The Busby Berkeley Collection Review
Even more so than the western, the musical occasionally rises but is found, more often than not, in the doldrums. For every West Side Story or Grease, there's a wealth of musicals in the West End or on Broadway that get not within a country mile of Hollywood, with audiences almost offended by the notion of stars bursting into song. Though synonymous with them, things were no better in the years before Busby Berkeley was hired by Warner Brothers to choreograph the dance sequences in 42nd Street - theatres had taken to clearing up any confusion over suspect titles with a banner saying, "Not a musical!".
Having only been invented come the age of the talkies in the late-twenties, the life of the musical was considered to be short but one that burned terribly bright. 1929 was the year of the film generally considered the first genuine musical, The Broadway Melody. It mixed a backstage plot with singing and dancing and as it Academy Award for Best Picture and drew in vast audiences, which drew almost as vast a number of dancers, musicians and choreographers to California in a musical gold rush. But within three years, Hollywood had sated the public's thirst for musicals and they turned either to gangster pictures - Little Caesar and Public Enemy were both released during this period (1930 and 1931, respectively) - or, thanks to the Great Depression, simply stayed at home. What was needed was someone who could look beyond sound as a novelty and to reinvent the musical as being much more than an all-star revue.
As a field artillery lieutenant during the First World War, Berkeley learned hands-on how to drill large groups and come the end of the war, found himself in demand on Broadway, acting as dance director for more than two dozen musicals. With his dance numbers becoming too big for Broadway - even then, he was less interested in individual dancers and more in the grand arrangements that a group of chorus girls could build - he was called to Hollywood and to Sam Goldwyn's Whoopee! (1930), where he acted as choreographer and Dance Director. Successful though that was, it was when Warner Brothers persuaded Berkeley across town where he was promised three movie back-to-back - 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade, three of the films in this five-disc set.
Of the three films involving Berkeley released in 1933, and of the five here, it's easy to argue that 42nd Street is the one of the greatest importance. With a plot that was probably familiar even then - famous Broadway director Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter), despite ill health, is persuaded to put on one last show, Pretty Lady, but various disasters stand before his casting call and opening night, not least the loss of his leading lady. Starring Bebe Daniels as the star of the show Dorothy Brock and Berkeley regulars Guy Kibbee, Ginger Rogers, Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler, the last of which as the chorus girl to steps up to star in the show on its opening night, it's everything that one would come to expect of the Warners/Berkeley films but nor is it ever without its particular charms. At a little less than ninety-minutes, 42nd Street is a fast-moving picture that crackles with great dialogue, snappily plays up Berkeley's dance routines and pushes against what was then possible even in pre-Hays Code days. With Guy Kibbee and Ginger Rogers, as the saucily-named Anytime Annie, doing their very best to work up some froth in the pre-Code era - "Anytime Annie? Who could forget 'er. She only said 'no' once and then she didn't hear the question!" - Ruby Keeler is its heart, sweet and naive but bright-eyed, able to step in as leading lady to make a dream come true.
Most of all, though, 42nd Street was the perfect film to show off Berkeley's wonderful choreography and his directing of the musical sequences. Though there is clearly a story, it's not a terribly complicated one, which gives Busby Berkeley the space to work his magic. Building on such songs as Shuffle Off to Buffalo, Young and Healthy and 42nd Street - with those dancing feet! - Berkeley used choreography as no one had before, creating something that, though not impossible in the theatre, couldn't have been enjoyed in the same way. Using a camera's-eye view, rather than one of a theatrical audience, Berkeley mixed innovative cinematography and effects with an eye for remarkable dance numbers to make a true movie musical. His kaleidoscopic patterns of dancers, often surrounded by giant props and not only moving around the stage but above, below and sometimes even through it via trap doors, Berkeley shot his parts of 42nd Street from whatever angle best suited the choreography. Becoming best known for a 'top shot', wherein he had his camera look down on a stage of beautiful chorus girls carefully arranged into concentric circles or as tiles in a giant mosaic, Berkeley's work was extravagant, dazzling and sometimes preposterous but at the very moment when the film is handed to him, 42nd Street comes alive. Looked at now, the acting is broad and a touch familiar and the writing snappy but unsurprising - Ruby Keeler says, "Well, gee Mr ____, that would be swell!" in three of the five films here - but it draws one's attention to these being Berkeley's films and that the plotting is but a frame to hang the dance sequences on. Shuffle Off to Buffalo is a wonderful number set aboard an overnight train whilst the title song accompanies a Berkeley number that almost recreates the entire length of 42nd Street around a long line of exotically-dressed chorines. And yet, as impressive as this was, the Great Depression was knocking on the door of the real 42nd Street and what Warner Brothers and Busby Berkeley needed was a way to shake out of the dust of the soup kitchen queues and to inject a little pizzazz into Broadway.
The best film here, Gold Diggers of 1933 opens with Ginger Rogers leading a chorus of girls dressed as coins - a typically extravagant Berkeley production - through We're In The Money before the bailiffs call a halt to the rehearsal and close the show, much to the disappointment of producer Barney Hopkins (Ned Sparks). Using the Great Depression as a backdrop to the action, Gold Diggers of 1933 stars showgirls Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler and Aline McMahon trying to raise enough cash to put on a new show, one that, with Barney Hopkins feeling suitably inspired, will be set in the present day. One that will reflect, rather than offer an escape from, the Great Depression. With Ruby Keeler's beau, Brad Roberts (Dick Powell) hired to write the music, he also offers to back the show with some $15,000 in cash but he refuses to take any credit, preferring a low profile. Still, though, his name gets out and it soon becomes clear why he had demanded secrecy - he's the brother of the well-to-do J. Lawrence Bradford (Warren William), who threatens to cut his younger sibling's income should he continue in associating with showgirls. But when J. Lawrence visits to warn Ruby Keeler's Polly Parker off his younger brother, along with his lawyer Thaniel H. Peabody (Guy Kibbee), Joan Blondell and Aline McMahon consider having some fun with them, not to mention doing a little gold-digging!
Berkeley was rarely better than in Gold Diggers of 1933, taking advantage of the better offstage plotting to allow his imagination to run wild whilst setting up his musical numbers. We're in the Money is all glitter and, with its barely-dressed showgirls, glamour but with the distinctly pre-Code Pettin' In The Park, Berkeley lets his cast have fun with roller skating policemen, a toddler with a roaming eye and a cast of chorus girls undressing behind a lace curtain, who, thanks to the wonders of backlighting, leave little to the imagination. Having seen out money and romance, it was to the tune of the downbeat Remember My Forgotten Man that Gold Diggers of 1933 ended, with the Great Depression, wherein social commentary snuck in to a remarkably grandiose production.
In his last film of 1933, Footlight Parade, Berkeley stuck to the putting-on-a-show formula, this time having James Cagney's Broadway producer, Chester Kent, work out a way to stay in business despite the threat of the talkies. Guessing that it's better to work with the movies than not, he comes up with the idea of prologues - short musical acts that will appear in cinemas before the movies, which he'll then tour between theatres on a single night. Of course, nothing could be quite so simple as that, leading Cagney to contend with a love affair gone wrong, a dowdy theatre girl (Ruby Keeler) who transforms herself into the star of the show, the loss of his backers and his secretary (Joan Blondell), who secretly loves Cagney but just can't admit it to him. As funny and as fast-moving as this is, it's the last half-hour of Footlight Parade that makes the film, with Honeymoon Hotel, By A Waterfall and Shanghai Lil all outstanding examples of Berkeley's craft. As impressive as By A Waterfall is, not least with its cast of chorus girls in the water and mirrored to create a vast kaleidoscope, it's Shanghai Lil that steals with movie, with Cagney dancing with Keeler, some daring pre-Code lyrics and a Far Eastern opium den with some hallucinogenic use of camera lenses and barely-dressed dancers reclining on satin sheets!
Three films in a single year must have taken its toll on Berkeley as the last two films in the set date from 1934 and 1935, Dames and Gold Diggers of 1935, respectively. Of the five films here, Dames is probably the least impressive, although amongst the funniest. It stars Hugh Herbert as Ezra Ounce, a teetotal, non-smoking but very eccentric multi-millionaire who promises his cousin Mathilda Hemingway (ZaSu Pitts) and her husband Horace (Guy Kibbee) $10m if they join him to clean up Broadway. Unfortunately, Horace and Mathilda's daughter Barbara (Ruby Keeler) is an actress, her boyfriend (Dick Powell) is also a distant cousin of Ezra and somehow Horace ends up as sugar daddy to dancer Mabel Anderson (Joan Blondell). With an extended gag of a bottle of cough medicine with an alcohol content of 79%, you should be able to work out what happens. Berkeley is, though, on form with Dames, The Girl on the Ironing Board and the spectacular I Only Have Eyes For You in which, over Dick Powell's singing, the chorus girls come together in a giant jigsaw puzzle to form a picture of his girl, Ruby Keeler.
One year on and Berkeley took over the entire direction of Gold Diggers of 1935 and it shows, with the dance sequences looking terrific but they're the bright points in a story that loses its way. Not so much a retread of Gold Diggers of 1933 as one that shares a similar theme with theatre director Nicoleff (Adolphe Menjou) putting on a show within a luxury hotel to pay off his debts. Whilst the showgirls barely get a look-in, the gold diggers are the hotel management and Nicoleff's cronies, all of whom are out to take a cut from one another even if, as one character points out, all they're left with is splinters. Otherwise, though, it's left to Dick Powell, here playing desk clerk Dick Curtis, to carry the movie, falling in love with rich girl Amy Prentiss (Gloria Stuart, a long time before going back to Titanic) in spite of her mother's wishing that she marry T. Mosely Thorpe (Hugh Herbert) instead. That said, though, Gold Diggers of 1935 does feature probably the very best musical number in the set, with Lullaby On Broadway showing the experiences of a chorus girl during her last day, culminating with her throwing herself out of her hotel window to her death.
That's a fitting end to this five-film/six-disc set, drawing to a close as did Berkeley's career. After Gold Diggers of 1935, the Production Code, which was more strictly enforced after 1934, began to have more of an effect on Berkeley's work and many of his more risque moments were curtailed. By the time of Gold Diggers of 1937, Berkeley was only allowed to contribute two dance numbers whilst Gold Diggers in Paris saw a reduction in his budget and the replacement of many of his favoured stars. Although this saw him fall out of favour with Hollywood, Berkeley continue to lead a full life, even one that can be compared to the extravagance of his musical numbers, before in 1971, staging a last hurrah with a production of No No, Nanette with Ruby Keeler, a fitting ending for a true Hollywood legend.
Five films from the 1930s are never going to compete with more recent fare but Warner Brothers have done a typically excellent job on restoring these classics. There's plenty of grain, which I find adds to the experience rather than detracts from it, and they're all in glorious mono but Warners have left them looking clean, sharp and perfectly stable within the frame. Of the five 42nd Street is the one that most shows its age, although, even saying that, it's still presented very well on DVD, but Gold Diggers of 1933 looks terrific and so too do the three films that follow it. The black-and-white picture has the right amount of contrast and though there may be an occasional burst of noise in the picture, there's never more than an acceptable amount given the age of these films.
As for the sound, there is also a little bit of noise in the background but, like grain, I find this adds to my enjoyment of the movies. When the films burst into life and we get those tapping feet and the sound of the orchestra, there's no question that these have been lovingly restored for this DVD release and with subtitles on all five films, as well as musical numbers, these are proof that Warner's reputation for handling classic films on DVD is a deserved one.
There's an enormous amount of bonus material across these six discs so I'll break everything down disc-by-disc and summarise, as well as explain in detail where necessary:
Disc 1 - 42nd Street
Beginning with a list of the Cast & Crew, which devotes several pages of text to Busby Berkeley, this features a Coda, explaining how 42nd Street was, in 1980, reborn as a Broadway musical but with art reflecting real life, producer David Merrick announced during the curtain calls that choreographer/director David Merrick had died earlier that day.
What follows are three vintage featurettes, beginning with one on composer Harry Warren (9m09s), which is followed by a Hollywood Newsreel (8m57s) and A Trip Through a Hollywood Studio (10m06s). These features are not specific to Busby Berkeley, unless you count the sight of him and Bobby Connolly directing chorus girls in A Trip Through a Hollywood Studio. Finally, there is a Theatrical Trailer (2m21s), which bills itself as offering a glimpse into the making of 42nd Street.
Disc 2 - Gold Diggers of 1933
With the 42nd Street disc not actually including anything specific to the film, it's left to this disc to carry any bonus material for the film. 42nd Street: From Book to Stage (18m01s) is a new feature that intersperses interviews with the likes of Richard Barrios, John Landis and John Waters with footage from 42nd Street to explain its importance to the musical genre as well as its lasting appeal. It ends by noting Jack Warner's enthusiasm for Franklin D Roosevelt, whose inauguration he celebrated in Footlight Parade, which is further examined in the second new feature of this disc Good Diggers: FDR's New Deal...Broadway Bound (15m35s). Connecting Berkeley's massed ranks of chorus girls with FDR's urging the American people to work as one to defeat the Great Depression, this feature ties the Warner Brothers' musicals to the politics of the time, even to the playfulness of We're In The Money, which admits to a broken public that Ginger Rogers, Ruby Keeler et al have anything but.
The three vintage features begins with The 42nd Street Special (5m44s), which features the special 7-car train assembled by General Electric and Warner Brothers to promote various movies, particularly 42nd Street, across the US before arriving in Washington for the inauguration of Franklin D Roosevelt. This is followed by Rambling 'Round Radio Show #2 (9m20s), a musical short from 1932 that features Harry Barris, Sylvia Froos and Benny Krueger before ending with Seasoned Greetings (19m46s), which stars Sammy Davis Jr. and Lita Gray Chaplin and sees a greeting-card store owner sell talking cards in the form of vinyl records and includes the song I've Got To Sing A Torch Song. Next, there are three vintage cartoons We're In The Money (6m43s), I've Got To Sing A Torch Song (6m34s) and Pettin' In The Park (6m59s). Finally, there is a selection of Theatrical Trailers (Play All, 18m36s) taken from Busby Berkeley features.
Disc 3 - Footlight Parade
With the disc for Gold Diggers of 1933 having to include two new features, this returns to only having one - Footlight Parade: Music for the Decades (15m02s) - which begins with discussing the Dudin/Warren songwriting partnership and how well it suited Busby Berkeley's choreography. In particular, there's a frank explanation of Berkeley rejecting Dudin and Warren's attempts to integrate their music to the story, with Berkeley saying that was not something he was interested in, more that he wanted the story to build, in the case of Footlight Parade, to three wonderful dance numbers - By A Waterfall, Honeymoon Hotel and Shanghai Lil.
Following this, there are two vintage features - Rambling 'Round Radio Row (9m50s) and Vaudeville Reel #1 (11m03s) - as well as two vintage cartoons, Young And Healthy (7m27s) and the colour Honeymoon Hotel (7m21s). Finally, there is a theatrical trailer for Footlight Parade (3m17s).
Disc 4 - Dames
Given the unique quality of Busby Berkeley's arrangements, it's not surprising to have a feature explaining his background and what he brought to the movies. Busby Berkeley's Kaleidoscopic Eyes (11m49s) uses the stunning I Only Have Eyes For You sequence from Dames to illustrate how Berkeley built up his dance numbers and he changed the audience's perspective, not to confuse but to dazzle them. This is followed by And She Learned About Dames (8m52s), in which a group of girls at New York's Rovina Finishing School send in their photographs to the Miss Complexion of 1934 contest in the hope of meeting, and maybe even kissing, Dick Powell, star of new movie Dames.
This is followed by two vintage shorts, Melody Master: Don Redman & His Orchestra (10m09s) and the colour Good Morning Eve (18m58s) as well as by two vintage cartoons, Those Beautiful Dames (6m53s) and I Only Have Eyes For You (8m04s). Finally, there is a Theatrical Trailer (3m03s) and a Direct From Hollywood Radio Promo.
Disc 5 - Gold Diggers of 1935
The bonus features on his disc begin with (buz'be bur'kle)n. A Study in Style (19m01s), which is the closing chapter of the four-part feature that's been split up over discs 2-5. Johns Landis and Waters continue their contributions alongside Hollywood historians, here discussing the sense of style brought by Berkeley to the five films featured in his set. More than anything, this is a lovingly-produced tribute to a true original, whose influence is so pronounced that, as John Landis says, if you tell someone that you're doing a Busby Berkeley number, they know exactly what you're intending to do. As well as an overview of Berkeley's work in the films, this closes a closer look at the dazzling dance number that accompanies Lullaby On Broadway, which ends Gold Diggers of 1935.
Following that new feature, we have a vintage one, Double Exposure (19m33s), which stars Bob Hope, as well as two cartoons - Shuffle Off to Buffalo (6m48s) and Gold Diggers of '49 (8m13s). Both of these cartoons feature attitudes to race that would simply not be acceptable were they released today but all credit to Warners for explaining this in a caption, which explains that the cartoons reflected the prejudices that were then commonplace in American society before saying, "These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today." The actual content of the cartoons is objectionable on two counts - a Jewish baby in Shuffle Off to Buffalo is stamped 'kosher' and is depicted as a rough Jewish stereotype but both cartoons feature black children and adults, drawn as Gollywog characters. Whilst you may question why these have been included on these discs, Warners answer with, "These cartoons are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed."
Finally, there's a Direct from Hollywood Radio Promo (10m52s), which uses music from the film to advertise it, before a set of Theatrical Trailers, two for Gold Diggers of 1935 (3m36s, 3m15s) and one for Gold Diggers in Paris (2m28s).
Disc 6 - The Busby Berkeley Disc
The Busby Berkeley Collection is made complete with this bonus disc, which compiles twenty-one musical numbers from the five films here as well as those from Fashions of 1934, Wonder Bar, In Caliente and Gold Diggers of 1937. The picture quality is a far cry from that of the actual features - it being interlace is obvious - but as a disc for anyone who wants to quickly access the dance numbers without disc-swapping, it's an excellent addition to an already fine set. As well as the songs that you'd expect from 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, for example, all of which are mentioned through this review, there's also Spin A Little Web Of Dreams (Fashions of 1934), Don't Say Goodbye (Wonder Bar), The Lady In Red (In Caliente) and All Is Fair In Love And War (Gold Diggers of 1937).
So exhaustive is this set that I can only make three complaints about it, only one of which is actually a point worth making. Whilst one can complain about the quality of the cardboard box in which the discs have been shipped - it's flimsy and the cardboard is too light to properly hold the six discs - or to say that it would have been nice to have had an accompanying CD of the music, the only real complaint to make about this set is that there are no commentaries. Given how Casablanca was enlivened by one each from Roger Ebert and Rudy Behlmer, these five films would also have benefited from commentaries if only to better explain the technicalities of the productions and to place them in context.
But that's a small complaint when presented with a set as good as this one. Warner Brothers, by their past efforts, have already shown themselves to be the very best at releasing films from their archives onto DVD and this is a worthy addition to a very long list of superb releases from the company. Sounding and looking great with an outstanding set of extras, this is amongst the very best boxsets that I've seen and despite the headlines announcing the imminent death of the musical, these five films are evidence that even if there never was another, there's plenty of entertainment to be had with what Hollywood and Busby Berkeley have already given us.