BluRay/DVD Reviews

THE BUSBY BERKELEY COLLECTION

By • Mar 21st, 2006 •

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Warner Bros Home Entertainment
Includes 5 new documentary featurettes, 13 original era shorts, 9 cartoons, Radio promos, Trailer galleries.

There are a few images forever riveted and bolted into every movie-watcher’s memory-bank: Dorothy and friends dancing to the land of Oz, Darth Vader, the burning of Atlanta in GONE WITH THE WIND, and the geometric vision of dozens of dancing girls in a Busby Berkeley musical. Starting in the early 1930’s, Busby Berkeley created, on film, compelling, and hypnotic dance numbers, composed of ever-shifting geometric patterns of dozens of beautiful dancing girls. The tone of these musical numbers ranged from playful, downright sexual, and at times, dark and sinister. He used amazing camera movement, jarring editing and wild camera placement. Just as Hitchcock forever shaped all movie thrillers, Berkeley clearly gave way to the music video. Berkeley’s best work came during the Great Depression (1932-1935). All of the dance numbers he created were designed to soothe a nation going through its worst economic and spiritual downward spiral. His musical numbers either spirited audiences away to glamorous, often very sexy fantasy worlds, or they were disturbing reminders of harsh reality.

Warner Brothers just released an incredible box set of five Busby Berkeley films. The transfer work is beautiful, and the films come with amazing extras that give away many secrets on how Berkeley synchronized complicated camera movements with elaborate dancing (For example: he filmed many of the dance numbers in reverse!) There are interviews with modern directors like John Landis and John Waters, who, like the audience, are amazed and wonder how Busby Berkeley shot these epic, elaborate numbers involving swimmers, water, rooftops, pools, fountains, etc. Landis compares Berkeley to Stanley Kubrick or David Lean, directors who never compromised, who somehow got their vision, no matter how crazy it was, onto the screen.

FORTY-SECOND STREET
1933 Warner Brothers
Directed by Lloyd Bacon, Musical numbers by Busby Berkeley, Lyrics written by Harry Warren and Al Dupin, Produced by Hal Wallis, Written by Bradford Ropes
Cast: Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, Ruby Keeler

Even without Busby Berkeley’s amazing musical numbers, 42nd STREET is an entertaining, dead-on accurate portrayal of the creation of a Broadway Musical. We follow the chorus girls, stagehands, and even the poor investors, driven past exhaustion. We get to know Dorothy Brock, the diva-like leading lady of the play (Silent star Bebe Daniels acting up a wallop here. Through her, Brock is high-strung, yet lovable), and best of all we enter the head of the play’s director, the very stormy Julian Marsh (the superb Warner Baxter in his most memorable role!) Very few films go into a director’s driven, quirky skull as 42nd STREET does.

This is the first film Busby Berkeley made at Warner Brothers, the studio where he did his best work. Before Warners, he worked for Samuel Goldwyn on light, goofy Eddie Cantor musical comedies like WHOPPEE (1930) and PALMY DAYS (1931).

Warner Brothers was famous for urban grit – their films reflected the dark side of city slickers. Director Marsh has gangster buddies who keep suitors away from Dorothy Brock, and the film’s signature musical number is a dark love song to city life. Ruby Keeler is true to the film’s most famous line, spoken by Warner Baxter before she goes before an audience: “You’re going out there a dancer, but you’ve got to come back a star!” As she sings the song “42nd Street”, her lyrics tell of sexy ladies, con-men, and crimes of passions. In fact, Berkeley’s musical setting is a mock up of a midtown Manhattan street, where dancing murderers stalk victims amongst juggling fruit-cart vendors and dancing girls.

This comes after a musical number titled “You’re Getting Go Be a Habit With Me,” which pretty much compares romance and love to drug addiction! This cinematic anti-Valentine continues to fascinate.


GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933
1933. Warner Brothers
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, Musical numbers by Busby Berkeley, Lyrics written by Harry Warren and Al Dupin, Produced by Jack Warner, Written by David Boehm
Cast: Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, Guy Kibbee, Ned Sparks.

Very few films can match the shaky, unpredictable energy of THE GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933. It’s an amazing film that tackles, head on, the despair and fear felt during the Great Depression. It begins with a mystery: a struggling singer/songwriter (Dick Powell) manages to bankroll a Broadway musical. He refuses to appear in the play, even though he’s the best performer for the role. With the mystery solved (about thirty minutes into the film), GOLD-DIGGERS then becomes a frilly comedy where we watch, (and side with!) two chorus girls scamming a pair of stuffy rich guys! The musical numbers here are Berkeley at his best and most diverse! The first is “Petting in the Park” – a silly, often weird musical salute to flirting and sex. (Just wait until you see that little, creepy mischievous baby unveiling all those chorus girls changing clothes! Goodness!) Then there’s the technically stunning and beautiful ‘Shadow Waltz’ number, where dozens of dancing girls play neon-lit violins. Very often Berkeley uses the violins as his only light source. It’s one of the reasons why we love black and white! (The way Berkeley photographed women should be required viewing to anybody considering glamour photography. He often used the best glamour cinematographers in the business, such as Sol Polito and George Barnes.)

The final musical number always sends a chill up my spine – the “Forgotten Man” number. The film’s star, Joan Blondell, sings about how many boyfriends and husbands were taken from their women to fight in World War I. Those who weren’t killed or wounded came back to scarce employment, and were left to waste away on the streets. Only Berkeley, and the film’s non-musical director, the amazingly talented Mervyn LeRoy, had the courage to end a comedy on a truly frightening, sad note.

Hopefully those catching this incredible disc set will re-discover Joan Blondell. During the 1930’s, with her pixie face and big blue eyes, Ms. Blondell played gangster’s molls, the perfect girlfriend or passionate chorus girl to perfection. With a long, non-stop career, Ms. Blondell’s last film was 1978’s GREASE!


FOOTLIGHT PARADE
1933. Warner Brothers
Directed by Lloyd Bacon, Musical numbers by Busby Berkeley, Lyrics written by Harry Warren, Sammy Fain, and Al Dupin, Produced by Robert Lord, Written by Robert Lord
Cast: James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Frank McHugh

One of the fun elements of FOOTLIGHT PARADE is it’s star – James Cagney. Here he plays Chester Kent, the producer of on-stage musical prologues for movie-houses. Before this film, audiences knew Cagney as the cruel, fast-talking, yet charming gangster in films like THE PUBLIC ENEMY. Here he’s a driven dynamo trying to stage the best prologues in the business. He’s given great support by musical stars Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, and Joan Blondell. Cigar chomping Frank McHugh is great as a tired dance chorographer, who often has to stand in for curvy chorus girls during rehearsal numbers. (Wait until you see Dick Powell sing to him – funny stuff!) The dialog is spoken in quick rhythms. Like Cagney himself, FOOTLIGHT PARADE abounds with dizzy energy.

Cagney and Berkeley wow the audience at the film’s end when Cagney sings and tap dances with Ruby Keeler in the exciting, climatic “Shanghai Lil” number.

Many of the camera angles (even during “Shanghai Lil’s” dramatic sequences) are off kilter and inventive. Berkeley always saves his best and most powerful number for the end. The visual compositions and editing here are pure Sergei Eisenstein!


DAMES
1934 Warner Brothers
Directed by Ray Enright, Musical numbers by Busby Berkeley, Lyrics written by Harry Warren and Sammy Fain, Produced by Hal Wallis, Written by Robert Lord
Cast: Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, Hugh Herbert, Guy Kibbee, Zasu Pitts

The first half of DAMES builds comic suspense. There are low camera angles, constant danger, the fear of getting caught, and mysteries on trains – as if Hitchcock had a hand in a Busby Berkeley musical. Elmer (Guy Kibbee) is to inherit ten million dollars from his alarmingly weird and uber-rich cousin Ezra (Hugh Herbert). The catch is, Elmer has to prove he has equally high morals. This is a little tough, because Elmer is being blackmailed by a hottie chorus girl (Joan Blondell). Elmer is forced to invest in the Broadway Musical Joan is starring in. Before the show goes on, Ezra plans to sabotage the show with an outburst of violence. (This is almost like a cartoon version of Hitchcock’s THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO MUCH where an assassin is to strike during a major concert) Before that happens, we are treated to one of Berkeley’s best musical scenes – the “I Only have Eyes For You” number. This scene has often been compared to Kubrick’s star-gate sequence from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY in the way it ignores reality, time and space.

It starts with a man (Dick Powell) singing to his girlfriend (Ruby Keeler) on a subway. He looks at the subway advertisements, and imagines Keeler’s face on all the subway ads. The camera tracks into the eye of one of these mythical ads, and an elaborate stage is set, with dozens of girls, all resembling Keeler. The scene comes back to the ad, and the subway car. It’s a lot for an audience to take in.


GOLD-DIGGERS OF 1935
Directed by Busby Berkeley, Musical numbers by Busby Berkeley, Lyrics written by Harry Warren, Produced by Hal Wallis, Written by Robert Lord
Cast: Dick Powell, Adolphe Menjou, Gloria Stuart, Wini Shaw.

GOLD-DIGGERS OF 1935 was released a year after the formation of the Hays Office, the governing body that would censor and supervise American films until 1956. You would imagine this would soften Berkeley’s sensual and sometimes dark vision. Think again! Like his other films, the focus is on the creation of a stage show, from conception to actual performance. This is the first time Busby Berkeley directed the narrative sequences as well as the musical sequences, and you sense it right away. There’s something more filmic to the dialog sequences here. My special connection to this film is that Wini Shaw, a dark Hawaiian born singer/actress, who stars in the film’s climatic “Lullaby of Broadway” number was a long-time family friend. I remember her at a family gathering, actually performing. I also remember being shown GOLD-DIGGERS OF 1935, and seeing her face, in a totally black field, morph into a map of midtown Manhattan. I was, and still am, amazed! The musical number tells a story about a wealthy couple (Dick Powell and Wini Shaw) partying and drinking through the night and into the next day. Berkeley cross cuts between an art deco Manhattan starting another business day, and this couple finding more after-hours clubs. Powell and Shaw come off as the dark, even morbid side of Astaire and Rogers! This musical number ends with dozens of dancers chasing (via dance) Shaw up to a penthouse window and down to her death. Imagine being told “That’s Aunt Wini!”

The extra disc in the box set, is made up of musical numbers from these films and several other Berkeley films not included here. Wini Shaw is the star attraction of the beautifully filmed “Lady In Red” number from IN CALIENTE (1935), and there’s even a musical number from Berkeley’s most bizarre film – WONDER BAR (1934) As John Waters notes on one of the many Busby Berkeley documentaries in this set “These films are all classics. Modern audiences will be floored. Fifty Cent would love it!”

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One Response »

  1. […] create dazzling kaleidoscopic routines and surreal patterns of flesh tailor-made for the camera. He worked tirelessly throughout the ’30s and ’40s, until tastes in musicals changed and his brand of […]

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