Tuesday, June 07, 2005

Berkeley Postscript - politics

Well - I've said, mostly, what I have to say about Busby Berkeley. I can't deny it's been mostly just a straight dump from the old notebooks to the blog - but I'm not going to pretend this blog is anything but a trying ground... Anyway, I'll try to do some summing up in time, but right now I want to make a quick aside on the political implications of the 3 1933 Warner Brothers films.

Mark Roth writes about the WB's 3 musicals of 33 as homologies for the new deal. WE see a group of people coming together to make a show - all depending on everyone else, on lining up the fat cats, enough to make things move - everyone working together for the good of all... He emphasizes the role of the strong leader in 42nd Street and Footlight Parade especially - considering Marsh and Kent figures of Roosevelt. All of this makes sense - the connections might be even stronger than he puts it. The references to Roosevelt are pretty clear in many places, and all these films - maybe most especially Golddiggers of 1933 - make the depression a central fact of their world, and are quite explicit about the mutual dependencies amongt he people working on the shows. Roth singles out 42nd Street and Footlight Parade for the stength of the directors, the male leads, specifically preferring them to Golddiggers of 1933 - that, I think, is less convincing. On two levels. The first might be the "fascism" level, occasionally remarked upon - the "strong man" can be taken that way, especially when considered in relation to Berkeley's dances. The way his routines reduce people cogs in a machine, strip out their humanity, etc., has been remarked on - and it's a reasonable observation. Roth’s praise of the dances (and the shows) is couched in the same terms. To Roth’s credit, he realizes this, and says he can’t really answer why this is good and not bad - except tautologically - that FDR did not become Hitler, even though he could have. But whether it is praise or blame, the way the films swallow the individual into the mass is - questionable.... The second problem with Roth's position is is wrong is that Golddiggers of 1933 is better for more post-modern reasons. There’s no doubt that Marsh and Kent hold the other two films together - Golddiggers of 1933 is more diffuse; the energy, the plotline, slides around among the ensemble. For me - big Altman and Imamura and Ozu fan - that is not a bad thing. You could take that a bit farther, too - point to the importance of female desire and agency (however parodied) in Golddiggers - which contrasts nicely to the emphasis on male desire and agency in the other films.

I could add a third objection to Roth's argument - he puts Footlight Parade ahead of 42nd Street because it is more triumphant - Marsh at the end of 42nd Street is exhausted - he's held off his creditors and the day of reckoning for another year, but he has to do it again, or he'll be back where he started - the cycle of woes could start up again. Roth prefers Footlight Parade because it avoids this sense of the wheel of fortune - it is hopeful and optimistic, only. But this might be why 42nd Street is better known today, and why it might be the greater film - That might be why it is a greater film - because in fact, fortunes do rise and fall. Roth argues that these films form a kind of new myth - and myths are almost always cyclical. Years later, the film that keeps an awareness of the transience of life and fortune is almost certainly the one to seem deeper.

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