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.

 

Annie Hall (1977)

Recently, my boss, who’s a psychiatrist, was asked to give a lecture at the annual meeting of his profession’s major organization. He spent a lot of time debating over the title of his lecture. Once he came up with an idea he liked, he solicited people’s opinions to gauge how it might go over with an audience. The title? But We Need the Eggs. Few people got the reference.

I spent a good chunk of time during this movie wondering whether I’d misremembered Annie Hall being the film from which that punchline is derived. It’s basically the very last line, a summation of why we carry on in relationships despite their absurdities. And I’ll admit that I’m not entirely sure I understand the metaphorical eggs, either in the way Woody Allen meant it or my boss (though, to be fair, I never actually heard my boss’ talk). But it’s interesting how joke-telling plays a role in the film, not so much as a character trait, but as an overarching commentary.

Joke-telling itself is sort of a dying art. That is, of the sort that Woody Allen’s character partakes in here, where he tells us a joke and ends with the punchline. Jokes that used to be filed away in paperback books, like 1001 Funniest Jokes about Walking into a Bar. I don’t know anyone who tells jokes like that these days, excluding stand-up comics. Now we have the internet and memes and gifs, but people don’t tell old school jokes. I imagine cocktail parties in decades past, where people would gather around the resident wisecracker, who rattled off a parade of jokes, and everyone laughed at the appropriate point. Maybe people never did that. Or maybe I just don’t have very many friends.

Before this, I don’t think I’d ever seen anything Woody Allen has made, and certainly didn’t realize that he’s released a movie every year since the 1970s. Of course, even underneath the homey little rock where I live, I have a general sense of Woody Allen: neurotic filmmaker, skeevy personal scandal.  That’s all I got.

What’s striking about Annie Hall to me is that, even in the context of these Best Pictures, this film is quite unlike anything else I’ve seen. It’s not so much that any individual device used is unique in itself (although it’s quite possible I’m thinking of all the people that stole his techniques afterwards); it’s the cumulative effect that makes the movie stand out. This is self-aware, with a knowing narrator pausing in the action to address his audience directly. It’s also full of hilarious, subtle lines (“Darling, I’ve been killing spiders since I was 30”) that often stand out as clever, written lines rather than natural speech, but don’t detract in such a meta sort of film.

Although I enjoyed it, I did find the frenetic pace overwhelming. That’s partly a personal quirk – I tend to struggle with following dialogue-heavy scenes, which is basically all of Annie Hall. Also, watching anxious people usually makes me feel a bit anxious. As I write this, several days after watching the film, I’m a little fuzzy on the specifics of the plot. Will I check out his other films? I’m not sure – how do they compare to this one?

 

Theme: New York romance

First Time Watching? Yes

Final Verdict: Like a $400/month apartment in New York.