In “Worst Best Picture” we search every single Best Picture Oscar winner of all time from 1927 to present to uncover the worst of them all. Conventional wisdom says that 2005’s winner Crash is the worst winner in history. We won’t stop until we’ve tested every last one. Read the the first, our review of Crash, here. Posts will be relatively spoiler free, but there may be some details revealed. Today’s installment is the 1928/1929 winner The Broadway Melody. Is it better than Crash?
If we’re being totally realistic, the first 10 Best Picture winners just don’t hold up. There are excuses to be made — Grand Hotel is charming in its strangeness, All Quiet on the Western Front and Cavalcade are chilling in their portrayals of war, and Mutiny on the Bounty has a truly great performance — but the only one of the first ten that’s worth your two hours now is It Happened One Night.
It shouldn’t be surprising that films from a century ago don’t hold up. For the most part it’s the pacing, because most of them are insanely long and nearly unedited. Cavalcade tells a half dozen stories, many of which are so tangential to the plot that it’s tough to determine why you should care about them. Cimarron and The Great Ziegfield sprawl like epics but have so little to say that they feel terribly padded. It’s important to look at this time as a whole before we get into The Broadway Melody, the second Best Picture winner ever and, arguably, the first “true” musical as we know the form today.
In comparison to the full list, The Broadway Melody fares pretty rough. The songs aren’t memorable, which is pretty damning. I know you’d think there would be some song that I could clip out here and you’d at least have an “oh, so that’s where that comes from” moment, but no dice. The characters are paper-thin. There’s Hank (actually Harriet, a woman, and the nickname is largely not explained), the street-smart, tough sister and Queenie, the beautiful, but only beautiful, younger sister. They’re trying to break into show business with a duo act, but producers only want to hire Queenie, on account of all the beautiful stuff.
There’s a love triangle, because by Hollywood law everyone in love with one person must be in love with someone else at all times, and if I’m honest it works better here than in most movies. The struggle of the smart-but-not-beautiful Hank is heartfelt, especially as she realizes she’s losing her sister to the wrong parts of show business. It is weird that they attempt to sell that actress who plays Hank as not beautiful, though, but that’s a problem in a lot of films. Whenever we are told as the audience that a woman is “not beautiful” that can be a challenging part of the narrative if she’s, y’know, beautiful. Marty is exceptionally bad about this, and it remains the gold standard for “look how ugly this beautiful woman is or something.”
All-in-all, The Broadway Melody is more important as a historical marker for musicals. It came first, so if you love musicals you can get something out of it akin to going to a museum. It’s a little more fun than most of the early ones, too. I can’t recommend it on its own, but it’s certainly more fun than Cavalcade.
The Best Part: Hank (Bessie Love) was nominated for Best Actress, and she definitely gives the best performance in the movie. She plays the role permanently flustered, which is fun to watch at times, and it’s really as close as anyone gets in the movie to “acting” as we know it now.
The Worst Part: It’s real, real dated, y’all. The sexual politics of the love triangle (and fourth member, who gets added late in the film) will anger modern viewers, and there just isn’t all that much going on outside of that. There’s some relevancy left in the “it’s difficult to follow your dreams and hold on to who you really are” message, but there’s not in any of the rest of it.
Is It Better or Worse than Crash? 50 years from now, The Broadway Melody will still be one of the first filmed musicals of all time and Crash will be a movie that people can’t really explain. I’m extremely interested in how Crash will be rethought, and if the timeline for Dances With Wolves is any indicator, it’s coming up real soon. The only comparison between these two is in their memory, because neither really feels like it could come out right now. I guess they both offer a look into a strange, forgotten time, but one of those times is the mid 2000s, so let’s leave that one where it is.
Worst Best Picture Archives: Crash | Terms of Endearment | Forrest Gump | All About Eve | The Apartment | No Country for Old Men | Gentleman’s Agreement | 12 Years a Slave | The Last Emperor | The Silence of the Lambs | The Artist | A Man for All Seasons | Platoon | The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King | The King’s Speech | Rain Man | The Departed | The Bridge on the River Kwai | Marty | Gigi | It Happened One Night | Driving Miss Daisy | Shakespeare in Love | Wings | Midnight Cowboy | Rocky | Gone with the Wind | Chicago | Gladiator | Cavalcade | The Greatest Show on Earth | You Can’t Take It With You | The Best Years of Our Lives | The Godfather | Casablanca | Grand Hotel | Kramer vs. Kramer | The French Connection | In the Heat of the Night | An American in Paris | Patton | Mrs. Miniver | Amadeus | Crash, Revisited | How Green Was My Valley | American Beauty | West Side Story | The Sting | Tom Jones | Dances with Wolves | Going My Way | The Hurt Locker | The Life of Emile Zola | Slumdog Millionaire | The Deer Hunter | Around the World in 80 Days | Chariots of Fire | Mutiny on the Bounty | Argo | From Here to Eternity | Ordinary People | The Lost Weekend | All the King’s Men | Rebecca | A Beautiful Mind | Titanic | The Broadway Melody
Alex Russell lives in Chicago and is set in his ways. Disagree with him about anything at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @alexbad.