Monday, January 29, 2007

THE BUSBY BERKELEY COLLECTION (Warner Bros. 1932 - 1934) Warner Home Video

The Busby Berkeley style is as much an exercise in the proficient micromanagement of a multitude of chorines as it is about a genuine sense of finding the collective in the individual through a stunning use of highly stylized camera movements. Much more than superficial flights into fancy – at the fluffy heart of each frothy routine there remains a semisweet center of conformity bordering on the fascistic – a ‘parade of faces’ oddly alike and indistinguishable from the rest.

In examining Warner Home Video’s The Busby Berkeley Collection – a five film/six disc cornucopia of the master’s craft, there’s really no point in deconstructing plots on a picture by picture basis. All are suspiciously alike: excursions into the cynical backstage backstabbing of Broadway divas and their rich naïve sugar daddies (most regularly played to perfection by Joan Blondell and Guy Kibbee); the ingénue and dapper leading man (most regularly Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell, respectively) discovering genuine love and tenderness before the curtain goes up – all these superficialities delivered with biting dialogue, venomous comedy and timely aplomb. Hence this review will focus more on the Berkeley style – which after all is the focus of the collection – and not the individual films.

In 1932, the year 42nd Street (the first disc in this collection) debuted, the Hollywood musical had already been declared legally dead and buried. After a run of shoddy musical revues – most pathetically staged from a single vantage – audiences were turning to other genres for more engaging film fare. The premise for 42nd Street is a manuscript written by chorus boy, Bradford Ropes. A veteran of the stage with first hand knowledge of his subject matter, Ropes had written a lurid account of sexual escapades, alcohol and drug addiction and homosexuality.

While the burgeoning desire for censorship precluded most of these themes from being showcased in the film, Warner Brothers
took an immediate interest in the property and snapped up its rights. Early contemplation over casting Loretta Young as Peggy Marsh (the role that eventually went to Ruby Keeler) gives every indication that the studio probably first contemplated making a film closer to the gritty realities that Ropes had penned rather than a musical. Warners was after all, the Mecca for gritty realism and low budget gangster thrillers: cheaply made, quickly produced stories ripped from the headlines.

Even before 42nd Street’s release, Zanuck and the Warner front office suspected that they had a hit on their hands. Hence, Berkeley was immediately put to work on Gold Diggers of 1933 (the second film in this compendium) a head-on saucy slam against the Great Depression. From the get go – the numbers ‘Pettin’ in the Park,’ ‘The Shadow Waltz’ and, particularly, ‘We’re In The Money’ defiantly recall the darkly ravaged contemporary fallout with an imaginative blend of fanciful and lighthearted celebrations into happier times.

The Shadow Waltz’ is one of Berkeley’s finest achievements; a crew of 60 chorines in their white elliptical gowns, embracing violins outlined in neon tubing and swirling about an art deco set. Aside: occasionally the cumbersome wiring shorted out, giving electrical shocks to the performers.

Given the climate of censorship enforced by the Catholic League of Decency, ‘Pettin’ in the Park’ is an openly sexual, somewhat kinky and glorious snub at middle class morality – its chorines repeatedly placed with their bare stocking legs high in the air or soaked through from an imaginative thunder shower. The chorines even strip nude behind an illuminated screen with Berkeley’s on camera foil, midget Billy Barty preparing to give away the goods by yanking up the screen. The last of the film’s big production numbers is ‘Remember My Forgotten Man’ a scathing critique and open criticism set to song that depicts the tragedy of soldiers returning home to find no work and no validation for their heroics on the battlefield.

Of all Berkeley’s tenure, no film is quite as fascinating as Lloyd Bacon’s Footlight Parade (1933), for it offers resident tough guy, James Cagney a chance to assuage his steely façade and effortlessly showcase his formidable stealth as a dancer. Cagney’s inclusion in the cast offers a rare charisma and charm from a central performer most readily lacking in Berkeley’s other films from this period.

For Footlight Parade, Berkeley revisits eroticism with ‘Honeymoon Hotel’ a restrained number in which guests and staff are allowed to warble a few bars of the Al Warren/Harry Dubin song before Berkeley moves into individual bedrooms to showcase men and women actually sharing a bed together – something virtually unheard of in 30s films and explicitly banned by the newly installed Production Code.

However, there is nothing reserved about ‘By the Waterfall’ – Berkeley’s scintillating water ballet – shot at a considerable cost and chorines diving into the foamy tides of a lagoon, conceived as an art deco paradise. Berkeley transforms his chorines into geometric water sprites, concluding with everyone atop a gigantic ejaculating fountain tower.

Gold Diggers of 1935 (the fourth film in this collection) returns Berkeley to familiar territory, but more importantly, it provided him with his first opportunity to direct an entire film. In truth, the plot is weaker than most, and Berkeley too is working from the disadvantage of having Gloria Stuart rather than Ruby Keeler as his romantic lead. Stuart – a fine actress is neither a dancer nor singer. Her participation in the production numbers is therefore limited.

Yet, Berkeley’s genius is more than secure with ‘The Words Are In My Heart’ – a decadent geometric number with 56 revolving white grand pianos. Berkeley tops this formidable effort with arguably the best tap routine ever filmed, ‘The Lullaby of Broadway’ – a gothic story within a story/dream sequence in which dancer Winnie Shaw is dragged from her fashionable casino roof top paramour, Dick Powell to indulge in a bit of hedonistic gyration on the dance floor before plummeting to her death.

Dames (1934) rounds out Warner’s official tribute to Berkeley with what is probably considered his last great effort at the studio. A generic, somewhat campy ‘hey everyone – let’s put on a show’ scenario, the numbers are an overt celebration and tribute to Ruby Keeler’s return to the fold. In ‘I Only Have Eyes for You’ Berkeley surrounds his star with Keeler-esque look alikes, fanning their layered crinolines on a constantly revolving circular turntable. Eventually, the chorines bend over, pulling their skirts overhead to reveal that each has a piece of board attached with a portion of Keeler’s face on it – the group forming one gigantic image of Keeler from which the left eye opens as a camera iris to reveal the real Ruby Keeler rising up from beneath.

The finale of Dames is another stunner. Beginning with Dick Powell singing in a producer’s office, the realistic set melts away to document the fabled day-in-the-life of a chorine - black tights and white flounce forming geometric patterns on a pristine high gloss white floor. The number concludes with a Berkeley trademark – a long pull back to reveal a seemingly endless menagerie of chorines all warbling the title song.

For the most part, Warner Home Video has done a fine job in cleaning up these 70 plus films for DVD. 42nd Street remains the most pristine and finely contrasted - almost grain free image, with solid blacks and very clean whites. Note: this is the identical transfer that Warner released as a single in 1998. The audio is mono but has been very nicely cleaned up for this presentation and is presented at an adequate listening level.

The second most impressive transfer in this collection is Gold Diggers of 1933. All of the above criteria apply, though perhaps there is a hint more grain than one would prefer and a tad more age related artifacts.

The last three films in this collection; Footlight Parade, Gold Diggers of 1935 and Dames have faired less well. Though the image can be – and more often than not, is free of considerable artifacts, there are moments in all of the aforementioned titles where the image appears slightly out of focus, suffers from considerable flickering or appears to have less than stellar contrast levels.

Blacks are muddy rather than pure and deep. Fine details – particularly on Gold Diggers of 1935 - are not nearly as fully realized as in the first two films. In all cases, this reviewer suspects that everything has been done to clean up theses transfers as much as possible without conducting a meticulous and costly frame by frame digital restoration. The audio in all cases is mono but presented at an adequate listening level.

Extras include a sixth disc which is a veritable repeat of all the production numbers featured in the aforementioned films – excised from their generic plots and presented in chronological order with three added bonuses: the production numbers ‘Don’t Say Goodbye’ from Wonder Bar (1934), ‘Spin A Little Web of Dreams’ from Fashions of 1934, and, ‘The Lady in Red’ from In Caliente (1935). This disc is a direct import from a previously issued laserdisc from 1994 featuring the exact same compendium of Berkeley magic memories. The image quality ranges from fair to poor.

Finally, Warner Home Video has done an impressive job of summarizing Berkeley’s formidable biography in a series of short featurettes presented across every disc except 42nd Street (though that film’s gestation is chronicled on the Gold Diggers of 1933 disc). Presumably, it was just too costly to go back and reprint the already available 42nd Street disc to include this short subject. All discs come with an assortment of vintage shorts, cartoons and newsreel footage. Recommended.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)
42nd Street 4.5
Gold Diggers of 1933 4
Gold Diggers of 1935 3
Footlight Parade 4.5
Dames 3.5
42nd Street 4.5
Gold Diggers of 1933 3.5
Gold Diggers of 1935 3
Footlight Parade 3.5
Dames 3

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