Tuesday, May 31, 2005

Busby Berkley - An Evaluative Overview

Here we go then. Busby Berkeley. But before we really get going - I rather tiptoed around evaluating Berkeley's career, the grand overview - so let's start there. He is, I'd say, an "auteur", even if he wasn't a director for his whole career. He was certainly more significant as a choreographer than as a director, but that hardly seems to undermine my claims that he was an auteur - even in fairly narrow cinematic terms. You can see some hints of his choreography in his directing - the way the camera moves, the way people move, the way things sometimes form those little patterns he loved - certainly, the way music and the story are combined. But his greatness is as a choreographer. What's more, as a choreographer, he was intensely cinematic - his dances are aimed at the cameras, and the best of them work much more as short films than as dance routines in a film. The 4 Warner Brothers films I've seen (which I'll be analyzing in some depth in the rest of this series) take this the farthest - they may set their musical numbers on stage, but they explode the stage - the spaces are impossible, the camera goes into the space, and shoots from all kinds of angles - the dances are staged for the camera, using the angles and editing for their effects, and so on. And because of this, I think it is fair to compare him to directors, more than to other choreographers...

Now then: a quick overview of the films of his I have seen. Some more than once - most not though.

Whoopie - 1930 Eddie Cantor film - he runs off to a dude ranch with a girl. He compares operations. He sings and dances and makes waffles. 2 strip technicolor! I saw this many years ago, and can't remember the Berkeley numbers all that well - I remember Eddie, at his swishiest.

Palmy Days - Eddie Cantor vehicle from 1931, in which he gets set up as an efficiency expert at a bakery through the machinations of a phony psychic. The Goldwyn Girls bare most of it, and what they don't bare they flaunt. 2 fine Berkeley pieces - one with the girls in a gym (shot in a freezer from the looks of the girls - as Guy Maddin might say, the boner quotient is very high), the other Cantor's "My Baby Said Yes, Yes" number, which adds dancing girls and trains and extravagent camera angles before it is through. This is a delightfully silly film.

Roman Scandals - another Eddie Cantor vehicle. In this one he dreams he's in ancient Rome, where he is sold into slavery, discovers a magic smoke that makes you laugh (oy), does a blackface routine in a bathhouse (double oy), and exposes corruption in the dream and real life. Contains great comic chariot chase, but the rest is pretty flat; even the Berkeley numbers are dull, even with some barely concealed nudity.

42nd Street - the most famous Berkeley musical, and a masterpiece - backstage comedy and melodrama, with a good deal of fairly technical backstage stuff, not to mention political metaphor (putting on a show as the New Deal!). Bebe Daniels breaks her ankle, Ruby Keeler is pointed to the stage - then Berkeley takes over - his dances exploding the illusion of the stage, leaving it far behind. A good deal more to come on this humble blog about these films.

Golddiggers of 1933 - Ned Sparks would put on a show, if he only had the money. Dick Powell writes songs and checks, and then saves the day on stage when the regular juvenile succumbs to old age. But wait! Dick's from Boston! so Warren William as his brother and Guy Kibbee as the family lawyer come to save the family name - but they weren't counting on Joan Blondell! this is fine fast and furious Warner brothers comedy, with Berkeley's bits tacked on more haphazardly than usual - but they are perfectly magnificent bits.

Footlight Parade - the stage is dead! replaced by Busby Berkeley musicals! But Jimmy Cagney finds a niche, staging preludes to movies - he has to bang out a dozen a week, and he's going mad - somehow that's not enough, he has to bang out 3 in 3 days, and play all three in one night. Does he do it? "Honeymoon Hotel", "By A Waterfall" and "Shanghai Lil" follow - by this time, Berkeley wasn't making the least pretense at keeping his production numbers on stage, even though they are incorporated into the story as stage productions. These numbers are made for the cameras, made in the cameras, with multiple sets and editing effects and the works.

Gold Diggers of 1935 - first film directed by Berkeley - set at a hotel, where everyone is trying to skim from everyone else. A rich miser arrives with a useless son and a beautiful daughter who waste little time hooking up with a pair hotel employees (who cheerfully drop each other for the chance to marry money) - Adolph Menjou as a Russian producer. Then the music starts - dancing pianos, and the spectacular city symphony, "Lullaby of Broadway".

Babes in Arms - Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland are the children of vaudevillians, whose parents have hit hard times, thanks to Hollywood Musicals. They decide to put on a show - unfortunately, this is at MGM, so the production numbers are resolutely physically plausible, the camera seldom ventures above the top of the actor's heads (and they're all frigging kids!), except for one scene of the kids marching through a town singing and starting fires.... One thing worth noting - in both this and the next film, even though everyone's well being depends on the kids putting on a show - they never seem to actually do it. But they get rescued by a broadway impresario ex machina anyway.

Babes on Broadway - second Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland film Berkeley made for MGM. Has some moments of Busby Berkely in it, but not enough. Has some first rate singing and dancing in it, though more conventional than in BB's WB days. This film is prettygood, though - and the leads were in fact damned good at what they did - there's a reason those two got to be such stars, and for once it has to do with their actual abilities.

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