The Broken Melody Review
In early 2000 the BFI issued a VHS, now long out of print, pairing up The Ghost Camera and The Last Journey. These were quota quickies, made in 1933 and 1936 respectively, each barely making it past the one-hour mark. As I seem to recall, the interest at the time resided mostly with The Ghost Camera thanks to the presence of John Mills and Ida Lupino (making her debut) in front of camera and a young David Lean serving as editor. Yet the real discovery was their director Bernard Vorhaus and the amount of energy and invention he brought to these films despite their inauspicious means. An American abroad, he was able to imbue these ‘B’ movies with a snappy pace more suited to the kind of thing Warner Bros were putting out at the time (think Roy Del Ruth’s early thirties work: Taxi!, Lady Killer, Bureau of Missing Persons, etc.). As his entry on the BFI’s Screenonline puts it: “Vorhaus showed that with a lively imagination even the most recalcitrant script could be turned into genuine cinema.”
Released as part of Renown’s batch of March titles, The Broken Melody provides another chance to sample Vorhaus’ talents. It’s a particularly welcome disc too given the film’s scarcity over the years: the last British television screening was in 1961 and there has never been a UK VHS or DVD release previous. (There was one in the US in 2006, albeit through the Roan Group and therefore likely to be of a pretty poor standard.) Made in-between The Ghost Camera and The Last Journey, The Broken Melody shares their punchy crime melodrama centre but with a slight twist: as the title perhaps hints at, this is also a musical.
It’s often forgotten but the British musical was fairly common during the 1930s, especially when compared to the decades since. Jessie Matthews appeared in a number of distinctive works, notably First a Girl and Evergreen with its impressive production design courtesy of Alfred Junge. Elsewhere the various music hall stars were given their own vehicles allowing the likes of Flanagan and Allen or Gracie Fields to appear on the big screen at least once a year. And of course George Formby began making his films for Ealing at the same time. The Broken Melody has more in common with the Matthews style of musical, however; in other words the tunes revolve around the story rather the star and are more easily integrated into the narrative. No one simply breaks into song thanks to the various characters being a composer, an opera singer, and so on.
In a nutshell The Broken Melody is the tale of a composer who kills his wife’s lover and is sentenced to a lengthy term on Devil’s Island as a result. He escapes and so takes the only logical approach to such events: he composes an opera about them. It’s a wonderfully bizarre set-up (one that may seem even more bizarre to some given it all happens within a British musical setting) and, on this strength alone, the film undoubtedly warrants some attention. Yet if the combination of musical, prison drama, infidelity and revenge suggests some kind of camp classic, then this isn’t strictly the case. Certainly, The Broken Melody is as terrifically entertaining as it’s strange combination of elements suggests, but this is mostly down to Vorhaus’ serious handling.
Essentially Vorhaus doesn’t have any time for nonsense and, indeed, may be oblivious to the nonsense in Vera Allinson and Michael Hankinson’s screenplay. He tackles the whole affair with little patience for inessentials. Our central character, the composer, is introduced - poor, proud and more than a little egotistical (“I take music seriously, I don’t write for the man in the street!”). His friendship with a young café singer is sketched out, little knowing of her genuine affectations for him. Swiftly moving on, he is introduced to an opera singer in one scene, marries her two scenes later, has a child the scene after that and discovers her infidelities soon after. It tells us all we need to know, cracks along at a remarkable pace and allows Vorhaus to throw in some lovely cinematic touches: mobile camerawork, expressive close-ups, etc., many of which easily belie the film’s humble origins. He’s particularly strong during the prison ship and Devil’s Island sequences: quick staccato cuts, unusual framing and an emphasis on the Grand Guignol.
Aiding Vorhaus immeasurably are his quartet of leads. John Garrick, as the composer, brings him the experience of having earlier worked on Hollywood operettas (The Lottery Bride opposite Jeanette MacDonald; the near-impossible to see science fiction musical Just Imagine). Margot Grahame, playing the opera singing wife and donning a succession of risqué outfits, deftly shows her skill for slightly overwrought melodrama, much as she would do the following year in John Ford’s The Informer. Plus there’s Merle Oberon, on loan from Alexander Korda’s London Film Productions, lending some class as Garrick’s genuine love, and the ubiquitous Austin Trevor (as the fated other man) who seemingly worked with every single British director of note during his three decades in the industry. And much like Vorhaus, each of the actors takes The Broken Melody completely seriously. They play it straight, completely oblivious to its more outré elements, and the film is all the better for it. Indeed, given Vorhaus economical, inventive handling and the general talent on display you could easily be forgiven for assuming that The Broken Melody was a far more presitigious production than a mere quota quickie. It’s well-made, well-played and an enormous amount of fun - needless to say, it’s also highly recommended.
Renown are issuing The Broken Melody onto a single disc encoded for Region 0 PAL. No extras are present, but the film does look and sound pretty much as should be expected. The materials used are in a fine condition - very little damage to the print, some occasion signs of age to the soundtrack - and the transfer is more than acceptable. There are slight instances of compression artefacts visible during some of the darker scenes, but nothing that should warrant genuine complaint. The important aspects - contrast and clarity - are firmly in place and, of course, there is the fact that The Broken Melody has remained little seen, especially in this kind of condition, for so long. Anyone interested in forgotten British cinema, or simply looking for a cracking good yarn, should find little reason to hesitate.