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18 December 2007

ACADEMY AWARD ARCHIVES 1929 - The Broadway Melody

This is how the musical began, not with a hummable songbook, but with ho-hum songs and already cliche-ridden story. What the 1929 "The Broadway Melody" did do when it won the best picture Oscar was begin an MGM tradition.

Not only was it Hollywood's first all talking musical, it also was Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer first musical with the story by Edmund Goulding, Norman Houston and James Gleason.

A vaudeville sister act of Harriet (Bessie Love) and Queenie (Anita Page) Mahoney goes to Broadway, but only the younger sister is chosen to be featured in the musical. There friend Eddie Kearns (Charles King) wants them in his number in a Francis Zanfield (Eddie Kane) show. Although initially in love with Harriet, he begins falling for Queenie. Queenie is courted by Jock Warriner (Kenneth Thomson), a member of the New York high society who is looking for a dalliance and not real love.
The original music was written by Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown and included the hit "You Were Meant for Me." Director Harry Beaumont was nominated for best director, however, his greatest successes were behind him, in the silent era. (e.g. "Beau Brummel" which starred John Barrymore)

As MGM won the box office battle with this top-grossing film of 1929, the studio quickly followed up with sequels. There weren't sequels in the traditional sense. Instead MGM decided to make movies with similar titles.

"Broadway Melody of 1936" featured Eleanor Powell in her first leading role. You can also see Buddy Ebsen, his sister Vilma Ebsen and Jack Benny. Nacio Herb Brown again provided the music while Moss Hart wrote the book. A young dancer (Powell) attempts to convince her old sweetheart (Robert Taylor) to give her a chance in a new Broadway production. He's taken up with a young widow (June Knight) who's financially backing his show.

"Broadway Melody of 1938" again featured Powell, Robert Taylor and Buddy Ebsen. Powell plays a girl who is concerned about a horse her family once owned that is currently being trained by Sonny (George Murphy) and Peter (Ebsen), a former vaudeville team. She follows the horse to New York City and is discovered on the train by Sonny and Peter and then the talent agent (Taylor) who is looking for talent for a new production backed by a former chorus girl and now rich wife of the horse's current owner. He secretly helps the girl buy the horse back. The girl brings him into contact with the tenants of a boarding house for performers, including the landlady (Sophie Tucker) and her daughter (Judy Garland).

The movie is perhaps most famous for Garland's sequence where she sings "Dear Mr. Gable," addressing her puppy love to Clark Gable in her room after her mother has torn up an autographed photo of him. This role made Garland a star and led to her role in "The Wizard of Oz."
Tucker, who played her mother, was already a Broadway star whose comedic style influenced comediennes such as Mae West and Bette Midler. She sings the finale in the "Broadway Melody of 1938.

"Broadway Melody of 1940"
brought back Powell and Murphy, but the highlight was Powell's partnering with Fred Astaire.

In this movie, Powell is a major Broadway star, looking for a partner. Astaire and Murphy are partners--Johnny Brett and King Shaw--who taxi dance and perform in night clubs. Trying to evade creditors, Johnny claims to be King. As a result, King gets the role on Broadway, but at the last minute, King isn't able to go on.

By this time, Astaire had already been paired with Ginger Rogers: "The Gay Divorcee" (1934), "Roberta" (1935), "Top Hat" (1935), "Follow the Fleet" (1936), "Swing Time" (1936), "Shall We Dance" (1937), and "Carefree" (1938).

Astaire and Powell were both major stars although this would be Powell's last great hit. Plans to pair her with Gene Kelly in another Broadway Melody was scrapped. The film features Astaire and Powell dancing to Cole Porter's "Begin the Beguine." Murphy's character might not have gotten the girl in either the 1940 nor the 1938 movie, but he did go on to be a US senator.

Directed by Norman Taurog with a screenplay by Leon Gordon and George Oppenheimer, this was the last of the Broadway Melody series and the best. Taurog had won a 1931 Oscar for "Skippy" and would later direct Elvis Presley in nine movies.

The first movie that started it all, "The Broadway Melody" may not have been the best and by today's standards, it isn't a good movie or a good musical, but it did help start a grand tradition and has its place in history.

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