NB: these are my notes on the film, not a review – so you might not want to read them if you’ve not seen it yet.
‘Gold garters! Oh, Eddie, I always knew you’d make good!’
At the first Academy Awards ceremony, two Best Picture awards were handed out – the record books list the war movie Wings as the first winner of the big gong, but the category was split into Best Production and Best Artistic Achievement (which went to F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise). From 1929 on, the MPAA did away with that confusing ‘Best Artistic Achievement’ statuette, signalling that the Oscars were no longer inerested in innovative (and suspiciously foreign) filmmaking, and stuck with just the Best Production (ie: Best Producer) award. The first one went to this ‘all talking, all singing, all dancing’ musical – which is about as American as possible, and deserves some credit for essentially inventing a genre. The Jazz Singer was only a part-talkie – this is as good a candidate as any for the title of first musical, which perhaps means contemporary audiences came fresh to all the backstage showbiz conventions that were clichés within months of the film’s release, as every studio in town got a musical on release. Most 1929-30 musicals were revues like Paramount on Parade or King of Jazz, but this has an actual storyline to go along with the succession of musical numbers.
Singer-songwriter Eddie Kearns (Charles King), who has just penned the title song (actually by Nacio Herb Brown and Arthur Freed) – which is going into the soon-to-open ‘Zanfield’s Dollies’ Broadway revue produced by bigshot Francis Zanfield (Eddie Kane). Eddie’s home-town girlfriend Hank Mahoney (Bessie Love) and her formerly-overlooked-sister Queenie (Anita Page) are a comedy dance act, and Eddie tries to promote them into the show – which they manage on the strength of Queenie’s legs rather than Hank’s personality. To modern eyes – and, I’d imagine, 98% of guys in 1929 – Page is something of a whiny drip while Love is scrappily appealing, but the plot of the film requires everyone to be smitten with the former and want to ditch the latter: Zanfield cuts the comedy dance but puts Queenie up in a wrap that makes her seem nude as a figurehead on a ship in a production number; showbiz wolf Jock Warriner (Kenneth Thompson) starts squiring her around town (Eddie wise-mouths ‘well, I’ve got my suspicions about any guy that kisses a girl’s hand’) and keeps her away from her own birthday party; Eddie writes ‘You Were Meant for Me’ for the sister he’s not dating and makes it plain to his original girlfriend (‘you sure are regular, Hank’) he’d rather be with her sister; and Love gets to demonstrate smiles-through-heartbreak (a 1920s specialty) as she persuades the guy she loves that she doesn’t really care for him so the path is clear for true romance (she even prays for her sister’s happiness).
To rub it in, while Queenie is under Warriner’s smarmy influence, she becomes a drunken, aggressive, snob (‘that’s class, that is’) with loose morals (‘what’d I want with his ring? – there’s more diamonds in a bracelet, ain’t they, ain’t they?’) who rubs her sister’s face in it (‘I’m gonna have everything in the world I want … and you’re gonna have … Eddie’). After much snarling and screaming in the wings and dressing rooms, Hank throws over Eddie (‘I wouldn’t marry you if you were the last man on Earth!’) and drives him to fight with the rich smoothie for the girl he really loves – which leaves Hank sobbing in an orgy of self-sacrifice as she puts on her happy-face make-up (for all the world like one of the doomed-in-love clowns Lon Chaney played). Eddie charges into a party where Jack is on the point of raping Queenie, and gets a sock on the jaw – but, in an often-repeated film convention, the thug who wins the fight loses the girl, who sympathises with the mug on the floor. As a consolation, Hank teams up with a cheap blonde (Mary Doran) to take her old act on the road – given that the sisters sleep snuggled together in a single bed and kiss with more physical intimacy than any of the boy-girl clinches in the film (their farewell caress is especially lingering), there’s an obvious lesbian reading of the relationship drama. The depiction of backstage life in New York must have been a revelation in 1929, with cat-fighting chorus girls who talk like gangsters, a range of stereotype showfolk (including a gay costume designer who favours hats so wide they won’t go through the doorways), surly stagehands who toss lighting equipment at vain singers, lecherous backers ogling the girls and a great deal of racy talk (performers are forever being ordered to ‘get your clothes off’) – but this is still a big, splashy, mainstream movie pitched broad for the rubes (compare the similar scenes in Pandora’s Box, which are much more titillating and credible).
Technical limitations on sound equipment mean that the musical numbers look rather flat: the songs are mostly great (and form the backbone of the Freed-Brown songbook used in Singin’ in the Rain, which is set at exactly the time this was in production) but filmed in locked-down medium shot, though a couple of close-ups show off specialty performers like toe-tap-dancer Joyce Murray (that has got to hurt!). ‘The Wedding of the Painted Doll’, originally in Technicolor, is spectacularly tasteless and hideous (check out the dancing toy preacher and the pom-pom anklets) – but, in all probability, most Ziegfeld Follies numbers looked and sounded as ghastly in theatres, since they were the stadium rock acts of the 1920s. Other innovations – comedy stuttering (from Jed Prouty as the avuncular agent), offscreen dialogue (‘and stay out!’), tap-dancing that sounds like a volley of shots.