The Busby Berkeley Collection: Volume 2 (Part 1) 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 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 movies back-to-back - 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade - that he was properly his way.
So began our review of Volume 1 of the Busby Berkeley Collection, which included those films mentioned as well as another three. That review struck a note of optimism as it looked out on how Berkeley would transform the musical. They would be less movie adaptations of the shows that audiences could also see on Broadway than films that would use all the Hollywood trickery Berkeley could get his hands on. Be it the giant coins of We're In The Money (Gold Diggers of 1933), the opium dens of Shanghai Lil (Footlight Parade) or the train carriages of Shuffle Off To Buffalo (42nd Street), Berkeley created the kind of dazzling, kaleidoscopic 'top shots' for which he was most famous. And that style of choreography became very famous indeed.
By 1937, the atmosphere in movie-land had changed. The musical was in something of a lull. Audiences had become used to stages filled with dancers and with what we take to be the Berkeley style. But worse came with the Hays Code, which was rigourously enforced from 1934. It stopped Berkeley getting as wild with his dance numbers as he once had. In his films from the pre-Code years, he had his silhouetted dancers getting undressed behind lace curtains. The dialogue crackled with innuendo while the stories, particularly those with the gold-diggers, featured a lot of sexually confident young women plotting to steal gold, silver and dollar bills out from under the eyes of foolish old men. The intention behind the Hays Code might have been to keep the likes of Mae West in check but the smart and sexy ladies of Berkeley's films were similarly affected.
Come the viewing of the first film in this set, Varsity Show, it's all too apparent that there have been changes afoot. It's a nice film but there's too little sass about it, it being the kind of film in which Doris Day could have played a part had she had starring roles in the late-thirties. It has that kind of wholesomeness about it and you couldn't have said that about Gold Diggers of 1933, Dames or Footlight Parade. In this, we have a bunch of students at Winfield College getting ready for their varsity show. This seems to be a rather rum affair in which musicians and comedians with actual talent rub shoulders with those who have lucked their way onto the stage, being unable to tell a gag, dance in anything approaching rhythm or even play something as straightforward as a washboard. Perhaps because of this or because of his fear that the teens will ruin everything with their jazz music, Professor Biddle (Walter Catlett) refuses to let swing feature in the show. Still waiting for rock'n'roll to be invented, swing is all they have and the kids are suitably outraged! Heeding a suggestion from janitors Buck and Bubbles (Ford Washington Lee and John William Sublett), Ernie Mason (Fred Waring) and others (Priscilla Lane, Johnnie Davis, Lee Dixon and Sterling Holloway) head to New York in search of former alumnus Charles 'Chuck' Daly (Dick Powell). Daly is now a successful Broadway producer and the Winfield College kids hope that he'll lend a hand to their efforts. Only that Daly isn't that successful, not least with his latest Broadway show being the third flop that he's had. The money that the Winfield College Varsity Show is offering isn't much but it's money and so Daly and assistant William W Williams (Ted Healy) go back to school to put on a show! And find love with two ladies who will feature time and again in this set, Daly with Barbara Steward (Rosemary Lane) and Williams with Cuddles (Mabel Todd).
One still shouldn't be too hard on Varsity Show. Perhaps it's not quite the match of earlier Berkeley films but it has its moments, as well as a glimpse of things that, Hays Code or not, wouldn't be much mentioned in the movies anymore. When it's suggested that a newly-infected Williams visit Biddle to deliberately give him the mumps, a disease that can cause infertility, you can probably hear the gasps from modern audiences over the sound of Fred Waring and His Pennsylvanians. Similarly, the nastiness of the hazing in Dazed And Confused is dealt with somewhat differently here, with Daly and Williams passing down a parade of jocks armed with paddles to gladly take a beating. But these are small complaints to make in what is still great fun. Reading online, Varsity Show has been cut from a two-hour feature to this one, which runs to eighty minutes. There is none of the missing footage on this set, which, given how good Warner Brothers usually are at finding things in their archives, suggests that it's been destroyed. Still, we have a fair selection of musical numbers, including Johnnie Davis's Old King Cole, Powell's We're Working Our Way Through College, Rosemary Lane's On With The Dance and Powell and Lane's You Got Something There. However, the problem is that, for most of the film, Berkeley's may as well have not been on the credits for all his involvement with the film. This all changes with the Varsity Show that Winfield College eventually put on. Fred Waring and his Pennsylvanians orchestrate while footballs are thrown across the stage to chorines stepping out the letters to well known universities, including Yale, Stanford and Notre Dame. It's a terrific way to end a film that doesn't have quite enough Berkeley in it. It might not correct that imbalance but there's still much to enjoy.
Come to a film like Hollywood Hotel and you might be expecting to see the guest stars tripping over one another as the film winds on to Berkeley's epic musical number. The surprise about Hollywood Hotel is that, with the exception of Ronald Reagan in an early cameo role, not one real-life movie star finds themselves in the midst of Berkeley favourites Dick Powell, Rosemary Lane, Ted Healy and Mabel Todd. Never mind Hollywood Hotel, this is more Crossroads Motel.
Cheap gag aside, Hollywood Hotel still opens with the onscreen debut of the terrific Hoorary For Hollywood as Benny Goodman and his band bid farewell to saxophonist Ronnie Bowers (Dick Powell) as he leaves for Hollywood and life as a movie star. At St Louis airport, this seems like a big thing but when Bowers arrives in California, he finds that the Los Angeleans aren't so happy to see him arrive as the St Louisianans were to see him leave. Not only is there not much of a turnout but even All-Star Pictures don't seem entirely sure what to do with Bowers. He leaves for the Hollywood Hotel. Elsewhere in the hotel, movie star Mona Marshall (Lola Lane) is getting ready for the premiere of her latest film. She is surrounded by her entourage, which includes her father Chester (Hugh Herbert), secretary Jonesy (Glenda Farrell) and little sister Dot (Mabel Todd). But when word comes through the trade press of a part going to another movie starlet, Mona Marshall throws a tantrum and leaves. And that leaves All-Star Pictures with a problem...they are now without a star for that night's premiere.
The All-Star Pictures publicist quickly comes up with a plan. In a town filled with actresses, he finds one who looks exactly like Mona Marshall, Virginia Stanton (Rosemary Lane). Stanton attends the premiere arm-in-arm with Bowers and the evening goes well. So well, in fact, that Bowers falls in love. Everyone is happy! Well, almost everyone. Reading the next day's newspapers, Mona Marshall is furious at this deceit. Stanton is back waitressing and so too is Bowers and friend and agent Fuzzy (Ted Healy). In between washing dishes, serving shakes and flipping burgers, Bowers gets back to singing and it's here that he's heard by movie director Walter Kelton (William B. Davidson), then making Civil War musical Love And Glory. Kelton wants Bowers for his movie. Not all of him, mind, just his voice, needing a good singing voice for leading man Alexander DuPre (Alan Mowbray). But it's a way back into Hollywood and all in time for Benny Goodman and his band coming west!
Watching Hollywood Hotel, it's possible to believe that it was not directed in its entirety by Busby Berkeley. The very thing that Berkeley was famous for, those grandstanding flights of fancy into song and dance, are entirely absent from Hollywood Hotel. And instead of Broadway, we have Hollywood, as ripe for comedy as any silly child, which, in 1937, it was. Broadway had history. Hollywood did not but there was perhaps a greater desire to succeed. Yet, as the film explains, for every Mona Marshall, there are a dozen Virginia Stantons. Meanwhile, Ronnie Bowers, a big name in Benny Goodman's band, is a nobody in Tinseltown. So instead of real-life movie stars, Berkeley contends himself with a rags-to-riches-to-rags-again in which the film's company fall from grace into the kitchens of Callahan's diner. That movie stars and dishrags exist so close together is not this movie's only concession to what was commonplace in Hollywood even then. There are jokes about movies-with-movies, particularly Berkeley's spoofing of Gone With The Wind, Love And Glory. The making of this movie is interrupted by Ted Healy in black face demanding a part as a plantation slave and barely pausing his comedy shtick to lay on a thick Jolson impersonation. The plot itself would be revisited with Gene Kelly's Singin' In The Rain, thereby suggesting that the dubbing of actors in the years after the invention of the talkies was somewhat commonplace.
Whilst still lavish and with it jollying along with a story of dashed stardom, mistaken identities and second chances, Hollywood Hotel is very entertaining. The closest it gets to typical Berkeley is that hugely enjoyable Let That Be A Lesson To You but that's not the point of the piece. Instead, this is Berkeley having fun in his new home, sending it up while still paying it the warmest of compliments. But it just ain't those gold diggers.