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Anita Page & Bessie Love in 'The Broadway Melody': First Best Picture Talkie

The Broadway Melody was one of the biggest box office hits of the 1920s. Released by MGM in early 1929, the musical melodrama about two show-biz sisters in love with the same man, rode the wave of the all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing craze of the period. However pedestrian its storyline, The Broadway Melody even went on to win the first best picture Academy Award given to a talking film. (The awards were only two years old. The previous winner was the silent war drama Wings.)

Directed by Harry Beaumont, and written by Norman Houston, James Gleason (best known for his fast-talking characters in films of the 1930s and 1940s), and Sarah Y. Mason, from a story by Edmund Goulding (who directed Grand Hotel, Dark Victory, and The Razor's Edge, among others), The Broadway Melody starred vaudeville performer Charles King, one of the many stage personalities who went West at the dawn of the talking era (and one of the many who failed to make it in the movies), the lively silent-screen veteran Bessie Love, and relative newcomer Anita Page, who'd been in Hollywood for only a couple of years and who'd just found fame after playing opposite Joan Crawford in two Girls Gone Wild flicks, Our Dancing Daughters and Our Modern Maidens.

Yesterday, Sept. 6, '08, the 98-year-old Anita Page – the last of Hollywood's silent film stars – died in her sleep at her home in the Los Angeles area. The cause of death was unreported.

I met Anita Page at her home about ten years ago, while I was working on my biography of actor Ramon Novarro, Page's leading man in the 1928 blockbuster The Flying Fleet (the Top Gun of its day). Page didn't have much to do in that movie – or in just about any of her movies – but she was awful pretty and nice to look at.

That said, even though Page was younger, prettier, and the inspiration for composer Nacio Herb Brown, Page's husband for about a year in the mid-1930s, who wrote the song “You Were Meant for Me” expressly for her, Bessie Love stole the notices for The Broadway Melody. Love's performance as the older sister was widely praised, and she was even “considered” for a best actress Academy Award. (There were no official nominations for the period 1928-29, but several performers made it to the Academy's voting board's shortlist.)

Alas, Love's comeback – her career had gone downhill in the late 1920s – lasted just as long as the musical craze. In other words, about one year. Anita Page didn't fare much better, staying at MGM a couple more years before ending her acting career in programmers at Poverty Row studios in the mid-1930s. She married a naval officer at about that time, and retired from show business, though in recent years she appeared in supporting roles in several minor productions, including Sunset After Dark and Witchcraft XI: Sisters in Blood.

Author Allan Ellenberger, who was Anita Page's friend for several years, answered several questions about the actress' life and career in a q&a we did for Alt Film Guide a little over a year ago.

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