The Busby Berkeley Collection: Volume 2 (Part 2) Review
The first part of this review ended by saying that good though Varsity Show and, particularly, Hollywood Hotel was, they just weren't those gold diggers. The final two films in this set fix all that, throwing out the sweet spoofs of Hollywood and campus life in favour of girls climbing the ladders of Broadway any which way. Insurance scams, fake marriages, bottles of booze and girls who can't say no - "Anytime Annie? She only said 'no' once and then she didn't hear the question!" - there's been no one quite like the gold diggers since they first appeared in 1929. They promise song, sass, show tunes and sex and never fail to deliver.
In Gold Diggers Of 1937, the chorines are in trouble when their latest show closes down. Forgetting their troubles, the gold diggers, Sally (Rosalind Marquis), Norma (Joan Blondell) and Genevieve (Glenda Farrell), board a train to New York where they meet with salesmen from the Good Life Insurance Company, being Boop Oglethorpe (Lee Dixon) and Rosmer 'Rossi' Peck (Dick Powell), and crooked producer Monty Wethered (Osgood Perkins). With the Depression still biting, and having taken something of a shine to her, Rossi offers Norma a job in his office and together they get down to risk assessment and romance. But a chorine wasn't born to answer phones in an office. The stage is calling but producer JJ Hobart (Victor Moore), more worried about his health than he is hoofers, is refusing. Undeterred, Wethered and Tom Hugo (Charles D Brown) bring the whole story together by convincing Hobart that the very thing he needs is a life assurance policy. Rossi sells, Hobart signs and before you know it gold-digger Genevieve moves in to give the old man's ticker a working over. But love has a funny way of working and those chorines might just get themselves a show.
In spite of the best efforts of all concerned, particularly Joan Blondell who's returning from Gold Diggers Of 1933, this is the least interesting of the Gold Digger movies. By any standards, there's very little plotting but Gold Diggers of 1937 takes a long time to make its point. The comedy from Blondell, Moore and Farrell is fine and the farce is well-constructed but it's not until JJ Hobart passes the medical that the gold digging really gets going. Rossi is hell-bent on keeping Hobart alive. Wethered and Hugo try their damndest to cash in that million-dollar policy and get rich quick. Business meetings and pool parties are hunting grounds for Wethered and Hugo, throwing Hobart into the swimming pool only to find that he not only doesn't drown but that he doesn't catch so much as a sniffle. In the midst of all of this is Hobart who looks on it all in the manner of a man who's the butt of a joke that he doesn't quite get. In this, there's not only comedy but pathos too, particularly in his heartfelt confessions to Genevieve, being those of a dear old man who never quite realises how close he was to the pearly gates.
It all comes together, Berkeley-style, with All's Fair In Love And War, a traditional Berkeley finale in which chorus girls march, wave flags and the ladies and gentlemen shoot at one another from No Man's and No Woman's Land before waving the white flags of surrender. Beginning with Dick Powell dressed in a perfect white against a black stage, this is the highlight of the film. The music is great, Powell looks as dashing as a leading man of the thirties ought to and the chorines flout the censors with a lot of daringly low-cut military uniforms. Just like Pettin' In The Park and Remember My Forgotten Man from Gold Diggers Of 1933, this has little to do with the rest of the film but when the stage fills with a vast army of dancers, it matters not. Elsewhere, though, the film doesn't quite have those Berkeley flourishes. Let's Put Our Heads Together is a perfect case in point. The Berkeley of earlier in the decade would have gazed down from high at his chorines high-kicking across the tennis courts but, here, his camera is content to pan across the action, missing the symmetry in the line of dancers. But leave it to the gold-diggers to sum it all up, "A nice old man with lots of wealth...who isn't in the best of health! Who could ask for more? A sudden love attack and I'd have all his jack! For love is just like war!"
Things get a lot better with Gold Diggers In Paris, which reunites most of the gang to see the chorus girls of the American Club Ballé heading to France in time for the upcoming Paris Exposition. That it's all a big misunderstanding doesn't mean the gold-diggers shouldn't enjoy themselves as only they can! "Just tell me how to say 'yes' in French?" The film opens in Paris with Pierre LeBrac (Melville Cooper) demanding that his diplomats scour the globe for those dance groups worthy of representing their countries at the Paris Exposition. Maurice Giraud (Hugh Herbert) is instructed to leave for America to bring back the American Ballet but due to a matter of confusion as clear as the sun in the sky, he calls on the chorines of the Club Ballé. Rather than turn down an all-expenses-paid trip to France, the chorus girls accept and with the hounds of the banks howling outside their door, so too do the club's owners Terry Moore (Rudy Vallee) and Duke Dennis (Allen Jenkins). So the Club Ballé leave for France, guided through ballet by hired hands Professor Luis Leoni (Fritz Feld) and dancer Kay Morrow (Rosemary Lane). But it doesn't take long for the Club Ballé to be exposed as fakes and for the American Academy Ballet to make their own way to Paris. If that wasn't trouble enough, they've brought along New York gangster Mike Coogan (Edward Brophy) who's as happy knocking heads as he is shedding a tear over ballet.
What little we actually see of the gold diggers in this film is worth watching. The dance numbers are great, the plotting that takes the gold-diggers to Paris is silly but fun and the girls make the most of their moments before the camera, particularly the relish with which they plot their trip to France. But for that, Rudy Vallee is no Dick Powell, though he is better singing than he is acting, the ballet dancers of Academy Ballet are no such thing (and nor, I would say, is Padrinsky) given that their movements are less refined than even the girls of Club Ballé, and there are too many little asides with Hugh Herbert running scared from Indians. "Woo-hoo!" And speaking of comedy, there's far too much of both the Schnickelfritz Band and of Mabel Todd, whose ventriloquist act with a dog may be the very lowest point in the film.
For all that, though, Gold Diggers In Paris comes together remarkably well. There's very little padding, the settings in America and in France segue into one another nicely and it all builds to a finale that, unlike other Gold Digger movies, actually has some continuity with what has gone before. It may be, with the exception of Gloria Dickson (as Mona), that there isn't quite enough gold-digging here but when Rosemary Lane climbs the ladder that takes us into the finale of The Latin Quarter/I Want To Go Back To Bali, good songs both, we are treated to a street scene from Montmartre that has Berkeley casting his dancers in silhouette, of tilting his camera to catch them all and of mixing ballet with swing. Still, good though it is, it's clear that Berkeley was somewhat constrained with this finale lasting some minutes less than did those of Hollywood Hotel, Varsity Show and Gold Diggers Of 1937. But it's indubitably a Gold Diggers movie, even to Rosemary Lane singing, "She owes a lot of thanks to quite a lot of Yanks for what a lot of francs they brought her!"
Rosemary Lane is as much the star of the film in Gold Diggers In Paris as she was in Hollywood Hotel and was probably a better find even than Ruby Keeler. Although she is only in three of the four films here, she is quite the most memorable actor in the set, her voice always strong and pure, though perhaps too pure to be a gold-digger, and as able to sing as she can dance. And she's good-looking too, with Lane and Powell making quite the romantic pair in Varsity Show and Hollywood Hotel. The pity is that Lane often has to appear alongside Mabel Todd, whose comedy, being pratfalls, pulling faces and a talking dog, soon wears very thin. But come the likes of Let That Be A Lesson To You, All's Fair In Love And War and The Latin Quarter/I Want To Go Back To Bali, that can be easily forgotten. The Hays Code might have dimmed Berkeley's lights somewhat. Falling audiences may have done so too and the budgets of Berkeley's later films may not have been what they once were but there's very little to compare to what happens on the screen when Busby Berkeley steps up for a grandstanding finale. There are some very choice examples of that art in this set.
It's not really necessary to describe each disc individually as it would simply result in the same thing being said about each one. And that is that Warner Brothers have once again proved themselves perfectly capable of restoring their archived films with aplomb. Without even needing to look at the unrestored bonus features, these are sharp, bright and with such contrast as to have Dick Powell, Joan Blondell and the chorus line, all dressed in white, standing out against the black of Berkeley's stages. On the other hand, in what is a reflection of the settings of each film, the footage looks somewhat plain. The university campus of Varsity Show isn't particularly interesting and nor are the insurance offices of Gold Diggers Of 1937 but the diner, Civil War sets and nightclubs of Hollywood Hotel are much better. The same can be said for Club Ballé in Gold Diggers In Paris, which offers more than a glimpse of late-night thrills.
But come the moment when Berkeley's chorines step forward, the quality of the restoration is obvious. Every film in the set looks terrific in Berkeley's numbers with the placing of his camera catching not only the foreground action but the shadows that play in the background. Making full use of his movie set toys, Berkeley cuts between sets but the action is seamless. If anything, the quality of these DVDs show up the special effects that Berkeley uses in his numbers or the cuts between locations. Every one of these films look great, certainly as good as anything in Volume 1 and, in Hollywood Hotel and Gold Diggers Of 1937, probably better. They all offer grain but this only adds to the experience.
As for the sound, there is the very occasional bit of background noise 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.