The Broadway Melody (1928)

The Broadway Melody (1928)

A lot of the reviews of this film I have read dismiss it quite early on. For some reason they seem to think that a film rooted in spectacle isn’t enough of a justification to earn it Best Picture (check out Rotten Tomatoes).  Sure this statement is probably true of today’s filmmaking, but lets not lose sight of the fact that the entire early film industry grew from the thrill of spectacle.  Early cinema audiences were fascinated by the excitement of the chase or comedy sequence.  Can we really fault the Academy for awarding Best Picture to a film whose success hinged on the novelty of singing and dancing?  Of course not.

The Broadway Melody was released just as ‘the talkies’ were becoming popular around the world.  With the advent of synchronised sound, Hollywood Cinema was fundamentally altered in terms of creativity, technical production elements and audience expectations.  This is why The Broadway Melody is such an interesting watch.  We’re seeing some of the first song and dance numbers in the history of cinema – what a priviledge!  Setting this film apart from their competitors, the numbers were integrated into the story with simplicity and a fair justification.

The story itself is relatively bland by today’s standard, but we can forgive this because watching the film in the twenty-first century we’re probably expecting it to be a bit of a time capsule.  Two lasses, sisters actually, head to New York to make it big on Broadway.  Maybe a dated premise today, but many of us will still be able to connect this to our own lives, if not in literally wanting to conquer Broadway then to be figuratively heading towards some sort of higher achievement or goal.

The two girls (Bessie Love and Anita Page) are gorgeous looking and the girl playing Hank is one fantastic actress.  I loved the costumes – imagine an era where people wore top-hats and still took themselves seriously!  And the show costumes – I totally digged them.

Some may disagree, but on the whole I found the representation of women in this film to be subtely progressive.  Sure, the girls careers are at the mercy of big-shot Mr Zanfied, the producer, but their love lives are their own.  They have the right to choose who they date – a couple of characters have an argument because they don’t want Queenie to date one particular rich guy.  ‘You can’t choose him!’ they cry, firmly implying that it is her choice to date whomever she pleases.  A fair and rather balanced representation for the 1920s, if you ask me.  Debate welcome.

Of course, there’s no denying that the musical numbers aren’t that good.  The dancers are out of time and the singing isn’t all that great, but considering that most of the filmmakers and performers working on this project have never worked with sound before, I’m willing to forgive them and be thankful for the chance to observe a film which captures a glorious moment of revolution in Hollywood, and even world, cinema.

Wings (1927)

Wings (1927)

This film is a treat.  I watched a VHS copy, which added heaps to the charm of watching a film from a bygone era!

Wings is a silent film from 1927 and was the first film to win the award which we now know as ‘Best Picture’ at the Oscars.  Watching this film reveals technical marvels of silent film which you might not have realised existed.  We think of silent film as outdated and corny and probably expect it to be pretty lame, but Wings has just enough of the expected cliche and quaint melodrama to draw you in, followed up a rather tragic and exciting turn near the end, to make it a great watch.

The beauty of silent film, as exemplified not only in Wings but also by silent classics such as Metropolis and The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, is the astounding attention to detail.  With no diegetic sound (ie sound which comes from within the film world, rather than outside it), we are not bogged down by the need to advance the story through people to people interactions and talking.  The title cards do this for us.  The filmmakers primary focus is on pictures and images rather than story-telling.  In watching Wings, the result for me felt like reading a picture-book or even a comic.  I felt like I was actively reading rather than passively watching.  Watching Wings makes you realise that film is, first and foremost, a visual medium.

As mentioned, the technical aspects are something else.  This film was made well before the appearance of commercial airliners, and images of cloud-tops would have been a rarity and a true treat way back in the 20s.  How on earth did they film the air fights?  How did they have the gall to organise all of those epic war scenes?  The way they overlaid multiple pictures at once…and just look at the colours!  This film is a true technical masterpiece and checking it out will no doubt whet your appetite for more.

And just as a coda to this – isn’t it crazy how attitudes change?  Perhaps it’s my liberal upbringing informing this assumption, but as history moves forward shouldn’t we expect society to open up and be more tolerant?  What I’m driving at here is the passionate kiss between the two leading men near the end of the film – you sure couldn’t see that in Hollywood today unless you were making some kind of statement.