Come and meet those dancing feet, and pianos, and buildings, and . . .
Give the nearest Warner Home Video executive a big hug. The company has at last remastered and released the definitive Busby Berkeley Collection: 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade, Dames, and Gold Diggers of 1935. All but 42nd Street are new to DVD, and the remastering is very near flawless, which is particularly impressive given the antiquity of these films. Has any such collection held up better for sheer entertainment value? Nowhere will you find a more paralyzing succession of archetypal 1930s pop culture moments. This much fun is usually illegal; be glad it wasn’t subject to FDA approval.
When Warner Bros. unleashed 42nd Street in February 1933, musicals were thought dead. The Jazz Singer and talkies were only six years old, but already the market had binged and purged. Stick anything onto Broadway and you get the idea: Melody, Hoofer, Singer, Babies, Scandals. Enough was enough, but 42nd Street proved that the requiem had been played too soon. Here was a musical to redefine what musicals could be. The cliché-soaked plot was overcome by director Lloyd Bacon’s neat mixing of Warner Bros. hardboiled storytelling with more syrupy genre conventions. But what most distinguished 42nd Street were its appealing performers and an army of alabaster chorines who realized Berkeley’s choreographic and architectural wonderments. The world still hasn’t seen anything to compare.
Warner Baxter as a beleaguered director and Bebe Daniels as a egomaniacal star fulfilled their duties admirably, but “kids” Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell stole the show. Powell was a singer newly arrived to Hollywood, and his easy charm and pleasing tenor were predestined for Harry Warren and Al Dubin’s songs. With her little girl voice and virginal mien, Keeler may come off as an extraterrestrial to 21st-century cynics, but she was sweetness personified during the Depression.
Gold Diggers of 1933 gave Berkeley more resources for extravaganza. It is largely a tuneful, bubbling delight, with the diaphanous “Shadow Waltz” looking like a live-action inspiration for Fantasia. The opening number, “We’re in the Money”, is emblematic of Depression escapism. But is that a correct assessment? True, “Money” reaches the apex of divine lunacy when Ginger Rogers breaks into Pig Latin for no good reason. But the glorification of oversized coinage strategically fastened onto pulchritudinous high steppers was a reminder that bank accounts were empty across America, and the number ends abruptly with a foreclosing raid by the sheriff. The cheery facade cracks wide open with the final number, “Remember My Forgotten Man.” Berkeley gives us rows of World War I soldiers, bread lines, despairing wives, and a streetwalker (Joan Blondell) to enact privation. It remains a startling moment in American movies, one that enshrines Gold Diggers of 1933 not only as art but as sociology.
Footlight Parade (1933) had no such lofty ambitions, but as musical entertainment, it may be the best of the bunch. The wafer-thin plot concerns the demise of live shows that preceded first-run films in big cities. The rationale for staging opulent live production numbers is thereby set, though the irony is that Berkeley’s vision could only be realized on film. For his finale, he strings together a trio of production numbers into one half hour of psychotomimetic indulgence. “Honeymoon Hotel” celebrates the joy of sex in unfamiliar places. “By a Waterfall” employs dozens of nymphs cavorting in a paradisiacal aquacade. “Shanghai Lil” is an epic all by itself, with James Cagney exercising his high-energy precision dancing while Keeler does her best to keep up. The joys of Footlight Parade are not limited to production numbers. It crackles with clever, fast dialogue enlivened by a sterling cast. The romantic pairing of a snarling Cagney as a high-strung producer and a cheeky Blondell as his lovestruck secretary guarantees sparks. Powell and Keeler do not cloy here, and stalwart Warner Bros. characters Frank McHugh, Ruth Donnelly, Guy Kibbee, and Hugh Herbert are included to insure that the recipe would yield another success.
Dames (1934) is a lesser-known entry in the Berkeley canon, but it has its rewards. With its story of sanitizing show business, the film skewered hypocrites who hide their dirty little secrets behind Puritan finger-wagging. Not coincidentally, the plot mirrors changes in Hollywood. Dames was produced the same year that the Code cracked down on movie indecency; the earlier “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” from 42nd Street, “Pettin’ in the Park” from Gold Diggers of 1933, and “Honeymoon Hotel” from Footlight Parade would have been too suggestive for America’s newly disinfected screens. Berkeley was not cowed by the restrictions; he instead found new kaleidoscopic games to play with his camera. If Dames does not satisfy on the level of its predecessors, it celebrates Keeler to campy proportions with an extended version of the lilting “I Only Have Eyes for You.” “The Girl at the Ironing Board” lacks grand scale, but it is as weird as anything Berkeley ever concocted, with Blondell pairing off with various articles of clothing animated by a maze of thin wires.
Gold Diggers of 1935 is the only title in the collection that gives Berkeley sole directing credit. More efforts to stage more shows are behind the plot, and there is a well-rehearsed professionalism from all concerned, but the formulas were beginning to look overdrawn. Gold Diggers of 1935 endures for “Lullaby of Broadway”, arguably Berkeley’s greatest musical achievement. Beginning with Wini Shaw’s tiny, disembodied head in a sea of black, the number seduces the eye with its off-angle camera shots and expansive use of negative space. Then the dancers enter, and the strange mood grows more fearsome. Interviewees in the accompanying featurette (including an adoring and articulate John Waters) nailed “Lullaby of Broadway” in calling it a frankly scary piece of work, redolent of Leni Reifenstahl and fascist kinetics. This is a soulless mob tap-dancing its way to world supremacy. “Why don’t you come and get me?” Shaw asks them. To her misfortune, they do.
With documentary featurettes, vintage shorts, cartoons, and trailers, The Busby Berkeley Collection is a thorough raid of the Warner vaults. It should keep anyone watching for a long time. Small doses are recommended, as you may be at war with your brain over which songs to hum the day after. Come and meet those dancing feet.