While not quite a classic, Judge Bill Gibron still enjoyed this inventive mid-1930s melodrama.
Paris, potboiler style.
Paul Verlaine (John Garrick) is a struggling composer, trying to make ends meet in that hotbed of cultural creativity—Paris. Alas, he can't get a break. He can't even pay his rent. Not to worry, though. The daughter of the rooming house owner is his good friend. In fact, unbeknownst to Paul, Germaine loves him very deeply. She convinces her father to hire Paul as a singer in his restaurant, and it's not long before he draws the attention of famed French songstress Simone St. Clair (Margot Grahame). After a whirlwind romance—Simone knows no other kind—the couple is married. Devastated, Germaine continues on in the café. A year goes by. Paul and Simone have a baby, but their marriage is in shambles. Upon returning to Paris, she immediately takes up with old flame Pierre (Austin Trevor). When his long-awaited opera (starring Simone) flops, Paul is destroyed. Then he catches his wife and her lover in their bedroom! Fed up with her adulterous ways, Paul becomes furious and resorts to violence. He pays the ultimate penalty, sentenced to 10 years on Devil's Island. With Germaine watching his infant son, all Paul can do is hope and pray. Maybe one day he can return to respectable society and offer The Broken Melody he composed all those years ago to the one woman who truly loved him.
Surprisingly engaging, more than a little melodramatic, and perhaps a tad too pat in its resolution to be a complete success, 1934's The Broken Melody is still a ripe bit of classic British film craft. Helmed by journeyman director Bernard Vorhaus (perhaps better known for giving David Lean his first job than any of his actual movies) and featuring a practically incandescent Merle Oberon, this typical show business rags to riches…to rags story has the formulaic facets we've grown accustomed to over the last century of cinema. There's the poor but determined composer (the rather effective John Garrick), the flashy floozy star (the equally intriguing Margot Grahame), and the loyal little café singer who stands between them (Oberon). Add in a wealthy bon vivant who carries on a mad affair with our callous coquette (Austin Trevor's hissable Pierre) and the standard seduction/matrimony/adultery romance thread and you've got the makings of a patented potboiler. Thankfully, Vorhaus doesn't mess it up—in fact, he even elevates it beyond its kitchen-sink conceits, since a third-act twist toward Devil's Island (of all places) attempts to tread new ground. Up until then, we have the usual love triangle turned tragic due to circumstances both sexual and stupid.
Granted, Ms. Grahame's Simone is quite the slag. Costumed in such a way as to constantly show off her usually bra-less bustline, our lecherous lead practically screams sex the moment we see her on screen. Vorhaus amplifies the pre-code carnality in a sequence that suggests Paul and his new gal pal spent several hours together on the couch. In the same, Oberon stands by (she was supposed to meet the cad composer after his "afternoon" with the singing star) as we view distinct male and female shadows making their way past a set of windows, each one leading onward…and upward. One of the most amazing things about The Broken Melody is Vorhaus's cinematic shorthand. He has a lot of material to cover in 80 scant minutes, and he uses edits, dissolves, montages, and other bits of filmmaking invention to get his meaning and context across. The story is told in flashback, using an ongoing operetta as a parallel to the Paul/Germaine/Simone storyline. During the opening, when Paul can't concentrate because of the noise outside, Vorhaus cuts to an exterior shot of the French flophouse were he lives. There the lens finds an arguing woman, a raucous bird, and a little boy mindlessly beating a drum, all perfectly creating the din driving our hero batty. Even better is the fatal confrontation between Paul and Pierre. We see a single image of a statue. Simone phones the authorities. There is a momentary insert of the men, then we are back at the police station. The cop hears a spine-tingling scream. Cut to the broken statue lying on the floor, next to a massive trail of blood …
In truth, this is more Grahame's and Garrick's piece than Oberon's. With her mysterious mixed-race looks (she was born in Bombay to a Welsh father and an Indian mother) and selfless storyline acts, she occasionally comes across as a highly decorative doormat. Garrick gets the massive narrative arc, while Grahame gets to bump and grind all over the screen before disappearing. In fact, a burly bloke named Brissard, who figures prominently in Verlaine's later years, has more of a meaty role than Oberon. Still, no one does patient pining better than this unabashed beauty. Whether it's lip syncing in her father's small café (Garrick and Grahame appear to be singing, however) or standing by, stoically, as a former commandant from Devil's Island questions her man, Oberon is dignity and determination personified. Indeed, when combined with the other actors and director Vorhaus's filmic flourishes, The Broken Melody becomes very entertaining motion picture piffle. The music is occasionally hard on the ears (lots of shrill soprano warbling here) and the story does scuttle along without staying around to resonate, but if you are looking for a classic throwback to the Golden Age of movie stars and moviemaking, this harmless hokum will serve you just fine.
Unlike other releases from that Criterion counterpoint The Roan Group, The Broken Melody looks amazing. The 1.33:1 full-screen image is a black-and-white blessing. While occasional dirt and damage is clearly visible, the monochrome transfer is, for the most part, very well done. Considering its age (72 years and counting) and its country of origin, this is an excellent DVD presentation. Naturally, the sound side leaves a little—or in the case of the occasional songs, a great deal—to be desired. Flat, tinny, overmodulated, and teaming with noticeable hiss, the Dolby Digital Mono mix is often maddening. Still, we expect such limited aural elements in our ancient motion pictures and The Broken Melody is no different. As for extras, we are treated to a scene from Ernst Lubitsch's That Uncertain Feeling (featuring Oberon) and an interview with Troma/Roan chief Lloyd Kaufman and French filmmaker Bertrand Tavernier. The subject on hand is something called "'the economic blacklist." In truth, it's just Tavernier ranting on and on about the dumbing down of modern cinema. It has nothing to do with our feature presentation. Only the introduction from New York Film Academy Provost Michael Young has anything important to add to The Broken Melody's legacy.
While it can't stand alongside the classic Hollywood musicals of the era, The Broken Melody still proves that an inventive filmmaker and excellent actors can save even the most stereotypical storyline. Thanks to a trio of terrific leads and a refreshing amount of directorial flair, this is one melodramatic outing that succeeds beyond its saccharine sentiments.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Roan Group
• Introduction by Provost of the New York Film Academy Michael Young
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