If it is a dream of most men to order hundreds of similar-looking women to spread their legs in unison, Busby Berkeley lived out that Fellini-style fantasy on a grand scale. Florenz Ziegfeld “glorified the American girl” in his yearly theatrical Follies, and Berkeley took this idea to the next level and beyond. Musicals wore out their welcome fast right after the first talkies came in, but Berkeley reinvigorated the form with his numbers in 42nd Street, the first film in this generous DVD set. He was hugely successful in the ‘30s, forgotten after WWII, and finally reclaimed as camp by the ‘60s drug culture. These Berkeley musical numbers are indeed trippy. However, seen without the aid of hallucinogens, they raise some troubling thoughts.
There’s something offensive and anti-humanist about Berkeley’s obsessive reduction of large groups of people into shifting patterns in a kaleidoscope. The women are all interchangeable, and when there is someone singled out as distinctive, such as Wini Shaw in the “Lullaby Of Broadway” sequence in Gold Diggers of 1935, she is killed off violently (during this number, the chorus boys seem to be doing the “Heil Hitler!” salute). Only in the ejaculatory “By A Waterfall” from Footlight Parade does Berkeley’s work seem sexy and paradisiacal; there’s a love for women’s bodies in that number that is chillingly absent elsewhere. In their more unguarded moments, these Berkeley routines seem to be about returning to the womb. By and large, though, they are unromantic, coy, and dedicated to an idea of physical multiplication that could only appeal to an unreflective carnal cynic or a serial killer—perhaps Berkeley’s interest in floating human heads should be taken at face value. They’re essentially joyless and grotesque, like something out of Nathaniel West.
In a revealing interview with some of Berkeley’s chorines in his book People Will Talk, John Kobel got the low-down on what the man was after. A dancer named Lois Lindsay told stories about how Berkeley would intimidate the new girls and how punishingly long the hours were, though most were happy to be on salary for months during the height of the Depression. “He would have a girl come in and he’d say, ‘Raise your skirt,’” remembered Lindsay. “This would be some little kid who’d never been out here before, and she’d raise her skirt just a little. And he’d say, ‘Oh, I’ve got to see more than that,’ and he’d look at us and wink and everybody’d smirk, and he’d keep it up and keep it up until she practically had her skirt over her head and be in tears, you see. But it was a big joke with him.” Berkeley’s attitude toward women certainly comes across on film.
All of these Berkeley Warner musicals are marked by the Depression, and this isn’t a subtext—the characters talk about it constantly, and whole numbers are built around lack of money and longing for money. There’s a stock company that travels from film to film: round-faced young wisecracker Ginger Rogers, who steals 42nd Street, dirty old man Guy Kibbee, randy chipmunk Dick Powell (a little of his propulsive tenor goes a long way), and inept, clodhopping sweetheart Ruby Keeler, who always looks like she’s going to fall over when she dances. James Cagney is wonderfully inventive and open in Footlight Parade, and his dainty, hyper-casual hoofing on a bar in the “Shanghai Lil” number is a joy. Then there’s Joan Blondell, who brings a distinctive raw emotion to her role in Gold Diggers of 1933. She’s aces as Cagney’s foil in Footlight Parade, but she’s let down by her part in Dames. By the time you see her in an excerpt from Gold Digger’s of 1937, she seems older, puffier, and all worn out by the Warner Bros. treadmill. The final effect of this DVD set is one of exhaustion and depression, which reflects the real, non-escapist emotions of the time.
In the late ‘30s, Berkeley made a move to MGM, where he tortured a young Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland through many of their “putting on a show” movies. Later on, he was entrusted with Esther Williams’s swimming extravaganzas. Before blandness set in entirely, he had one more biggie up his sleeve: The Gang’s All Here, made at Fox. The Tutti Frutti hat number featuring Carmen Miranda and a bunch of erect bananas is Berkeley’s masterpiece, and it manages to be more fun than all these Warner films put together. Maybe Berkeley relaxed because Miranda was more a female impersonation than an actual woman.
There has been a very good, thorough cleaning of these prints, and they look as clear as they can, though the sound is very thin. One example will suffice: Wini Shaw's floating head in Gold Digger's of 1935 used to be surrounded by flecks and scratches. Now she's set off against inky black.
There's a lot of extras on each disc: trailers, cartoons featuring the film's songs, and many featurettes with some dry talking heads (John Waters has the best things to say about Berkeley). There has been some comment on the excision of the "Goin' To Heaven On A Mule" number from the disc that compiles Berkeley's musical numbers. I'm not for censorship, of course, but I've seen this number (which features a segregated heaven for blacks and all manner of watermelons, fried chicken, and Al Jolson in blackface) and, frankly, I'd be happy if it remained as hard to come by as it is hard to watch.
An overwhelming set that will please the Berkeley fan and alarm others.