

 

Public Domain Theatre: "The Singing Fool"

Beginning in 2024, films released in 1928 are now in the public domain, so I've started posting early talkies on my YouTube channel. Here's the top-grossing film of 1928, "The Singing Fool," with Al Jolson, Betty Bronson and Davey Lee. Songs by the team of DeSylva, Brown and Henderson include "Sonny Boy," "I'm Sittin' on Top of the World" and "It All Depends on You."

Awkward Early Talkie Theatre: "Hollywood Revue of 1929"

"The Hollywood Revue of 1929," MGM's entry in the look-at-us-we're-talking sweepstakes, is a lot like Warner Bros.' "The Show of Shows," released later that year. It's a big-budget hodgepodge of skits and songs featuring almost every performer on the lot (a select few were exempt -- Al Jolson isn't in "The Show of Shows" and Greta Garbo isn't in "Hollywood Revue").

The budget is so big, the chorus ends up passing the hat.


Both films were designed to introduce audiences to the brave new world of talkie films -- the ironic thing is that early talkies, because of cumbersome cameras and sound recording equipment, were much less "free" than silent films. The setting that both studios use to showcase sound is very static -- a clearly defined stage, proscenium arch and all. ("Broadway Revue" even has a pit orchestra.)

Joan Crawford warms up for her big dance number. 


Still, this was a chance to see your favorite actors and actresses talk, dance and sing. MGM used to brag about having "more stars than there are in heaven," and at least a galaxy or two is accounted for here -- Joan Crawford, Norma Shearer, John Gilbert, Marie Dressler, Bessie Love, Anita Page, Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and many others.

Like "The Show of Shows," "Hollywood Revue" prides itself on being very up to date, with sketches that poke fun at quaint Victorian songs and melodramas. The opening number of "Hollywood Revue" and at least part of the proceedings take place in the context of a much more modern setting -- a, um, minstrel show.


The emcees here are Conrad Nagel and Jack Benny. Benny was a headliner in vaudeville by this point, but this is early in his career and he's just beginning to perfect the mannerisms and low-key style that he would utilize so successfully in radio and television. The emcee of "The Show of Shows" is Frank Fay, whose stage persona Benny freely admitted to appropriating, and in comparing the two, Fay comes off as more effective (at least to me). Here's Benny in a sketch with William Haines:



Here, by comparison, is Frank Fay in "The Show of Shows":



The other emcee, Conrad Nagel, is pleasing and polished -- like almost everybody else he sings a number, a song that sends lyrics of love right up into Anita Page's nostrils.

The two performers who are featured most prominently in "Hollywood Revue," however, are singers -- Charles King and Cliff "Ukulele Ike" Edwards. King was the male lead in MGM's other big film of 1929, "The Broadway Melody," and gets far more attention here that he merits. (He sings the song "Your Mother and Mine," which is parodied in "The Show of Shows.")

Edwards, on the other hand, was never a big star, but he was a reliable second banana in several MGM films of the early 1930s. (And he was the voice of Jiminy Cricket in "Pinocchio.") His singing style is simple and appealing, and here he accompanies himself on the uke:



That is some art right there.
Comedy bits are offered by Laurel and Hardy, Buster Keaton and Marie Dressler, but they are minor stuff. There are also quite a few ensemble numbers with elaborate sets and costumes.

And then, toward the end, there is for me the most wince-able portion of "Hollywood Revue" -- a bit, shot in two-strip Technicolor, with Norma Shearer, John Gilbert and Lionel Barrymore.

You've probably heard of it if you haven't seen it -- Gilbert and Shearer perform the balcony scene from "Romeo and Juliet," and then director Barrymore tells them that, under studio orders, the dialogue must be updated.


Norma Shearer tries and fails to act like a regular person.
It's one of those ideas that has "cute" written all over it, and not in a good way. It also features what is supposed to be good-natured, natural bantering between the three, and it's truly squirm-worthy.

Soon enough comes the ending, also shot in two-strip Technicolor -- it's the movie's big hit song, "Singin' in the Rain," sung by the entire cast, in rain slickers, as they prepare to -- board Noah's Ark?



SEE Cliff Edwards in a rain hat! SEE Joan Crawford looking around for her camera! SEE Buster Keaton look like he wishes he was somewhere else!

SEE the complete credits for "The Hollywood Revue of 1929"!

 

Awkward Early Talkie Theatre: "Lights of New York"

(I'm reposting this entry because, as of January 1, movies produced in 1928 are now in the public domain. That includes this film, and I'm celebrating by posting it on youtube so you can follow along.)

The opening exchange of the 1928 film "Lights of New York," a conversation between two gangsters in a hotel room, goes something like this:

Gangster 1: The bootleg rap against us has been dropped -- and we can go back to the big town tomorrow.

(Long pause, during which Lindbergh flies the Atlantic)

Gangster 2: Great! And what are we gonna use for money when we get there? Our bootleg joint is empty and we need dough!

(Long pause, during which Alexander Fleming invents penicillin)

Gangster 1: I've been taking care of that! You know that barber downstairs? He looks like a cinch to me. And after the talks we've been having, he thinks that joint of ours is a regular barber shop and not a speakeasy!

Billed as the first 100% all-talking film, "Lights of New York" should also get credit as a 100% all-pausing film. There are large cushions of air between every line of dialogue, and sometimes between words. And to include exclamation points in the dialogue is kind of misleading -- it implies that the actors deliver lines with some sort of emotion, and for the most part they don't.

But it didn't really matter. The film's novelty assured its financial success -- it was the second-highest grossing movie of 1928, beaten only by Al Jolson's "The Singing Fool." Still, even contemporary reviewers were less than impressed. Wrote Variety:


"It's that kind of a sappy mixture, the kind that recalls the mellers [melodramas] of ... ages ago. ... In a year from now everyone concerned in 'Lights of New York' will run for the river before looking at it again. ... [S]till, this talker will have pulling power, and the Warners' should get credit for nerve even if they didn't do it with a polish."

"Lights of New York" is the story of two small-town barbers -- Eddie (Cullen Landis) and Gene (Eugene Pallette). They are plying their trade in a hotel run by Eddie's mother. But they have dreams -- dreams of being big-time barbers in the Big Apple! Shearing scalps in the city that never sleeps! Scraping their straight razors across the mugs of Babe Ruth! Herbert Hoover! Fanny Brice! Here they discuss it, at length:



As illustrated above, people don't just say their lines in this movie -- they recite them. There's a lot of standing and proclaiming, and a lot of hooking of thumbs into vests. And there's music -- always music. In movies like this, a soundtrack is something to fill up, and music incessantly plays on the soundtrack whether or not it has any relation to the action.

Anyway, Eddie and Gene get a loan from Eddie's kindly mother and they set out for the concrete canyons. Six months pass, and Gene and Eddie realize they've been had. "About the only thing I shave around here are labels off bottles," sez Gene. (In fact, these guys never have any customers in the small town or in the big city. Maybe they're just lousy barbers!)

Eddie has rekindled a relationship with Kitty (Helene Costello), a girl from his hometown who works at a nightclub run by the evil bootlegger Hawk Miller (Wheeler Oakman). In a scene set in what we're told is "Central Park," Eddie and Kitty bemoan their fates. This clip has a little bit of everything -- cheesy sets, a line flub, bad acting and deadly pauses:




Then we hie to the nightclub, where we meet owner Hawk Miller and his mistress, Molly . They've been together a long time, and Hawk is starting to ogle the chorus girls, particularly Kitty.

Molly (to Hawk): You're a hound for chickens, ain't ya? You might get indigestion from too much chicken.

(Long pause during which wood turns to coal)


Hawk: Well, if I will, it won't be from an old hen.  

Hawk has killed a cop in the process of transporting illegal hooch, and he plans to frame Eddie for the murder. But when he confronts Eddie at the barber shop, a shot is fired! And the Hawk is grounded in one of the clumsiest death scenes you'll ever see.

And just when you think things can't any worse, enter Det. Crosby (Robert Elliott), whose slow cadences make everyone else seem like they're on cocaine. Molly the mistress confesses to the killing of Hawk, and Crosby stretches ten words into what seems like ten minutes:



The film careers of the romantic leads, Cullen Landis and Helene Costello, were kaput by 1930. Gladys Brockwell, who actually acts a little as Molly, was killed in a 1929 car crash. The only folks whose careers survived "Lights of New York" were Pallette; the cop, Robert Elliott (who went on to play dozens of cops); and Tom Dugan, who played comic bits in dozens of movies and, during World War II, found himself playing Hitler or Hitler surrogates in movies such as "Star Spangled Rhythm" and "To Be or Not to Be."