“Broadway” is the word for this entry in the Top 6 Words series. This is interesting, as it’s the first proper noun I’ve had so far. Additionally, the eligible movies for the list are mostly going to share a common theme.
My favorite movies with the word “Broadway” in the title follow the jump, but try thinking up some “Broadway” titles on your own before peeking. Chime in with your own list in the comments section.
I was lucky with this one. I could literally only think of six eligible movies, and as luck would have it I like all six. If I had seen The Broadway Melody’s remake (Two Girls On Broadway) or its three sequels, I’d maybe have had an easier time.
6. Charlie Chan On Broadway (1937)
Charlie Chan heads out to New York City. A mysterious woman is hiding something from a lot of people who seem to want it, and her showing up in New York causes a stir. A murder is committed, and Chan and his number one son sort it all out. They are aided by a tough local cop, who’s one of the most entertaining characters in this episode. Although the back story of some of the characters is “told” rather than shown (and thus, this woman’s reapparance doesn’t mean as much to the viewer as it probably should), the essentials of the murder mystery carry more impact than the average Chan vehicle, and the unraveling of the clues makes for an intriguing show.
5. Broadway Bill (1934)
One of Frank Capra’s favorites of his own films was Broadway Bill, from 1934. (He even remade it himself with 1950’s Riding High.) It’s about the manager of the Higgins paper box factory (Warner Baxter) who would rather be racing horses than making paper boxes. But there’s pressure to stay “respectable,” particularly from his wife, whose father is J. L. Higgins himself. Higgins has four daughters, three of whom have husbands who are managers of various Higgins enterprises, and one of whom (Myrna Loy) is unmarried but has taken a particular liking to Baxter’s character, her brother-in-law. If this all sounds complicated, it’s not — I’ve just done a muddled job describing it.
Broadway Bill is the horse Baxter just knows will hit it big at the races, even though he’s never formally raced before. The story is about his efforts to free himself from Higgins’ grasp and make it on his own. If he loses, what can he do but return, embarrassed and dejected, back to the humdrum life of high society and paper boxes?
Baxter’s character has an aggressive personality, perhaps a little too much to be an entirely sympathetic character — but who needs more films about perfect leads, anyway? This film has a lot of heart to it, and while the struggles of the characters are not typical for the average person, they are struggles we relate to, and we pull for them to win out in the end. It takes more to be a classic, but that and some good laughs are all that’s needed to make a pleasantly entertaining comedy. Broadway Bill is just that.
4. The Broadway Melody (1929)
In its day, The Broadway Melody was the kind of spectacle we now call the special effects film. The special effects were its soundtrack. Synchronized sound had been creeping into feature films since 1927 and would complete their takeover by 1930. It’s clear the novelty hadn’t yet worn off: the opening scene shows an orchestra tuning their instruments and rehearsing. The camera explores the room, picking up all these different sounds just to glory in them.
But there is artistry in the spectacle. Consider a scene where a woman looks tearfully out a window at a man driving off in a car. The sound effects — of the car door opening and closing, the motor starting, and the car driving off — take care of the mechanics of the narrative, thus freeing up the camera to remain fixed on the emotions in her face, where the heart of the scene is.
Despite lovely touches like this, the film is more good than great. The characters feel a little too much like they’re playing predefined roles instead of living as genuine individuals. And while it may have had a strong impact at the time, the story of innocent girls lured astray by sinful city lifestyles has lost its power to shock. Nevertheless, I cared about these characters and rooted for them to pull through their various trials. In addition, there are some fine musical moments interspersed throughout.
3. The Barkleys of Broadway (1949)
Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers reunited for one final musical, ten years after their previous vehicle. This is the only one in color, and what glorious color it is: the film is rich the bright colors of lavish costumes and sets. While the writing isn’t quite as electric as it was in their best films, the charm and charisma is every bit as magical. It goes without saying that there is some great dancing here. Beyond that, there is Oscar Levant, always a delight in musicals like this.
2. Bullets Over Broadway (1994)
1. Broadway Danny Rose (1984)
Woody Allen takes the top two. Both are about little guys trying to make it big on Broadway (whether as an agent or a writer), and both involve comic run-ins with the mob.
Broadway Danny Rose is probably his best 80s comedy and is a strong contender for his best ever. After a run of experimental comedies (Stardust Memories, Zelig), here is a return to his more conventionally zany 70s comedies, yet one which forges new territory at the same time.
Allen plays a talent agent, an inspired role for him, as it gives him plenty of excuses for his trademark banter and neurotic tirades, which have (arguably) never been faster or funnier. He’s got his hands full trying to keep hesitant producers and finicky performers happy, but then he finds himself mixed up with gangsters, molls, and big shots. It’s just about the perfect grab bag of comic foils for Woody Allen’s stock character, but more than that, too: this is not just a vehicle for laughter but for pathos as well. Beneath the roles these characters are assigned are genuine individuals with real yearnings. We don’t just laugh — we care.
In Bullets Over Broadway, John Cusack plays “the Woody Allen character.” This time he’s a writer, which immediately makes us wonder if this is an even more autobiographical lead than usual. It seems the only way his play is going to get produced is if a gangster’s talentless girlfriend is cast in the leading role. The film exploits the conflict of art vs. commerce to the fullest. You can probably see where some of it will go: the girlfriend will be not just bad but hilariously bad, and Cusack’s character will go into hysterical conniption fits over how bad she is and, subsequently, when things come to a head and the gangsters come after him.
As in Broadway Danny Rose, the comedy is tied together by a genuine love of the performing arts and great empathy with the kind of artists that just want to be left alone to practice their craft.