The Broadway Melody (1928/1929)

If your movie doesn’t include talking, singing, and dancing, you’ve done something wrong.

 

It’s June, which means it’s time for a new theme month.  April’s focus on war movies made for an interesting longitudinal study, so I thought it might be fun to try it again (especially since it’s likely the final month I’ll have enough films to choose from to make up a full month of related pictures).  This time, we’ll be looking at women.

I’ve selected eight movies, one from each decade (allowing for a bit of leeway on the first one), in which a woman, or women, hold a prominent role.  In some cases, the woman is named in the title, and in a couple cases, I’ve had to stretch it a little.  Just for kicks, I’ll also apply the Bechdel Test to each film – because I’m honestly curious to see how the ones I’ve picked will go.  If you’re not familiar, the rules of the Bechdel Test are, simply put:  there must be two women characters who talk to each other about something other than a man.

The Broadway Melody is, surprisingly enough, about a pair of actress sisters who move to New York in order to make it big on Broadway.  The older sister’s beau, Eddie, has already moved to New York and seen success writing songs for a revue, and he’s their connection.  The only snag is that once Eddie sees the younger sister all grown up (beautiful but dumb, because a woman certainly can’t be both), he falls in love.  Awkward triangle alert!

This is a plot line that doesn’t bode well for the Test, and for the most part, Eddie (or his rival, who has perhaps the douchiest name of the era, Jock) dominates the ladies’ conversation.  However, I’m going to let it squeak by because one of the first scenes features the girls checking into a hotel room and discussing the anxieties of breaking into the New York entertainment industry.  I can’t quite remember whether one of the men who is supposed to help them comes up in conversation during that actual scene, so I’ll let it slide.  As a side note, I noticed, in the hubbub of the stage preparations, a costume designer who is clearly a stereotypical gay man – but I’m going to give the film some credit for depicting him as a fully integrated member of the stage crew.

In this early Hollywood era, there seems to be a fascination with depicting the popular entertainment of New York theater on the big screen.  Looking back, I find it strange – the thing that’s most impressive about a big musical number on stage is that it’s performed live before your eyes, with all the bombast and energy surrounding you, something that’s lost when portrayed on static film.  To be fair, watching a movie like this alone on your couch is pretty different from seeing it in a movie theater with crowds and maybe even a live orchestra.  They couldn’t really have anticipated DVDs back then.  Did they even have couches?

I guess there’s also a bit of “reality TV”-style drama here, too, because you’re not just seeing the big song-and-dance numbers, but the behind-the-scenes personal stories of the people, off-stage.  That’s a lot of hyphens.  This film reminds me a lot of another movie of the same era, The Great Ziegfeld, because of its similar structure and concern with backstage shenanigans (here, the producer is a thinly-veiled Ziegfeld).

So, with The Broadway Melody, I have now officially watched all (three) Oscar winners from the 1920s.  Historically, it’s a fascinating time of transition for film, moving from silents to talkies, in that brief window of pre-Code pictures.  Granted, three is not much of a representative sample.  When I think of old movies, I think of the censorship of later years – longing looks or chaste kisses instead of bedroom sex scenes.  Here, you can see ladies in their underwear, still rather concealed by today’s standards, but probably pretty sexy for the era.  How will this one compare to future films on the scale of lady-friendliness?  We’ll soon find out.

 

Theme:  Ladies on Film

Bechdel Test:  I’ll give it a pass

First Time Watching?  Yes

Final Verdict:  It’s cream in the can.

 

Wings (1927/1928)

Here it is: the very first Best Picture.

I first saw Wings a couple of years ago at the Somerville Theater, where they had (and hopefully still do) an ongoing series in which they played old silent films with a live musical accompaniment. It was really a great way to experience a silent film, immersive in the way that all good entertainment can be.

I’d gone into this movie without much of a sense of what it was about, except that it probably involved planes (regular ol’ Sherlock, that one). Before this, my only sense of silent movies was from clips of stuff like Charlie Chaplin, all of it choppy and sped up. I wasn’t sure how a full-length movie might go, especially if I had to read my way through it (God, if I’m expected to read, I might as well just get a book!).

A brief plot summary for those who aren’t familiar: Wings takes place in 1917, focusing on the lives of two pilots in World War I. They start as bitter rivals, fighting over the same girl’s affections, but learn to trust each other through the agonies of war and end up the closest of friends. And in the meantime, they engage in some badass dogfights in their Sopwith Camels against the Red Baron. Or am I thinking of something else?

Anyway, color me impressed. What was particularly amazing to me was the ease with which I followed the story – I could figure out quickly who the characters were and how they related to one another. The story itself felt familiar, but since it came before all the other movies I’ve seen, I figure it was only because all films steal the plotlines of what has come before. Though the storytelling method was unusual (to me), I found myself pretty invested, and the ending was genuinely wrenching.

Wings kiss

Jack and David refused to let a woman come between them and instead declared their love for each other.

The only thing that felt cheesy from a modern perspective was the bubbles scene, when drunk-Jack hallucinates bubbles everywhere. I don’t know what that was all about. I’m sorry to say that I’ve never hallucinated bubbles – or anything else – when drunk, but maybe I just haven’t been drinking enough.

One interesting detail that I learned was that the actors actually learned to fly the airplanes themselves. Many of the in-flight shots are from cameras mounted on the planes to show their faces and the surrounding scene during the battles. How they managed to not kill themselves doing that, I truly don’t know.

So, in summary, silent movies are kind of neat. They’re like eavesdropping on a conversation when you don’t quite catch all the words, which is basically what my life is like all the time. It’s a shame that every movie after that was a talkie. Right?

Theme:  Silent Film

First Time Watching?  No, saw it in a theater with live music.

Loved it/Liked it/Hated it:  Hard to say