Monday, May 30, 2005

Busby Berkeley Part 1

The Harvard Film Archive recently ran a Busby Berkeley retrospective, and I managed to catch a good part of it. It's very inspiring. Those are some inspiring films. I saw, of their series: Forty-Second Street; Golddiggers of 1933; Footlight Parade (Warner Brothers' trio of 1933 musicals, all with huge production numbers by Berkeley); Golddiggers of 1935 (a similar film, directed by Berkeley); Palmy Days and Roman Scandals (a pair of Eddie Cantor musical comedies); and Babes in Arms and Babes on Broadway, with Berkeley directing Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland for MGM. I missed a couple - Dames particularly - that I wish I could have seen - but I am human, and I need my sleep, once in a while*.

The Warners films, especially the '33 films, were the high point of the series. That's not surprising - they would be the highlights of most series'. They have many virtues, almost too many to count. The musical numbers, of course - but even without them, they are funny and sharp, cynical in that Warner Brothers way - they feature great casts - Golddiggers of 33 has Joan Blondell and Ginger Rogers, Aline MacMahon, Warren William (whose presence alone makes most films great) and Guy Kibbee - along with Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, and all the Warners' character actors (Ned Sparks and the like)... Forty-Second Street has Warner Baxter; Footlight Parade has Jimmy Cagney, hoofing and crooning, as well as putting on a show... it's great stuff! Seeing the films all together like that has some odd effects - like - I began to really get Dick Powell. He takes his lumps - not as bad as poor Ruby Keeler (the Boston Phoenix called her a "roped steer"), but he gets them... But he's not half bad. I didn't quite notice it until I saw hism in 4 films in a row, but he is quite deliberately self-deflating. He's a target because he makes himself a target - he seems to be quite aware that he is playing the charming crooner as a bit of a clown. He is willing to look ridiculous - his love scene with Frank McHugh in Footlight Parade comes to mind. It is interesting that Blessed Event was his first film - it looks like a parody of his persona, but it came before the persona did. There is plenty of parody in the persona itself. The fact is, he is very funny, and I suspect that he only seemed to not be in on the joke - not being in on the joke is the joke...

But good as the rest of the films are, it's the Berkeley numbers that lift them into the stratosphere. You need some kind of hyperbole to discuss the dances, especially in the Warners' films - they are so disruptive, so extreme, they explode off the stage - pretty close to literally. That is, in fact, the gist of this post - or rather - series of posts. How Berkeley's numbers relate to the films they are in - how they relate to other musicals - how they relate to the stage and screen. I know much ink has been spilled on this subject before - but I'm still going to try to work it out. This post, in fact, is something of a warning of things to come: I am going to offer my thoughts on Berkeley's production numbers here in subsequent posts; these may get excessive, but that is life. I can't make too many claims for this - I feel guilty in that I have seen most of these films just once (a few of them more than that) - to do this well, I should have them on hand, to pore over - at least, I should see them a couple times and try to memorize them. But that's the advantage of a blog - you can wing it a bit more....

So that's what's coming. Something like a draft of a longish essay on the musical, especially, the structure of the musical - with Berkeley's work (especially in the Warner Brothers films) used to illustrate those ideas, and examined for the ways it is different from most musicals. There may even be some theory involved - I have reread Jane Feuer and Mark Roth for this, and if I find other commentaries in the next few days, may work those in too. The best thing about this series of posts is that you shoulnd't have to wait the usual three weeks between substantive posts here - a lot of this stuff is close, and just needs some editing and organizing. I should be able to add something every day or two. I'm not promising the world - just - this stuff fascinates me, and I find there are usually people around who share my interests. So here we go!

* The real problem, the reason I missed this film, is extremely deflating. I took chicken out of the freezer over the weekend, and had to take a night to cook it - it was either Dames or the Eddie Cantors, and since I'd seen, and loved, Whoopie! back in the day, I opted for the Eddie Cantor. I wasn't disappointed, though I wish I had seen Dames as well. I should have been thinking ahead before I started defrosting stuff.

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