There can only be one first in anything. In respect to the 1929 Harry Beaumont directed romantic drama musical “The Broadway Melody,” it is cited as being the first musical to have picked up the much coveted Academy Award for Best Picture.
According to IMDb, in the history of the awards, ten musicals have picked up the much sought-after Best Picture. That is only true if you happen to retroactively use the title Best Picture. From a historically accurate perspective, the first musical to attain the Academy Award for Best Picture was the 1964 George Cukor directed family drama musical “My Fair Lady.” If the 1961 Jerome Robbins and Robert Wise co-directed musical crime drama “West Side Story” had been released the following year, with the Best Picture title being established in 1962, Robbins and Wise would have seen their production realise the distinction.
Premiering in Los Angeles and New York on Friday, 1 Feb and Friday, 8 Feb 1929, respectively, “The Broadway Melody” is a pre-Code production. What exactly does pre-Code mean?
The term “pre-Code” refers to films produced before 1930. In 1930, the Motion Picture Production Code, often referred to as the “Hays Code,” was adopted. There had been attempts to create a code of movie industry standards prior to this point but failed.
If you were thinking the free speech clause of the First Amendment to the United States Constitution would apply, at this point in American movie history, you would be wrong.
In the 1915 Supreme Court case “Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio, 236 U.S. 230,” the court determined free speech did not extend to motion pictures.
The 1915 ruling would not be overruled until the 1952 “Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson, 343 U.S. 495” case reached the Supreme Court.
In “Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson,” in recognising that a film was an artistically created medium entitled to protection under the First Amendment, the Supreme Court unanimously overruled its previous decision in “Mutual Film Corporation v. Industrial Commission of Ohio,” which found a film was not a form of speech worthy of First Amendment protections, but merely the product of a business created to accommodate audience requirements.
The “Joseph Burstyn, Inc. v. Wilson” decision, often referenced as the “Miracle Decision,” was a significant blow to the Hays Code. With foreign film production companies not tied to Code adherence, enforcement of the Hays Code dwindled. By the late 1960s, enforcing the Code became impossible. It was thus abandoned in favour of an age-related ratings system: G for general audiences, M for mature content, R for restricted (under 17 not admitted without an adult), and X for sexually explicit content.
In respect to “The Broadway Melody,” a pre-Code production, film producers Harry Rapf, Irving Thalberg and Lawrence Weingarten did not have to concern themselves with something that was yet-to-happen.
“The Broadway Musical,” based on a story penned by Edmund Goulding, was written Norman Houston, James Gleason and Sarah Y. Mason. Oddly, since this film is a musical, there was a silent version o the production made. The titles, artistically created with white writing on a black background, were crafted by Earl Baldwin. The whereabouts of this silent version is unknown.
“The Broadway Musical” was the first film to feature a Technicolour sequence. Technicolour was a huge step forwards in movie production, vastly superior to the previously established British industry standard, Kinemacolour. Unfortunately, because of either poor archival management and or neglect, the Technicolour sequence is lost to history. The only remaining available versions of the musical are black and white copies.