Dig the above footage, courtesy of UCLA Film and Television Archive, of two movie premieres that took place in the calendar year of 1929, ‘The Divine Lady’ and ‘Broadway Melody’. The latter was MGM’s first major talkie–it won the Best Picture Oscar though in retrospect I think most current day viewers would agree with the New Yorker Magazine review at the time of its release which called the film ‘a pretty punk job’. ‘The Divine Lady’ wasn’t a full talkie–it was Vitaphone synchronized sound-effects and music deal which no doubt made the premiere evening a lot less interesting. Nonetheless the film was extremely well received and survives to this day, courtesy of UCLA. Ironically the surviving footage of the premieres are sans sound. Actors and actresses step up to the radio microphone and gamely say enthusiastic things about the wonderful evening they’re attending, words that are lost to us today. Oddly, the mute footage takes on a rather ghostly quality because of this handicap. I myself became mesmerized over the twelve minutes it took to watch the reel at the parade of silenced dignitaries, the long-dead Hollywood elite deprived of their cheerful voices, surviving only as archeological specimens in a dingy black and white dupe of a long forgotten evening.
For what purpose was this reel made? I imagine it was shown (with sound, natch) in newsreel theaters. But its clumsiness makes me wonder if this was a first pass at the material, an assembly of footage that was still in raw shape. Part of the reason I think this might have been the case are the clumsy jump-cuts that connect the footage. But the big giveaway are the egregious misspellings of many names. Richard Barthelmess becomes Richard Barthmess, Mervyn Le Roy is identified as Melvyn Le Roy and, most embarrassingly Louis B. Mayer is re-named Luis B. Mayer–a dashing but fatally incorrect Latin-esque misspelling that probably infuriated the Chicken Soup-loving king of Culver City. Several interesting non-actors make guest appearances, among them Arthur Freed and Nacio Herb Brown (who stand with their extremely unpleasant looking wives), director Frank Lloyd and, at five minutes in, William Randolph Hearst who is accompanying Marion Davies. Hearst quickly hurries away from the camera, clearly not wishing his appearance at the event to be documented for all to see. If you enjoy the reel make sure to read the YouTube comments below–they’re unusually scholarly and interesting.