Archie Mayo’s The Great American Broadcast (1941) is a rather loving tribute to radio technology and the impact it had on shaping America’s popular entertainment. The flimsy screenplay by Edwin Blum, Robert Ellis, Don Etlinger and Helen Logan begins in earnest with a predictable lover’s triangle but becomes bogged down by a litany of specialty acts that come and go with lightening speed. Basically, this is yet another attempt at the 'all-star' extravaganza, the film's plot serving only as background to string the novelties along.
The film’s unusual credit sequence makes deft use of a montage of radio greats – including Rudy Vallee, Kate Smith, Eddie Cantor and Jack Benny – reminding the audience of careers that were made with the debut of radio broadcasting.
From this rather auspicious introduction we move to a private landing strip owned by square jawed fly boy and entrepreneur, Rix Martin (John Payne) who is in chapter eleven and eager to pick a fight with telephone company workmen stringing wire across his field. After portly short wave enthusiast Chuck Hadley (Jack Oakie) helps Rix get out of a jam the two become best friends.
Chuck shows Rix his concept for radio with a homemade receiver built inside his apartment. Chuck also introduces Rix to his favorite girl, Vicki Adams (Alice Faye): big mistake! For in short order the rather tempestuous relationship between Vicki and Rix will blossom into romance. In the meantime, Rix needs some quick cash to take radio technology to the next level. He turns to recovering alcoholic and moneyed swell, Bruce Chadwick (Cesar Romero). Sober, Bruce wouldn’t think twice about investing in such a risky venture. Drunk, he’s all too eager to cut Rix a check for any amount he desires.
From a purely narrative perspective, only the first thirty minutes of the story prove engaging with Chuck eventually realizing he has lost Vicki to Rix. However, what the rest of the film lacks in narrative structure it more than makes up for with a mind-boggling cavalcade of top flight performers giving it their all. These include the melodic sweet tones of The Ink Spots, electric high stepping from The Nicholas Brothers and a thoroughly engrossing myriad of spectacular routines featuring The Wiere Brothers; a European dancer/juggler trio that are spellbinding entertainment unto themselves.
Another of studio chief, Darryl F. Zanuck’s personally supervised productions, The Great American Broadcast was a big hit for 20th Century-Fox. Today, it seems more dated than other Fox musicals – if only from the perspective that we currently live in an age where radio technology seems rather quaint by comparison to our other forms of mass entertainment (movies, the internet, WiFi, digital downloads, et al).
Nevertheless, the film greatly benefits from solid performances by Faye, Payne and Oakie. The word 'troopers' comes to mind. What is so impressive about talent from Hollywood's golden age (as opposed to our current crop of celebrities) is how frequently and willingly they were able to sell absurd notions as high art with, not only a straight face but also, complete conviction.
Name me one celebrity living today who can do screwball comedy and not come across looking absolutely ridiculous. In The Great American Broadcast we have stars of the highest magnitude giving it their absolute all. If the plot has its failings (and it does) then Faye, Payne and Oakie never do. They're professionals through and through and know how to market themselves to the public with great wit, charm and soul. In the final analysis, The Great American Broadcast is total fluff - but sold with sincerity and that sincerity goes an awfully long way.
Fox Home Video’s B&W DVD is fairly impressive with strong contrast and tonality throughout. The image is very sharp with fine detail evident throughout. Occasionally, edge enhancement and shimmering of fine details momentarily distract. Otherwise, this is a fine visual presentation that will surely not disappoint. The mono audio has been cleaned up and is presented at an adequate listening level. Extras include a featurette on the history of radio, a restoration comparison, advertising and stills gallery and original theatrical trailer.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)