Movies We Like
Busby Berkeley Bonus Disc (Busby Berkeley Collection)
It may seem like cheating to skip over the five films featured in the first Busby Berkeley Collection and single out the bonus disc included with the collection as a “Movie We Like,” but the very fact that Warner Brothers bothered to include the extra disc comprised solely of the musical numbers from Berkeley’s films indicates that they were eager to facilitate the pure rush of cinematic delirium that occurs when watching the crazy things back to back. Berkeley didn’t write or direct most of the films included in the box set collections that bear his name but his authorial hallmark is stamped right across all of them. He created and staged the musical numbers for the films and it’s these musical numbers that gave him immortality as one of the great film architects of glamorous spectacle and Hollywood mythology. The best of Berkeley’s musical numbers are pre-Production Code wonders of erotic reverie and paradisaical splendor. They looked like nothing that had come before though they have certainly been imitated and paid homage to by directors entranced by their bizarre majesty ever since. Berkeley turned song and dance numbers that bridged the scenes of what could have been generic studio musicals into glittering ecstatic pageants that rendered the lovely legs of chorus girls into a kaleidoscopic “ballet mechanique,” filling the entire screen in one hallucinatory art deco fantasia after another. There is beauty to Berkeley’s approach but there is also darkness that creeps in, such as in the desperate city-dwelling throngs killing, thieving, and hustling to the title song of 42nd Street. Fellow practitioners of the dark arts of Kino Delirium, Kenneth Anger and Guy Maddin, owe this guy a lot and I would assume that they would be the first to admit it.
The plots of Berkeley’s films are mostly variations on the backstage musical archetype with a make it or break it “let’s put on a show!” finale. The films themselves - such as 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 with stars like James Cagney and Ruby Keeler - are a lot of fun, if a little slow between the numbers. I once saw Gold Diggers… screened at Hollywood Forever Cemetery and seeing the film with booze, surrounded by the graves of Hollywood luminaries at night was several great things made more so by their combination. But it’s the musical numbers that everyone wants to see, and so to get the purest expression of Berkeley’s genius it’s nice to be able to skip right to the whiz bang heart of it and luxuriate in the delights of “We’re In the Money,” “By A Waterfall,” and the very weird and wonderful “Pettin’ In the Park,” which serves as unimpeachable evidence, if any was necessary, that the 1930s was as sexually frank an era as any before or since.
More than the star dust and sex appeal - or perhaps exactly because of them - what I find most enduring about these strange musical vignettes is imagining the context through which their escapist delights were absorbed by the downtrodden masses who surely sat rapt in the dark watching them during the worst of the Great Depression. Back then Hollywood really was a dream factory and no one composed such exquisite ballets of the sublime as Busby Berkeley did.