Finally! My first entry in The Musical Project.
I have to be honest with you. The DVD for The Broadway Melody of 1929 sat, untouched, in our apartment for 2 months and 9 days. I kinda sorta was not into watching it, if you can tell. The thing is, movies from the 20’s can be a little tough to watch. Sometimes they were merely transferred to DVD, rather than being restored. (Even things from the 50’s can have this problem. I tried to watch some episodes of Flash Gordon as research for a role one time. The volume was at max and I could still barely make out what the actors were saying. ) PLUS, the musical as we know it now wasn’t around quite yet. Broadway was more of a glitzy vaudeville. Big costumes and reviews, but little substance (not that I always look to musicals for substance.) So anyway, this is my explanation for the delay. Reluctance.
But last night, I came home. Slapped down my things and declared to any cat that was listening that yesterday was the day, goddammit. So I changed my clothes, grabbed our portable DVD player and watched The Broadway Melody of 1929 while I made risotto.
1. Apparently, if the cast of this film are any reflection of Broadway at the time, you didn’t have to be, um, talented to work on the Big White Way. A bottle blonde seems to be the main qualification.
2. I was expecting a sort of early Ziegfeld follies, but what I got was a sister story.
Not to say there was no Ziegfeld at all. Instead we have ZANEfeld. Oh ho ho! Clever!
I don’t mean to sound snarky, exactly. This is the precursor to today’s Broadway. Certainly, as a kid, I fell irreparably in love with the Broadway of the 80’s. So I have respect for those that came before. In fact, for everyone who bemoans the commercial entity that Broadway has become I argue thus it has always been. In Broadway Melody of 1929, we have tuxedoed, occasionally drunken investors who care not for the quality of the product but for the return. Broadway in Chicago might be newish to Chicago, in the scheme of things, but Zanefeld..er…Ziegfeld wasn’t so much a theatre artist as a theatre entrepreneur. So while it may be depressing, certainly, we aren’t witnessing some sort of downfall.
Actually, the story is pretty good. Simple but sort of heartwarming in that typical Put Your Modern Values Away To Watch an Old Movie way. Still, we meet up with the Sweeney…er…Mahoney Sisters, who are girls out on their own. They’re fresh in from Peoria and ready to hit the heights! Queenie and Hank Mahoney (guess which one’s the “pretty” one) shuffle off to Buffalo…a bit laboriously…and occasionally hilariously, not intentional I’m sure. If Broadway Melody of 1929 was supposed to be the typical vehicle for songs, then it fails. There’s only a couple songs, and I already know the choreography. Not because I’m good at picking up on choreography (I’m not really), but because it’s just a lot of two-steps-forward, one step back, with a smile and silly hands.
Yet, it’s a heartwarming sister story, and frankly one that rang true with me at present. Hank, the eldest, is perhaps over-mothering Queenie, the younger. Queenie is making horrendous choices just because she can, and there’s nothin’ anybody can say about it! While Hank might be a more selfless sister than I (Queenie marries Hank’s boyfriend with Hank’s blessing), I certainly understand Hank’s frustration. Honestly, aside from the 1920’s quips and trappings, I like these two sisters.
The Broadway Melody of 1929 is significant in that it is both a representation of early musicals AND early film. In fact, it was the first sound film to win Best Picture! While some of the acting retains a certain jerky silent film quality, I was pretty impressed with how it holds up. Much like my experience with watching the AFI Top 100, I found myself groaning at old jokes, only to remind myself that at the time, the jokes weren’t old. The Mahoney Sisters aren’t similar to the Haynes Sisters of White Christmas, The Haynes Sisters are a nod to the Mahoneys. I assume. You even get a little feel of Velma and Roxy: love and rivalry, career vs domestic. Is it sad or universal that we sometimes still, after all these years, feel this way with our lives and our sisters?
White Christmas actually makes many nods to The Broadway Melody of 1929. There is a very “Mandy”-ish Wedding number. We have a seasoned pro trying to help a sister act along. I would assume that Irving Berlin had a soft spot for Georgie Cohan. And Cohan this is. Cohan’s work has an air of celebration be it for country or Broadway. Truly his work embodied that early-mid 20th century (pre-crash, pre-war) optimism. All you needed was some pep and pick up. And yet, we see a grimier side of showbiz. Queenie gets offered a limo, an apartment and jewels from Zanefeld himself. If this were Bullets Over Broadway (a film that shares the setting of the roaring 20’s), some sassy maid would be telling her, as she does Jennifer Tilly’s Olive, that “you better get in the mood, honey, because he’s paying the rent.” But it’s George M. Cohan, and instead of getting down with the bigshot, Queenie gets married to a heartsick hoofer from Vaudeville and Hank moves in. Which is a truer representation? I wouldn’t move in with my ex-boyfriend who married my sister. But that’s just me. I think the true choice is Queenie’s diamonds or Olive’s black pearls. I’m a little dark, myself.
Here is the opening number to the film. It’s almost like the ESPN office commercials. I love the idea that somewhere there is an office where people are just jammin’ and dancin’ and makin’ musicals. You could very nearly pick this number up and insert it right into Yankee Doodle Dandy. James Cagney and Charles King do that high-steppin’, high elbows dance-travel thing oh so well. It is also the way my Dad dances through the kitchen.
Also interesting to me is that Hank (you gotta figure Mr. and Mrs. Mahoney either wanted a boy the first time around, or figured their first little girl wasn’t going to be the picture of beauty) is actually the scrawnier of the two sisters. Queenie is considered the looker of the two, and Queenie is kinda big. I mean, look, anyone with a cup size higher than A looks a little frumpy in the sleek lines of the 20’s, but still Queenie has some thighs. What I note about this is that 1. Anita Page wouldn’t have gotten the role in today’s sickly Hollywood., 2. I had always thought of the 20’s as a particularly lean time as far as body types went. But Queenie is absolutely considered the more desirable of the two very differently sized women. This, of course, doesn’t have a lot to do with the history of musicals, but the changing tastes and the ideals of beauty through the centuries fascinate me. It is my nature to comment.
All in all, Broadway Melody shows that what we tend to think of as “modern” is hardly that at all. Broadway has always and will always be commercial (which is why any truly aspiring theatre artists might want to wish to pound the pavement in this here city of Wind…); Sisters will always have complex, weird, and nurturing relationships; American movies strive to be positive; and even though their may not be any original ideas left (which I don’t quite believe), we can always improve upon the old ones.