Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Busby Berkeley as Max Bialystock

Be prepared for what you're about to see.

He was brilliant.  He was irritating.  He was offensive.  He made me angry when I was a kid because of some bad taste that made my jaw drop.  But I loved much his other work.

The word "iconic" is tossed around a lot nowadays.  However, that word certainly does apply to the visually stunning musical numbers that were staged in 1930s Warner Brothers musicals by director Busby Berkeley.  Movies hadn't even celebrated their 10th birthday in the sound era before Berkeley, with the help of studio masters of lighting, cinematography and production design, made an innovate cinematic stamp in Hollywood films that would fascinate audiences and influence future directors.  He gave the camera wings and erased the feeling of musical numbers being stage-bound and flat.  He broke through the barriers.  Depression Era audiences needed that fascination and frequently risqué movie entertainment.  Busby Berkeley truly left his mark in Hollywood.  His name became synonymous with a specific look in a film musical number.

Last week, entertainment news reported that actor Ryan Gosling will play Busby Berkeley in a big screen biopic.

I have not read a lot Berkeley's life.  But, in my youth, I did read about a serious incident that happened during his Warner Brothers years in the 1930s.  Keep in mind, that's when major Hollywood studios had the power to keep scandalous news covered up or alter how it was reported.  There was no TMZ, Twitter or E! Television then.  Hollywood celebrities had the help and protection of studio press departments.  Reportedly, Busby Berkeley was a heavy boozer.  One night in 1935, he left a Hollywood party and his speedy drunk driving killed two or three people and injured others.  He had his problems and a nervous breakdown.

However, after the drunk driving fatalities, he continued to get work at top studios.  He directed Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland when they were young rising stars.  He directed their Babes in Arms (1939) and Strike Up The Band (1940).
He directed Garland in For Me and My Gal, the 1942 musical that introduced movie audiences to Gene Kelly.
Rooney, it was written, could endure Berkeley more than Garland could.  Read the liner notes for the Girl Crazy CD soundtrack.  Berkeley started working with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland when they were teens -- two enormously talented minors under contract who had to do what they were told.  By the time 1943's Girl Crazy came around, Garland was a young woman teetering on the brink of mega-stardom which would come under the direction of future husband Vincente Minnelli.  Unlike Berkeley, Minnelli would make her look glamorous and reveal her depth of acting skill and sensitivity that was only hinted at in previous films.  As an artist, she blossomed under Minnelli's direction.  Berkeley irritated Judy Garland so much during Girl Crazy that he was fired.  Read those soundtrack liner notes.  Judy wasn't the only artist he pissed off.
He also rankled revered and important music arranger/producer Roger Edens, a Southern gentleman who had the countenance of a saint.  Gene Kelly lost his patience with Berkeley too.  During Take Me Out To The Ball Game (1949), Kelly reportedly felt that Berkeley's style had grown static and old.  Kelly was soon to take the movie musical to new heights with his choreography and other contributions to An American in Paris and Singin' in the Rain.  The fact that Berkeley was directing Judy Garland in Annie Get Your Gun and there was, once again, friction between them leads me to believe that the new MGM management had set up Garland to fail.  The singer/actress had pretty much been rushed into this major production after returning to work from a sanitarium stay.  Berkeley was a bad choice as director, especially for the star in her emotional and physical condition at the time.  But that's for another blog post at a later date.  Director Busby Berkeley was taken off Annie Get Your Gun.  Later, so was Judy.

Footage was scrapped.  The production was repackaged and recast.  It became a big 1950 box office hit for MGM starring Betty Hutton.  Judy Garland, the triple threat queen of MGM musicals, and the studio came to a parting of the ways as Paramount's Betty Hutton came over and stepped into the starring role.

My passion for classic films began when I was in grade school.  Back then, we didn't have Netflix, DVDs or DVR.  Local stations showed old movies a lot.  With commercial interruptions.  Channel 9 and Channel 11 in Los Angeles aired plenty of Busby Berkeley work.  Channel 9 was attached to a large Warner Brothers film library.  The classic Berkeley numbers thrilled me.  The shiny, art deco look of them was fabulous and kaleidoscopic. They were sensational and surreal.  With his signature-style overhead shots, dancing chorus girls became set pieces and props.

Unlike a Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly musical, the star of a Busby Berkeley musical number was the person you didn't see on camera -- Busby Berkeley.  His numbers were about stunning geometric visuals and sexual titillation in a sexually restricted movie era.  On the whole,  Berkeley's dance numbers didn't reveal character, advance the plot or have the beauty of an Astaire and Kelly routine.  They weren't like numbers in a Vincente Minnelli-directed musical.  Berkeley didn't give us anything like the sublime, tender "Never Gonna Dance" number Astaire & Rogers did in Swing Time.  We didn't get dance in a Gold Diggers movie with the quality of Kelly's awesome "An American in Paris" ballet.  Berkeley was a hoofer with a touch of the Hugh Hefner about him.  He exposed as much of a showgirl as he could.  He'd not only shoot lots of shapely Caucasian legs, he'd take you through women's legs.  This was surely hot stuff for men and teen boys in the 1930s.
Women were more covered up in movies in those days.  But not in Busby Berkeley numbers.  These two shots are of women who got caught in the rain during the "Pettin' in the Park" number from Gold Diggers of 1933.

There was a sexual suggestiveness in his numbers that carried over to his assignments in the 1940s. One example is the chorus girls with the giant bananas for the 20th Century Fox musical, The Gang's All Here (1943).  If those were male dancers, that number never would've made it past the censors.  Look at those things.  Can you say "phallic symbols"?
This was a Technicolor musical featuring Brazilian star, Carmen Miranda.  She was famous for her festive costumes and colorful mangling of the English language in musical comedies.   Her big number in this movie was "The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat."  That brought out the chorus cuties with the big bananas.

At one point in the number, the chorus girls look like they're lifting large, uncircumcised sex toys.

For all his sexual leering and somewhat militaristic dance routines, Berkeley could incorporate some social grit and urban reality into a great number.  My top two examples are the "Lullaby of Broadway" number in Gold Diggers of 1935...

...and the "Remember My Forgotten Man" number concluding Gold Diggers of 1933.

The "Lullaby of Broadway" number has a sex-as-financial survival for single females vibe and an almost fascist devotion to the Manhattan party scene that proves deadly for one dame.  The "Remember My Forgotten Man" number feels relevant today in how it pleads society's attention to our war veterans who fought our wars then came home only to be discarded by the Depression.  Joan Blondell plays the prostitute with a heart o' gold who defends and protects the homeless, down and out veteran from police trouble.  Each one of those numbers alone is better than all of Need for Speed, a new movie that I paid to see this month in New York City.  I kid you not.  I had to review Need for Speed for a TV show.  I just wanted to slap that movie's screenwriters for wasting my time.

Busby Berkeley did things that made me want to slap him too.

He was heavy-handed with his use of ethnic and sexual stereotypes, especially in the 1930s.  A gay man was a "pansy" or "too too divine." I was watching 42nd Street on television when I was a kid.  The "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" number was on and my mother watched it with me.  She cringed at the number's closing shot of a snoring black porter on a train who fell asleep while shining shoes.  A good number ends with an irritating visual racial stereotype.  Here's something I notice today:  For as much as film critics praise his best extravagant numbers, they rarely -- if ever -- mention his maddening affection for blackface numbers.  Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor (Roman Scandals, 1933) and teen stars, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, all had to slap on blackface for Busby Berkeley shoots.

One afternoon, my younger sister and I were watching TV.  We got a really remote station, Channel 55, from outside Hollywood or Burbank.  The station was practically public access.  It showed a Busby Berkeley movie called Wonder Bar.  This movie had been on Hollywood's Channel 9/KHJ TV, but a number was always cut out.  Local stations often edited movies down to make room for commercials.  Sometimes scenes were cut out for social sensitivity in the 1960s and '70s.  Channel 55 showed Wonder Bar with the numbers intact.  This is the 1934 musical that has a gay male couple dancing to the swanky nightclub music as the Dick Powell and Al Jolson characters cast a glance.

My sister and I were just kids in high school.  But when we saw the "Goin' to Heaven on a Mule" number with Al Jolson that was directed/staged by Busby Berkeley, our jaws dropped like we were audience members watching the "Springtime for Hitler" number in Mel Brooks' The Producers.  That was the number desperate, scheming Max Bialystock (played by Zero Mostel) put on Broadway.  Theatergoers were stunned at the bad taste of "Springtime for Hitler."

My sister and I knew how those theatergoers felt.

From 1934's Wonder Bar, here is the number that offended two African-American kids in South Central Los Angeles.  I wonder if the reported biopic will touch on this aspect of Busby Berkeley's career.

Pork chop trees.  Uncle Tom.  Giant watermelon slices.  Nappy wigs.  Dice.  Don't get me started.  That's why KHJ TV/Ch. 9 (now KCAL) cut the number.  But, for history's sake, we can see Wonder Bar it is entirety on Warner Archive DVD.

When film critics write about Busby Berkeley numbers that Ryan Gosling should see before he begins filming, this one doesn't get included.  Did any African-American people ever confront Berkeley about those numbers?  If so, that conflict could make one heck of a good biopic scene.

Busby Berkeley.  Many times, brilliant.  Other times, what the hell was he thinking?!?!


  1. Hi Bobby Rivers,
    Love your blog!
    I create one-of-a-kind, hand-painted artist books about dance, and have been looking for a sharp image of the circular Busby Berkeley photo on your blog (the dancers playing the violin with needles and flower petals).

    Would you know where I might find a sharp downloadable copy (as a .tiff)?
    Would you be willing to share yours? It seems sharper than all the others on line.

    Still dancing,
    Alice Simpson

    1. P.S. I am no longer on gmail. You can contact me via my website.

  2. Hi again,
    Just read about you and thought you might be a friend of Ron Hutchinson (Vitaphone Project) and Betsy Baytos. Betsy has included my father, Hal Sherman, eccentric dancer, in her documentary, "Funny Feet."— Just saying!
    Still dancing,
    Alice Simpson

    1. P.S. I am no longer on gmail. You can contact me via my website.



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