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THE GREAT AMERICAN BROADCAST

Review by Ed Nguyen

Stars: Alice Faye, Jack Oakie, John Payne, Cesar Romero
Director: Archie Mayo
Audio: English monaural
Subtitles: English, French, Spanish
Video: Black & white, 1.33:1 full-frame
Studio: 20th-Century Fox
Features: Radio Waves featurette, restoration comparison, two galleries
Length: 91 minutes
Release Date: October 7, 2008

Radio is here to stay!

Film ***

Starting in 1939, Alice Faye headlined a trio of films which paid homage to the various media of mass entertainment.  First there was Hollywood Cavalcade, a film about the early silent days of cinema.  Then came Tin Pan Alley about American music and the rising popularity of jazz and ragtime.  Finally, in 1941, came The Great American Broadcast, a film about the ascent of radio following World War I.

Younger audiences today may take radio for granted, but there was a time when radio was huge and easily the top medium for reaching the masses, either for entertainment, advertisement, or news.  Singers and comedians - Eddie Cantor, Kate Smith, Burns & Allen, to name a few - became airwaves sensations virtually overnight, thanks to the wide-reaching appeal of radio.  It would not be an exaggeration to suggest that radio was to audiences back then what cable or the internet are to folks today.

The Great American Broadcast reunites Alice Faye with her Tin Pan Alley co-stars - handsome leading man John Payne and comic sidekick Jack Oakie.  A film about radio was no mean stretch for Alice Faye, either; she had originally been a featured singer on Rudy Vallee's “The Fleischmann Hour” during the early 1930’s before making a successful leap to the movies in the George White's Scandals (1934).

In Alice Faye’s early films, she tended to portray wise-cracking chorus girl types, which were popular in the early musicals.  Eventually, her screen persona was softened, and Faye on-screen became more of a warm, approachable girl-next-door type.  In The Great American Broadcast, some of Alice Faye’s fiery Irish-blooded charm is allowed to mingle with her softer and more romantic side.  She portrays Vicki Adams, a speakeasy singer with aspirations for something better or more worthwhile.  Her smitten boyfriend, Chuck Hadley (Jack Oakie), is an amateur radio buff with a homemade set and a dream of sending free entertainment over the air for appreciative listening audiences.  They are soon joined by hot-headed Rix Martin (John Payne), an air force vet now looking for gainful post-war employment.  One evening, Chuck and Rix knock heads together and work out a way to do an actual radio program featuring live singing.  With a little bit of start-up money from Rix’s rich war buddy Bruce Chadwick (Cesar Romero), everything is all set for the first big radio broadcast.

Naturally, in these very early days of live broadcast, through rain or inclement weather, things do not go very smoothly.  The first show, broadcast live from a rooftop in the pouring rain, is a predictable disaster.  Everything from missing singers to overheated equipment to behind-the-scenes squabbling threatens to sink the entire production.  But, our intrepid troupers are not so easily dissuaded, and soon, Rix comes up with the idea of providing a blow-by-blow account of a Dempsey-Williard boxing match (in real life, this famous 1919 match was indeed broadcast live over the radio and helped to popularize the medium).

This time, the broadcast is a knockout success, and soon thereafter, sponsors and offers for advertisements come pouring in.  This being a musical, The Great American Broadcast takes full advantage of its frequent radio show interludes to offer song or dance performances from all three principal actors and even a few outstanding cameo acts as well.  Alice Faye does the majority of the singing, although this film does feature a pair of popular black specialty acts - the singing quartet the Ink Spots and those incomparable dancing dyamos, the Nicholas Brothers.  Their appearances, although brief, are easily among this film’s highlights.

Music aside, the plot to The Great American Broadcast is fleshed out by a love quadrangle - Rix, Chuck, and Bruce all want to win over Vicki’s affections.  Who will win?  Well, during this era of filmmaking, the handsomest guy usually won, while the other fellas were generally nice and extremely gracious in defeat; The Great American Broadcast offers little surprise in the romance department.

Speaking of romance, after completing The Great American Broadcast, Alice Faye ran off to be married to singer-band leader Phil Harris.  By the mid-1940’s, after her Hollywood career had concluded, Alice Faye turned to radio to star in a long-running program that also featured her husband Phil.  In the end, Alice Faye had come full circle, returning to her roots and doing what she always did best - sing.

Video ** ½

This film is presented in its original black & white, full-frame format.  The transfer is printed on a single layer.  The image quality is not pristine but has been restored to stabilize the frame from jitters and to remove most instances of dust and debris.  All in all, The Great American Broadcast looks quite acceptable for a film of its age, with pleasant contrast levels and even some rare stock footage of a famous Dempsey-Williard world championship boxing fight from 1919.

Audio ** ½

The film is presented in its original English monaural soundtrack, cleaned up to minimize age-related ticks, clicks, and pops.

Also, watch the Ink Spots carefully in this rare film appearance.  Their exuberant style of music predates doo-wop but was instrumental in defining the genre.  The Ink Spots can also be seen in the Abbott & Costello comedy Pardon My Sarong.

Features *

The Great American Broadcast is available individually or as part of the Alice Faye Collection, Volume 2 box set.

This disc is almost bare-bones.  The featurette Radio Wave: The Real History of The Great American Broadcast (15 min.) discusses early radio, its stars and its cultural influences, and the Alice Faye film itself.  A quick restoration comparison featurette summaries the restoration process with a side-by-side comparison of the initial 2008 film transfer and final film restoration, which looks cleaner with improved image stabilization.  Lastly, this disc offers an ad gallery of four posters, and a stills gallery of fourteen publicity photos.

Summary:

The Great American Broadcast is a grand throwback to the Golden Age of radio and offers a sample of what made radio so great in the days before television, cable, or the internet.

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