Is 1929's The Broadway Melody, as its reputation has it, the very worst film to ever win the Academy Award for Best Picture? Does it actually matter? The film is a great big piece of poo, and whether or not it is slightly smellier or wetter than other pieces of poo, it will empty out a swimming pool just as readily. There are worse films from this period, but nobody has ever heard of them, and if I were to say, for example "Man, but you know what's really a terrible, unwatchable early sound film, is Lights of New York", that would almost certainly mean nothing to you. And it shouldn't. Lights of New York is unwatchable, and history has rightfully buried it, despite its historical importance (it was the first feature film that had synchronised sound for the entirety of its running time). The Broadway Melody should have been buried right alongside it, right alongside God knows how many films from 1928 and '29 and into '30 where filmmakers were still figuring what the hell "sound" was, and what we could do with it. But it won a statue, and that means that it is now on an elite list that will keep it alive for as long as budding young cinephiles need a cheat sheet to help them start working their way into classical Hollywood cinema.

Let us acknowledge, at least, that The Broadway Melody has its own claim to historical importance. This is by all accounts the first musical film, as we tend to mean the word "musical": there are multiple performances of songs, and some these performances take place in a fantastical realm where a character can be talking in an empty room, when all of a sudden there's an invisible orchestra backing them up. This isn't, in and of itself, a generation-definining innovation: the groundbreaking stage musical Show Boat was two years old, and before that, there had been musical plays for decades, and lyric theater for centuries. But some movie had to be the first to do it; not just an all-talking picture, but an all-singing picture. And an all-dancing picture, the poster lies to us. In fact, there's not nearly as much dancing in The Broadway Melody as there ought to be, given that the two main characters are both dancers. Anyway, the film basically invented a genre, and it invented it at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, surely the Hollywood studio that would be most persistently associated with musicals for the next thirty years, during both the genre's and the studio's golden ages. MGM knew it had something on its hands, too, which is why studio head Louis B. Mayer more or less instructed the Academy to give the film that Oscar, according to longstanding rumor (the 1928-'29 Academy Awards are a weird case: there were no official nominees, and the winners were decided in something closer to a festival jury deliberation than a vote).

And so have generations of film buffs and historians been obliged to grapple with this ugly object and try to extract something out of it. It might not be the worst that Hollywood was capable of producing during this most chaotic year of transition, but it's damn sure not the best, either (it's not even the best all-talkie musical released by MGM that was in contention for Best Picture: The Hollywood Revue of 1929 is one of the official unofficial nominees from that ceremony, and while it's not very good, it's a hell of a lot better than this). The story was already a musty clichΓ©: the Mahoney Sisters, Harriet, or "Hank" (Bessie Love), and Queenie (Anita Page) have just arrived in New York to transfer their vaudeville routine to a Broadway stage, at the invitation of Eddie Kearns (Charles King), an up-and-coming songwriter and Hank's fiancΓ©. He's wrangled them a spot in the newest revue being staged by the impresario Francis Zanfield (Eddie Kane), but a terrible accident creates a new opening: the big "Half-Naked Lady Standing Still on the Prow of a Boat" number has just lost its half-naked lady, and Queenie, it is generally acknowledged, has terrific legs. So she gets the job of standing and being pretty while some bozo sings a droning nothing of a ballad, and because of how pre-Depression Broadway worked, this makes her a major superstar, and brings her to the attention of playboy Jacques Warriner (Kenneth Thomson). Hank, the savvier and smarter of the sisters, is disappointed that Queenie is using sex appeal to make her career rather than her talent, and is further terrified by the thought that the Mahoney Sisters might soon be no more. Also, Eddie is falling in love with Queenie. And through it all, they continue to rehearse the revue.

I will say the one unabashedly nice thing I can say about the film now: it presents a pretty interesting snaspshot of what goes into making a big Broadway production, presenting the cynical calculations and pragmatic decision-making behind the scenes with an admirable lack of romance and fairly bitter, sniping comedy. The moment that Queenie's predecessor tumbles from her perch atop the boat is a great example: we see her fall in a wide shot that leaves little doubt to what horrible condition she's been left in, and by the time a crowd has gathered to gawk at her, a separate crowd is already assembling to figure out how to find a replacement right this second. It's a backstage melodrama without the melodrama, instead unsentimentally focusing on the business end of show business.

I also have a couple more abashedly nice things to say. Namely, Bessie Love is doing solid things with her role. Hank is already the best part in the movie, and Love takes the character much farther than she's been written: there are notes of quick-thinking panic and anguish underlining her performance , as well as a desperate, spiritually all-consuming need to keep Queenie near her and safe that I cannot help but read as incestuous same-sex desire (there are, for the record, a couple of obviously gay characters in the film: a humorless lesbian dresser, and a swishy costume designer who's the butt of a "lavender" joke from said lesbian). Page, it should be pointed out, does not reciprocate: she is, in fact, pretty terrible throughout, a notable weak link in a cast mostly made out of weak links, with her one-note approach to playing the airheaded sex pot less as an innocent being beset by a hard, exploitative world than a blithering moron whose glassy ignorance is so complete that not a single piece of information can penetrate through to the brain allegedly lying within. She's unrelentingly obnoxious.

Love, at least, gets to do things: she roles her eyes in comical irritation, she calculates and makes snap decisions, she has a moment of good messy crying. There's nothing here that's especially memorable or impressive per se, but in the context of The Broadway Melody, it's just about the only thing to hold onto, and certainly the only way that any glimmer of humanity enters the proceedings.

The story's a big fat nothing, and so is the rest of the filmmaking: director Harry Beaumont made essentially no other films of any lasting historical note, and based on the evidence presented here, that's just fine. The Broadway Melody has come late enough in the development of sound technology that the very worst of it was behind us; there are no scenes of people gathered conspicuously around plants in the middle of the frame, and people talk like people, not like they are carefully enunciating each phoneme one at a time. But there's still an omnipresent feeling that the goal here was to show off what sound can do. The opening scene is built around nothing else, moving us through a crowded, noisy office full of conversations and buzzing machines, and this gives us our first sense of what will be a persistent problem throughout the movie: they could, by this point, "do" sound editing, but they hadn't yet worked out the kinks of how to do it well. So there are many, many instances of the sound cutting out dead the minute we move to a different part of the room, or through a doorway. It's very much all or nothing: there's never an ambient hum, just a screeching cacophony, or obliging silence to make room for the dialogue.

As for being musical, the film doesn't really understand how the genre works: the first three songs are all "Broadway Melody" (later to make a much more gratifying appearance in MGM's musical masterpiece Singin' in the Rain, from 1952), for example. And it's simply dreadful at staging numbers: setting aside how banal and stiff the dancing is itself (the Mahoney Sisters have a terrible act, Hank's outrage at being snubbed notwithstanding), the filmmakers invariably switch to an extreme wide shot encompassing the whole stage every time it starts. If the goal is to re-create the experience of watching a stage play, then great, I guess, but it makes all of the numbers look identical, and identically flat and boring.

There is, in essence, nothing worth salvaging from this. It is the crudest of filmmaking, pinioned by the technical limitations of the day into being little more than an exercise in pointing the camera at large groups and making sure it was lit to expose everything. The genre it kicked off is one of spectacle, of kineticism, of the pure joy of cinema; this is a flat trudge, lifeless and inert in every way that isn't Hank's probably illusory lesbianism. It is even worse than an example of 1929 filmmaking at its worst; it is 1929 filmmaking at its most dully functional. Interesting as a historical illustration, and a snapshot of where the state-of-the-art was during the weeks it was filmed, but dear God, not as a movie in and of itself.