Busby Berkeley: colossal genius or masochistic joke? The debate over America’s premiere architect of the Hollywood musical from the 1930's rages on, fueled primarily by conflicting testimonials from the people who worked for him and by nearly six decades of fraudulent academic debate (most of it based in Freudian feminism) that has attempted to place Berkeley’s representation of the female form divine somewhere between mere oddity and compromised, fetishized, objectified ‘things’ to be ogled on the silver screen. Get over it! There is little to deny Berkeley’s vision. It isn’t about the dancer; rather, the art of movement and positioning; also, geometry and mind-boggling precision. The Busby Berkeley style is as much an exercise in the proficient micromanagement of a multitude of chorines, as placing the individual into the collective, only to pluck her once more from obscurity, often, employing a stunning array of highly stylized camera movements. Much more than superficial flights into fancy the semisweet center of a Busby Berkeley number does more than hint at conformity bordering on the fascistic – Berkeley’s ‘parade of faces’ oddly alike, yet each distinguishable from the rest. Alas, the same holds true for the way Berkeley handles men, though there are unmistakably less of them on tap.
Berkeley’s manipulation of the female body creates elaborate human kaleidoscopes that unfold as if by some great domino effect to produce an endless ‘exploitation’ of arms and legs, all preening and/or kicking in unison. Yet, Busby Berkeley liberates the chorine from her traditional nameless place among the backdrop and props. No more confined in long shot, Berkeley draws the focus of his camera inward to showcase bouquets of fresh faces blossoming with girlish pride. “We’ve got all these beautiful girls,” Berkeley used to say, “Why not let the public see them?” One fact remains irrefutable. Berkeley’s camera work forever freed the art of dance on film from its stage-bound proscenium. The liquidity of his camera gave life – nee, excitement – to dance on film. In a Berkeley number it’s not only the dancers who twirl. But beyond the purity and polish of these art deco escapisms remains a tension – sexual and otherwise – as stark and uncompromising as the Great Depression and never further than arm’s reach.
Perhaps, Berkeley took the Depression to heart. Fame can do strange things to people and in Berkeley’s case it only seems to have magnified his insecurities and self-loathing. After all, his personal life was another matter entirely and mostly a contradiction he never quite managed to overcome: struggling with lifelong melancholy and bouts of chronic alcoholism, married and divorced four times; bankrupt and bitter and almost myopically focused on his latest project. A stint in the US Army artillery, conducting drill routines for parades, gave Berkeley direction and discipline. But he was forever ashamed of the fact he knew absolutely nothing about choreography in the traditional sense. Despite this handicap, Berkeley’s innovations in the theater quickly garnered him the attentions of Broadway's top dance directors, and, eventually, its reigning impresario, Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. Until Berkeley’s debut in Hollywood, dance directors usually worked only on the choreography in films, the numbers later staged for the camera by the film’s director. Berkeley set a new standard: complete autonomy.
After 1931’s Flying High, an inhospitable creative experience working for Samuel Goldwyn, Berkeley made a break to Warner Bros. His timing could not have been more perfect although initially, not even Berkeley could see it. But the studio was looking for a ‘new deal’ to re-launch the big and splashy Hollywood musical. During the early sound era, musicals had been churned out like sausage; the public’s appetite for these gaudy revue-styled spectacles dying out quickly. The studio’s ‘new deal’ marketing promised something else. It also capitalized on President Franklin Roosevelt’s popularized ‘new deal’ politics. Bottom line: Warner wanted something spectacular and Berkeley was ready to give it to them. In the meantime, Warner’s production chief, Darryl F. Zanuck, had tapped into a honey of an idea for a backstage drama with songs: the result, 42nd Street (1933), a gaudy, bawdy, and thoroughly delicious little bauble that seemed to effortlessly straddle the chasm between musical escapism and the studio’s own ‘ripped from the headlines’ tabloid-esque film-making style. 42nd Street is the story of an emotionally embattled/cash strapped Broadway has been; Julian Marsh (played with skillfully frenetic fanaticism by Warner Baxter). Julian is in a bad way. A few years ago, he was Broadway’s golden boy. But that was before he burnt himself out and suffered a nervous breakdown. Now, he desperately needs a hit. He could also use a good bottle of Scotch to steady his nerves.
Set against all this highly charged insanity of putting on a show, director Lloyd Bacon gives us a richly satisfying assortment of social-climbing starlets, delicious tarts, manipulative sugar daddies and stage door Johnnies with more than bouquets and jewelry on their minds. In the pre-code era, such salaciousness was openly tolerated. And in 42nd Street’s case, it seems very much in place and of the period: its’ representation of the clichéd ‘casting couch’ leading to all sorts of double entendre and scintillating innuendo. 42nd Street would go on to become the template for a certain kind of 30's musical all the rage at Warner Bros. under Busby Berkeley's creative tutelage. Alas, in some ways, Berkeley’s burst of unimaginable creativity clashes with Lloyd Bacon’s more standardized approach to telling the rest of our story. The principles dedicated to the drama (the lugubrious Bebe Daniels, perpetually pouty with her bee-stung lips) and George Brent, a dour and penniless suitor) are discarded for the bright and breezy, Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler (playing the traditional doe-eyed ingénue) in the musical numbers. One can choose to debate the merits or pitfalls in parceling off the directorial duties as such, but personally, this disconnect is off-putting. On its own, the comedy is great – even stellar and scathing in spots. And Berkeley, although obviously restraining himself on this first opportunity to show us his moxie, nevertheless hints at elements of the extraordinary work yet to follow and define his iconography.
42nd Street still works, but more so as an artifact of its’ time than a period entertainment, and generally because of all the naughtiness taking place behind the scenes; Guy Kibbee's lecherous old bugger wanting to do 'something nice' with a quid pro quo from Bebe Daniels, or Ginger Rogers playing a saucy twenty-cent tart; all gams and glib one liners like, "It must have been tough on your mother, not having any children!" I’ll confess; I have never been an admirer of Ruby Keeler; her nasally renditions of the Al Warren/Harry Dubin songs, a crushing blow to superb lyrics. She trills with all the pallid allure of a high school freshman who ought to have opted out of the glee club, and, as though someone were squeezing the tip of her nostrils together with a clothes pin. There's such anemia in her voice it all but deflates the magical properties and excitement. Dick Powell's crooning - again, the style of its time – fares better, perhaps because his voice is stronger and more sincere. He throws everything he has into a lyric, as when warbling the line "I'm full of vitamin 'A'" in Young and Healthy; giving out with a deliciously orgasmic yelp as though the elastic in his jock has just given him a wicked little snap. It's fun to watch, particularly from today’s perspective, because what it lacks in an air of legitimacy has been replaced by more than a whiff of camp. Whooooooaaaa!!!!
Interestingly, 42nd Street’s compartmentalized directorial duties necessitated Busby Berkeley (mostly left to his own accord), shoot his second unit at Warner’s Sunset Studios while Lloyd Bacon photographed the rest of the movie on six sound stages at the company’s First National facilities in Burbank. Although there are seven songs in 42nd Street, Berkeley’s talents were only committed to three numbers; the chirpy ‘Shuffle Off To Buffalo’, energetic ‘Young and Healthy’ and gaudy and grandiose moving tableau to urban excess – the film’s finale ‘42nd Street’. Viewed today, only the latter two numbers reveal Berkeley’s spark of ingenuity. Shuffle Off To Buffalo is hampered by Berkeley’s awkward attempt to maintain the illusion his number is taking place on a real Broadway proscenium. The camera does show us details no actual theater patron, sitting in anything beyond the third row could ever witness. But on the whole, Berkeley’s camera is restrained. In hindsight, ‘Young and Healthy’ is clearly the precursor to Berkeley’s future artistic endeavors at Warner. Beginning with a bombastic verse and chorus from Dick Powell, the number evolves from one beautiful girl (sixteen year old Toby Wing, plump-cheeked, but ravishing in white fox fur and slinky, bare-back gown) into two, then four, then quite suddenly an army of carbon-copied blonde bombshells, identically attired and flanked by a chorine of male ushers. Berkeley’s mannequins mount a revolving dance platform, marching, strutting and even jogging in place in unison, counterclockwise to the rotating floor beneath their feet. It is a stunning effect, creating motion within motion, the whole spectacle strangely caught in pace and ‘in place’; the final shot photographed between the female dancers’ bare legs as the camera comes to rest on a close-up of Powell and Wing blissfully smiling.
For the finale, Berkeley uses his camera to pan across a recreated stage-bound series of false fronts, illustrating the infamous delights and hazards to be had on 42nd Street. Here is a showcase of scamps, tramps, tarts and molls, intermingling with haughty gals and their dapper Dan’s; the lowborn and the hoi poloi populating this faux New York landscape. Peering into various windows of an apartment complex, we witness a barber in mid-shave, a crap shoot in progress and a foiled rape unfold. Ruby Keeler appears in straight skirt with oversized buttons and a slit up the leg. The relatively realistic set parts down the middle and Keeler makes her way up a gigantic staircase to nowhere, a small army of male dancers with their backs to the camera, carrying blacked out/life-sized placards as they ascend on either side. Only when the stairs have been completely filled does this troop turn around, concealing their identities with replicas of New York’s towering skyline; the buildings swaying to and fro as Berkeley’s camera once again ascends the skewed perspective to reveal Powell and Keeler atop the Empire State Building.
42nd Street was a colossal hit, perhaps beyond anyone’s expectations. It reinvigorated the Hollywood musical and propelled its glamor and popularity on to three more decades. Moreover, the movie cemented Berkeley’s iconography within the musical genre. Berkeley and composers, Harry Warren and Al Dubin all received 7 year contracts as a result, and Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler became the reigning musical sweethearts on the Warner backlot; present and accounted for in virtually all but two of Berkeley’s subsequent excursions into sweet escapism. Based on Bradford Ropes novel, the Rian James/James Seymour screenplay is a model of concision. This is in keeping with Warner Bros. in-house style: tight narratives with minimal talk that moved like gangbusters. At 89 min., 42nd Street packs a considerable wallop. It has sex, comedy, deception, romance, starry-eyed lovers and a human interest story about one man’s obsession to pull his sagging career and frayed nerves back from the brink; all of it infused with backstage glamor and guts, set in a pseudo-Broadway milieu.
Immediately following the opening credits, we are thrust into the heart of New York’s theater district; a second unit sent to capture a few atmospheric aerial and long shots of the city to succinctly establish both time and place. Welcome to 1932 – the heart of the Great Depression. Ironically, we are spared the more dire consequences, whisked via montage into the offices of noted Broadway producers, Jones (Robert McWade) and Barry (Ned Sparks). Despite hard times, the duo has decided to put on a new revue: Pretty Lady, a musical starring Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels). Brock is a star teetering on the brink, resuscitated by her alliance with wealthy lecher, Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee). She baits him with compliments about being the show's ‘angel’. Too bad for Brock, Abner’s real passion is not the arts. And doesn’t Brock know it, constantly walking the tightrope to maintain his interests in her without ever allowing them to come to something. After all, she’s still madly in love with her old vaudeville partner, Pat Denning (George Brent) who is presently out of work. Pretty Lady’s director is another creative on very shaky ground: Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter). After years of suffering for his art, Julian also suffered a nervous breakdown. He’s back – sort of – his nerves easily frazzled, his fuse decidedly short, and his determination to make Pretty Lady a smash hit counterbalanced by an ominous warning from his doctor, that to continue with any show without sufficiently having recuperated is putting his life at risk.
Julian lost everything in the stock market crash. So, Pretty Lady has to be a winner. He is not about to take any chances with the show. After learning of Brock’s two-timing Abner, Julian calls in a marker with local Mafioso, Slim Murphy (Tom Kennedy), who hires some thug muscle to rough up Pat. In the meantime, the open call brings in scores of young hopefuls to audition for their big break. Pros and amateurs alike: or rather, the hard-bitten realists who need a job and are willing to do just about anything to succeed. Take, ‘Anytime’ Annie Lowell (Ginger Rogers) for instance; masquerading as an upper crust society dame, monocle and affected British accent included. She only said ‘no’ once and even then she did not hear the question. Her gal pal, Lorraine Fleming (Una Merkel) has the inside track, her relationship with dance director, Andy Lee (George E. Stone) the brunt of some charming double entendre. While Andy manages to get his paramour and her best friend into the chorus, Julian lays everything on the line for his new inductees. They are about to embark on five of the toughest weeks of their lives. They are going to work day and night, rehearse until their feet bleed and their hearts are ready to give out. But in the end they will have a show!
Among the hopefuls is naïve newcomer, Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler). She came to the Big Apple from Allentown, Pennsylvania with nothing more than a dream. Rough going for the true believers in this picture. Peggy gets duped by the sexually savvy chorines into nearly entering the men’s room, is cut from the initial call back during the first round of omissions, but is rescued from absolute defeat by the show’s juvenile, Billy Lawler (Dick Powell), whom earlier she accidentally stumbled upon in his dressing room in his skivvies. Nice work if you can get it? Not really. Despite being something of a minor veteran of the theater circuit, Lawler is a straight shooter and a good egg. He really has Peggy’s best interests at heart. Ironically, so does Pat, who is watching from the wings when Peggy, undernourished and overexerted, suddenly faints during her tap routine. After Pat is accosted by Murphy’s boys, Brock decides to break off their relationship…at least, for the time being. Pat leaves New York and eventually gets a stock job in Philadelphia.
The bulk of 42nd Street is a backstage pass to the seedy behind-the-scenes activity, seemingly an essential ingredient in the creation of great art – or, at least, the kind that sells tickets. To put things mildly, Julian’s rehearsals are a trial by fire. He is never satisfied with the outcome of all their hard labors, pushing his cast and crew to the brink in order to achieve a level of perfection only present in his own mind’s eye. In the meantime, Brock’s wily avoidance of Abner’s advances has reached an impasse. He is tired of shelling out for expenses and barely receiving so much as a peck on the cheek. So Abner finds a more willing participant: Annie. Things reach a crisis level when Brock breaks her ankle the night before the show’s opening in Philadelphia. Abner puts forth his new romance, Annie, as a viable candidate to replace Brock. But Annie openly admits she lacks the necessary quality to carry a whole show. Instead, and rather magnanimously for Annie, she sets Peggy up to become the star.
Julian is beside himself. His speech to Peggy has since become the template for the ‘hey kids, let’s put on a show’ ilk in Hollywood musicals. “Sawyer, you listen to me, and you listen hard. Two hundred people, two hundred jobs, two hundred thousand dollars, and five weeks of grind and blood and sweat depend upon you. It's the lives of all these people who've worked with you. You've got to go on, and you've got to give and give and give. They've got to like you. Do you understand? You can't fall down. You can't because your future is in it, my future and everything all of us have is staked on you. All right, now I'm through, but you keep your feet on the ground and your head on those shoulders and go out, and Sawyer…you're going out there a youngster. But you've got to come back a star!” No pressure there!
And even Julian doesn’t quite believe Peggy can pull it off, confiding to his backers, “I’ll either have a live leading lady or a dead chorus girl!” In the eleventh hour, everything comes together for Peggy. Billy Lawler confesses his deep-seeded desire to be her ever-loving man, and Brock, still hobbling about, makes an appearance to wish the ingénue the very best of luck, confiding she has decided to retire from showbiz and marry Pat. Peggy makes her debut, shuffling off to Buffalo and later, strutting those glorious gams on the mockup of 42nd Street. The show is a sensation. Julian and his backers breathe a heavy sigh of relief. Afterward, Julian lurks in the shadows, listening to the plaudits from patrons touting Peggy Sawyer as the next big name in entertainment. Paradoxically, no one seems to give Julian any credit for Peggy’s Svengali-esque transformation. Even more ironic, he doesn’t seem to care. And why should he? Pretty Lady is a hit, the kind he can retire on, presumably, to restore his health.
The premise for 42nd Street was a manuscript written by chorus boy, Bradford Ropes; a veteran of the stage with firsthand knowledge of his subject matter. Ropes had written a lurid account of sexual fetishisms, alcoholism, drug addiction and homosexuality. And although Warner Bros. had a reputation for producing entertainment that was ‘ripped from the headlines’ – too much of a good thing was still considered bad form – even during the pre-code era in Hollywood. Yet, in tempering Ropes’ prose the movie never shies away from its more suggestive subject matter. In fact, the squeaky clean persona of its star, Ruby Keeler and rather antiseptic ‘romance’ between Peggy Sawyer and his Billy Lawler is smartly counterbalanced by the more adult sexual relationship between Pat Denning and Dorothy Brock; even the seriously playful badinage between Abner and Brock and later, Abner and Annie.
Lloyd Bacon’s direction is competent, but pales to Busby Berkeley’s astonishing contributions. Without Berkeley, 42nd Street is a rather tepid dramedy with some ribald humor and solidly crafted performances factored in: Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, Ginger Rogers, Una Merkel and Guy Kibbee; great artists giving us everything they have and proving (as though proof itself were needed) their star quality is peerless and affecting. 42nd Street is undeniably the best known of the Warner Depression-era musicals. Indeed, it remains the only one to be successfully resurrected as a live Broadway show in the late 1970s. Only in retrospect does 42nd Street – the movie – fall short of the very best in this brief cycle of Busby Berkeley-anna. All subsequent backstage musicals have borrowed from 42nd Street’s slick style and craftsmanship; the homage transforming what once seemed cutting edge into very transparent cliché. Nevertheless, 42nd Street remains the gold standard bearer; saucy and glossy, tune-filled and a lot of fun besides.
The Warner Archive gives us another pluperfect Blu-ray transfer. This is definitely getting to be a habit with them and a most welcomed one at that. The original nitrate film elements received a considerable restoration back in 1998. This new 1080p transfer improves on those efforts, revealing some startling clarity, exquisitely reproduced film grain and gorgeous black levels. Warner’s restoration of a movie made just a few short years after the dawn of the talkies is nothing short of miraculous. So prepare to be impressed. The DTS mono soundtrack is a little less than exhilarating, chiefly due to the inherent limitations of its source material. Lest we forget, Bacon and his crew were working with primitive microphones the size of Frisbees more attune to picking up static and background noise. Given these shortcomings, I still say you should be impressed. Dialogue is crisp, and, hiss and pop is eliminated.
Extras have been imported from Warner’s old DVD release and include, ‘From Book to Screen to Stage’ – a comprehensive ‘making of’, plus a slew of vintage short subjects, including ‘Hollywood Newsreel’, ‘A Trip Thru a Hollywood Studio’, ‘The 42nd Street Special’ and ‘Harry Warren: America's Foremost Composer.’ A pair of Merrie Melodies cartoon shorts, inspired by the movie, is also included. One bone of contention – a minor one. While Warner has afforded us chapter stops for each of the musical numbers they haven’t given the same consideration for the traditional chapter search option for the rest of the movie. I thought digital media was supposed to provide us with instant access to our favorite scenes. Hmmm. Bottom line: 42nd Street on Blu-ray is a reference quality disc. Moreover, it ought to become the poster child for more B&W movies coming to hi-def in a manner befitting their original artistry. Bravo and thank you to WB! More of the same, please!
FILM RATING (out of 5 – 5 being the best)