In the best films of Busby Berkeley, he's the director only of the musical numbers. The romantic comedies that "fill out" the films are under other direction. This worked swell for films like 42nd Street (1933) & Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) because the romantic comedies, even if predictable as to plot, were legitimately funny, legitimately romantic, well written & wonderfully cast.
There was, however, an expected dissonance between the two elements of the film, which never injured them because no one really expects actions on the musical stage to be fueled by the same tone & attitude as the backstage & offstage lives of the characters. Still, if Busby could get an assignment to do both aspects of a film, mightn't there be a greater similarity from start to finish?
That, at least, seems to be what Busby thought when he got the entire directing job for Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935). Before ever there's a line of dialogue, we get a series of dances by workers in the ritzy hotel which is the setting of the romantic comedy portion of the film.
We see dancing porters with brooms (one of them is Sam "Deacon" McDaniel the brother of Oscar winner Hattie McDaniel), dancing cleaning ladies, dancing hedge trimmers, dancing statuary painters, & so on throughout & around the hotel, everybody industriously sprucing up for their summer rush of millionaires.
It's the Wentworth Plaza catering to the most exclusive of the super wealthy. Prefaced as it all is with a smiling hobo in the park & leading to the dances of the workers, it's no concidence that Busby is showing us the underclass & the working class performing duties in unison like worker-bees.
This is the first "subtexted" moment that will unsettle the alert. Here the richest people in the world are arriving, & the first dialogue we get informs us that the worker bees aren't even paid by the hotel. They must live off tips (which we're shown are apt to be a quarter to divide among five servants), & even that requires a large kickback to management.
We're not entering a just world. And yet after these unusual working class dances & introductional scenes, the story we're tossed into is for the main part deadly dull. We never encounter gold diggers as defined in previous musicals as showgirls. This time the gold diggers are anyone of the working class who dares to fall in love outside their station.
The tedium of it all is not necessarily the fault of Busby's non-choreographed directing prowess, as the script is weak, the casting not up to previous films of the type, & any "politic" that Busby may have wished to invest in the choreography is not much reflected in the uninteresting & rarely funny dialogue.
The film is even short-changed in the musical department, with more instrumentation than songs with lyrics. And though blessed with one spectacularly cool song, "Lullaby of Broadway," the rest just about the weakest ever cooked up by Harry Warren & Al Dubin.
I already know from past responses to some of my analyses that there are people who cannot accept that Busby Berkeley was ever political.
Thus it is totally innocent & accidental that the amazing extended dance sequence from 42nd Street portrays a utopian world without class barriers; that nothing Rooseveltian was intended in the "Remember My Forgotten Man" sequence with war heroes returning home to homelessness & breadlines in Gold Diggers of 1932, & similarly such nay-sayers are take doth-protest-too-much exception to there being an anti-fascist subtext in Gold Diggers of 1935.
The Nazis at the time were two years in power with Jews banned from government jobs from the start, whose thugs had long been beating beating Jews in the streets, & the 1933 "purificaiton" of the arts jettisoned German Jews from the arts (a boon for Hollywood by the way, as expressionist lighting experts & set designers left Europe in droves, without whom there would never have been a film noir era).
Goebbels was orchesterating a boycott of Jewish businesses, the writing was on the wall with many Jews already shipped off to Dachau. And internationally, Jews outside of Germany were already trying to get attention for what too much of the world just refused to do anything about.
Busby was also for the first time working under the watchful eye of rabid anti-semite Joseph Green, a representative of the Catholic & so-called "Legion of Decency" who got himself assigned to the position of enforcing the Hays Code.
Many of the ribald, multi-racial, & representations of sexuality taken for granted for musicals of 1933 were explicitely banned in 1934, & when Busby began directing his 1935 spectacle, all Hollywood films conformed to the Code which banned representations of even such things as mixing of the races.
Hollywood was rife with Jews whom Green called "the scum of the earth." Even though Jewish film moguls pitched their product to middle America, not to ethnicity except in stereotyped jokes, they weren't blind & stupid.
Jewish stories like that of The Jazz Singer (1927) would not be a commonplace. Nevertheless, an eastern European Jew like Busby Berkeley didn't have to be a radical to undermine the racist, homophobic, antisemitic Code in whatever ways were possible in the context of hyperkinetic dance choreography.
But Busby's satirization of fascism would be imbedded chiefly in the finale's choreography, not in the poorly written Romantic Comedy that screenwriter Peter Milne saddled him with.
Curtis (Dick Powell) works as a hotel clerk to support himself through medical school. He's engaged to hotel hostess Glenda (Betty Hawes) but will soon be courting Ann Prentiss (Gloria Stuart) the daughter of miserly Mrs. Matilda Prentiss (Alice Brady).
Hotel management has not been able to get Nicolai Nikeloff (Adolphe Menjou) to pay his sizeable hotel debt. He demands the best of everything, & the hotel philosophy is "the customer is always right," even if said customer is disenfranchised European gentry without a penny to his name.
So management strikes a deal with him to clear his debt by taking on the job of producing the milk fund charity show that the hotel puts on every year. It is miserly Mrs. Prentiss's annual concession to civic duty.
Getting her to pay for anything but the cheapest of the cheap is like pulling teeth, but Nikoleff is partly con artist, & brings in some real experts in launching major musicals & hornswoggles the reluctant matron out of more money than ever she intended to provide.
In & amidst all this are a couple trivial love stories involving fortunate unfaithfulness & affairs that break down the class system.
None of it is funny, & none of it is romantic. The originality is restricted to the hotel setting rather than a Broadway play. Luckily the hotel's dinner theater is big enough for the biggest musical to be played out.
And more than most films of the kind, it is those climactic musical numbers we wait for, all else being tedious. There's only a little music before the end, including a major teaser when Curtis in a motorboat with Ann romances her with "The Words Are In My Heart," reprised at vastly greater length in the finale.
Powell is as charming as in any film though his dialogue & scenes are comparatively few. The film totally lacks the kind of female power of the better films of the type, no Ruby Keeler, no Joan Blondell, no Ginger Rogers. Instead we get insipid Gloria Stuart & Glenda Farrell, whose talents are so limited that when the great numbers begin, Busby works with the vastly more exciting Wini Shaw instead of the cast of the comedy that prefaces the big numbers.
So it's really no big deal to see Powell & Stuart as a couple throughout the big "The Words Are In My Heart" number, unlike Powell & Keeler in the "Kissing in the Park" number from the 1933 Gold Diggers musical which is just so endearingly sweet & sexy.
Stuart & Powell singing "I'm Going Shopping with You" is dispiritingly bad, yet strangely Busby uses this song instrumentally in many scenes as if it were a tune worth listening too.
The stars of the big "Words Are in My Heart" sequence is no human being at all. Fifty-six white grand pianos steal the number. Looking just a little too Ice Capades, the pianos with white-gowned beauties seated at each skim over the black surface in colorful but ever so slightly goofy choreography that might just as well have been performed by a fleet of zambonis driven by hockey players.
The piano sequence is often alleged to be highly imaginative & beautifully done, & it's different I'll grant you that. But it's just not as elegant & marvelous as when Busby choreographs dancers instead of furniture. The one part I liked about it was when you could see the legs of the guys underneath the pianos rolling them around, which in the main we weren't supposed to see. Their pants are nicely pleated. It actually looks like the white pianos each have a pair of black-trousered human legs.
Well, up to the piano sequence the film has ranged from truly mediocre to goofily entertaining. If it hasn't as yet achieved Busby's potential for dreamy greatness, well folks, ya ain't seen nothing yet. We're about to experience a shockingly sinister Busby Berkeley extravaganza, to one of the most masterful of Warren & Dubin songs.
Dark-haired Wini Shaw appears first as a bodiless head floating in darkest night. I'm going to posit that her make-up & hair is specifically designed to insinuate that she's a beautiful Jewess (though Wini's exoticism is actually from her being native Hawaiian).
The camera slowly pans in on Wini's floating head until her face fills the screen, all the while singing most beautifully a simple solo of "Lullaby of Broadway."
When she finishes, the head twists around to look straight into the night & she seems, mostly invisibly, to have laid down on the stage. Her bodiless head turns into a map of a city, & the camera pans into that city, wich amounts to a fascist art deco nightmare.
The horror of it is at first so subtle I can understand that so few have noticed the subtext or believed it was there. But by the time the beautiful Aryan horde murders Wini, I'm more shocked that anyone can still doubt it!
Wheeling through the art deco city, humanity is dwarfed into an inconsequential class of servitors. The masses practically goosestep in time, without individuality, bound to soul-sucking jobs. At the end of a long day Wini arrives home to feed her cat & plop down into her bed, as her work day has lasted from dawn to dusk.
She falls asleep but seemingly wakes up in the middle of the night to go carousing the city, or is it only a dream within the dream.
She goes to a gargantuan many-staired dance club with Dick Powell. She & Dick are seated at the club's only table on a high dias, as if they are guests of honor as important as der Furer & Eva Braun. Below them, the Aryan hordes dance insanely.
There's a great dance number for Ramon & Rosita, although Rosita was in fact replaced by an unknown woman. Ramon & Rosita had been a stunning dance team famous in Mexico City, & Warner Brothers intended to bill them as together in this film, though Rosita filed a court injunction against their doing so since that wasn't really her. Thus neither she nor Ramon get acknowledged in the credits.
We also see a trio of fine tapdancers led by dance instructor Matty King, including a shot from underneath the floor as though they were dancing on glass. But by & large there are no "individuals" in this mass choreography, which quite literally, I kid you not, has these Aryan masses tapping forward like an army giving Wini's companion on the dais a rapid barrage of heil-hitler salutes!
Dick & Wini then join the horde to dance. She seems deliriouisly happy but at some point realizes something isn't right & she tries to escape. The crowd pursues her with gaiety & joy, even Dick Powell is with the horde now, & momentarily they shove her from a skyscraper balcony.
We see her plunge toward the ground but then her invisible spirit seems to return to her little apartment where conceivably she could awaken & it was all a dream. But no one is there, & slowly the camera pans out of this nightmare city, & Wini is seen again as a floating head.
Her head roles from her upward gaze to face-forward, & the camera continues to pan back until she is nothing but a distant star reprising her solo version of "Lullaby of Broadway." And if it was all indeed only a dream within a dream, there must be another level of the dream, since she's still just a bodiless head.
There's a coda for the romantic comedy portion of the film, to establish there'll be at least two happy-ever-after couples, & a closing bad joke about the miserly mother. None of that was worth the effort, & really the film ended when Wini bodiless on stage ditches her cigarette & with wry expression sings herself into outerspace.
That last huge production number was avant garde to say the least. And not devoid of social awareness. In an otherwise tepid film, it provides a full reel of truly classic cinema, with more meeting the eye than the majority have realzed.
The Busby Berkley collection on dvd comes with numerous extras including vintage cartoons & Vitaphone comedy or musical shorts. There are also some newly minted mini-documentaries, mostly pretty putrid or at best workmanlike.
The documentary with Gold Diggers of 1935 is the clumsily titled (bus'be bur'kle) n. A Study in Style (2006) which is mostly clips of dance choreography intercut with the opinions of such interviewees as directors John Landis & John Waters, choreographers like Randy Skinner, & author/critics like Martin Rubin & Leonard Maltin.
There's certainly nothing wrong with all the dance numbers quoted from other films, but these took no talent on the part of the anonymous documentarians, who've created something monotonous & unimaginative, in which primarily only the obvious is stated.
However, a couple points are made which are good to see put in viewers' faces. Maltin notes his belief that Hitler's filmmaker Leni Reifenstahl was influenced by Busby Berkley when she filmed fascist architecture & arranged German athletes like masses of dancers.
And Waters just flat-out insists the mob that kills Wini in the great climactic number indeed represent Nazi hordes targetting Jews, & they are responding with ultimate violence when she intones a lyric, "Why don't you come & get me?"
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl