Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Howdy Broadway (Charles J. Hunt, 1929)

Howdy Broadway has been number one on my movie want list ever since reading about it in Richard Barrios' fabulous A Song in the Dark: The Birth of the Musical Film. And now, appropriately out of nowhere, Alpha Home Entertainment allows me to move another title into the top spot because they've released Howdy Broadway along with two featurettes on Vintage Comedy & Music Classics Volume 2. But oh boy, be careful what you want for.












From Barrios' description ("Ed Wood deciding to put on a benefit in his garage"), I was expecting a grungy sub-Poverty Row marvel. An obscure New Jersey studio essaying a musical at the dawn of sync sound? How could it fail to stun? And yet the Buster Keaton quota quickie The Invader from seven years later beats it for godforsaken garage aesthetics and Oscar Micheaux's badass incompetence exists on an entirely different plane altogether. Sure, there's crummy acting and canned theater camerawork. But more than that (garbled syntax, noir-minus lighting, thick soundtrack crud, etc.) is necessary to make a film compellingly awful and Howdy Broadway just isn't bad enough. Ed Wood, my foot. It's more, oh I don't know, bored Christy Cabanne. Richard Koszarski put it best in his history of east coast filmmaking Hollywood on the Hudson: "Unlike the equally threadbare films Oscar Micheaux would soon be making at Metropolitan, Howdy Broadway offers nothing to suggest any degree of pride, interest, or imagination on the part of those who made it" (238).

The title is misleading as well. Despite hero/popular band leader Tommy Christian's Alabama roots, Howdy Broadway is not a tale of Great White Way hopefuls stuck in Mobile or a tenderfoot out of water in Manhattan. Instead, it's a rote campus musical no doubt inspired by the wild success of Good News on Broadway, itself due for movie musicalization in 1930. I suppose it's noteworthy that Howdy Broadway beat it out of the film gate by a year. But so did Sweetie, The Vagabond Lover, and several others. And while I'm intrigued by Koszarski's suggestion, derived from the amazing contemporary film critic Harry Alan Potamkin, that Howdy Broadway exemplifies less a failed attempt to emulate Hollywood than a successful iteration of a unique New Jersey aesthetic, the end result is so serviceably dull I was overjoyed that the version Alpha released was only 48 minutes instead of the 70 reported by an American Film Institute catalog and IMDb. Presumably this is the only version in existence since Edwin M. Bradley reports in The First Hollywood Musicals that the version he saw was 48 minutes as well. There is a point in the film where an obvious chunk is missing. It cuts from this shot

to this one with the sweater-clad student jumping from the right to the left of the screen and the mustachioed man behind him appearing in the frame whereas in the previous shot, he's unseen speaking from far left.

Other factoids:

It was typical in early sync sound cinema to film with two or more cameras simultaneously to maintain the classical Hollywood tradition/trademark of analytical editing (shot-reverse shot, glance-objects cuts, close ups, etc.). You can tell the Howdy Broadway crew had at least two by the perfect matches on action below.






But this method didn't prevent an awkward insert (most likely not shot simultaneously) that breaks the 180-degree rule and jumps the line.


Finally, Barrios mentions that the best moment occurs when "a hapless contortionist momentarily gets stuck in midsplit" (197). Presumably he's taking about this scene.

But after watching it more times than I care to admit, I couldn't find a moment where she gets stuck. Maybe Barrios saw a complete 70-minute print. Lucky guy.

Also on the Alpha disc are two featurettes that I gave only a cursory glance to, Poppin' the Cork (1933) and A Night at the Biltmore Bowl (1935), the latter featuring applause tracks that sound as if they were added by Alpha (why?).

What's number number one on my want list now? Oh, probably Plainsong (Ed Stabile, 1982). Leonard Maltin gave it ***1/2. It can't be that hard to find. Or maybe Private Property (Leslie Stevens, 1960). Check your attic.

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