Busby's Beautiful Busy Bodies
Was Busby Berkeley from Mars? Plenty of people interviewed on the extra features included in the new six-DVD "Busby Berkeley Collection" from Warner Bros. Home Video think so. They praise the legendary choreographer and director's kaleidoscopic musical sequences, marveling at how the guy was able to do such visionary work without any formal dance training. The very term "Berkeleyesque" has come to define a certain visual style. "The Busby Berkeley Collection" gathers five films either directed or choreographed by Berkeley, and for those wanting to get straight to the good stuff, it comes with a sixth disc devoted to Berkeley's musical numbers.
Musicals were still in their infancy as talking pictures entered the 1930s, with simple sequences that usually featured rows of dancing girls or a star singing to the camera, and by 1933, they were getting old, fast. With "42nd Street," Berkeley took the musical to another level. Although "42nd Street" is a pretty standard backstage story of the up-and-comer who becomes a star, the musical sequences are dazzling, especially the topper title number, as the camera swoops around a New York city block where everyone from the barber to the bickering couple upstairs is moving to the music. The public loved it, and hot on the heels of its success came "Footlight Parade" and "Gold Diggers of 1933," probably the best of the Berkeley musicals. Again, each movie involves theatrical producers, but "Footlight Parade" is redeemed by star James Cagney and its three back-to-back musical numbers, and "Gold Diggers of 1933" has some genuinely funny moments.
In "Gold Diggers of 1933," showgirls Carol, Trixie, and Polly are looking for work, and producer Barney Hopkins thinks he has the right mix of laughter and tears with his musical about the Depression. Meanwhile, songwriter Brad Roberts' rich family is trying to prevent him from marrying Polly, a common showgirl. Even 70-plus years later, I found some real laughs in this picture, even from such simple sources as Ned Sparks' cigar-chomping producer Barney. His snap-to-it attitude is fun to watch. The musical numbers include "We're in the Money," "Shadow Waltz," where dozens of dancers play neon-lit violins, the frankly sexual "Pettin' in the Park," and the closing song, "Remember My Forgotten Man." This march about down-and-out World War I vets is really quite stirring, and actually closes the movie even after the plot has been resolved, reminding 1930s-era audiences they could escape the Depression in the theater, but only for a couple of hours.
While "Footlight Parade" is a lesser movie overall than "Gold Diggers of 1933," it tops its predecessor with the musical showpieces "Honeymoon Hotel," "By a Waterfall," and "Shanghai Lil." "Shanghai Lil" features rows of marching soldiers and shows us where Berkeley got those precisionist skills -- in the military. "By a Waterfall" and "Honeymoon Hotel" surely pushed the boundaries of the 1930s-era censors. The former finds dozens of beauties in nude-colored bathing suits swimming about and even forming something like a giant human wedding cake, and "Honeymoon Hotel" features Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler as a couple checking in at the titular lodge along with many, many other couples. In a bizarre move, a young lad played by 9-year-old Billy Barty winks at the camera, then chases the couples before they all run off to their respective rooms for some hanky panky. It blows my mind that these sequences were allowed in a feature film in 1933, but only a year later, the Catholic Legion of Decency was formed and nothing this risqué would make its way to the big screen for almost 30 years.
Oh, one other note about "Footlight Parade," and that's a line that James Cagney, playing a theatrical producer, utters near the beginning of the film. He is inspired to create a stage show based on "Slavery in Old Africa." "I can see it now," he says, "…pretty girls dressed in blackface. White men capture them!" I got kind of twitchy in my seat when I heard that, but thankfully Cagney never follows through on the idea. But Berkeley did. Notably absent from the "Busby Berkeley Collection" is a DVD of the movie "Wonder Bar" from 1934, featuring one of the most astonishingly racist musical numbers ever put on screen, "Goin' to Heaven on a Mule." Just think Al Jolson, blackface and large watermelons, and you'll get the picture.
The other two movies in this collection, "Gold Diggers of 1935" and "Dames," are similar to their predecessors, only not quite as good. In fact, at the time "Dames" was released in 1934, some jokingly referred to it as "Gold Diggers of 1934" since most of the same cast members were present. And by 1935, the "Gold Diggers" concept was getting a little tired. Though there would be one more "Gold Diggers" movie (not included in this collection), Berkeley's style was on the way out as the 1940s approached. The kaleidoscopic overhead shots he was known for gave way to the more natural style exemplified by Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers, and others, and the rest is Hollywood history.
Or so Berkeley thought. As cult film director John Waters explains in one of the extra features included on the "Dames" DVD, the 1960s saw a revival of Berkeley's work on college campuses. While I'm sure that there was a genuine scholarly interest in these films that arose in the 1960s, the fact that they were selected for midnight movie screenings leads me to believe that the hippies found Berkeley's swirling, undulating on-screen bodies to be quite psychedelic.
Curiously, "The Busby Berkeley Collection" spreads its various documentaries and extra features (like cartoons and shorts) among the five individual discs. All of the documentaries are worth investigating as they delve into Berkeley's career and the making of the films, most of which were not directed by Berkeley. However, his contribution to them, and to movies, is so great that "The Busby Berkeley Collection" is a fitting tribute to this cinematic pioneer.