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.Continue Reading
Christmas in July
Snarky critiques of the American success story – a myth so painfully central to the national psyche – are few and far between now and they are certainly hard to imagine coming out of 1940, a time when a nation shell-shocked by the Depression still had fresh memories of being sedated by Busby Berkeley musical fantasies and stylish gangster wish fulfillment crime dramas. But writer/director Preston Sturges was too funny, clever, and probably a bit East Coast elitist to let such a sacred cow of our national mythology go unskewered.
Sometimes I think Sturges is a bit too clever for my taste. With many of his movies there is the unsavory sensation of an author laughing at his own jokes too loudly. Some of them, such as The Palm Beach Story, seem less hilarious than just smug - too many playboys in tuxedos shouting, old mustachioed men harrumping, and women in gowns winking. But Christmas in July – with its ridiculous brevity (it’s only 68 minutes long) – is a short, sharp, shock of hilarity. Really, it is. Dick Powell plays a frustrated accountant who anxiously wants to be a success in life. Though he was known first as an awe-shucks sort of song-and-dance man from various Berkeley musicals, Powell was later often cast as a cynical anti-hero in many detective roles. In this film we get a little of that coolness from his slightly sarcastic tone and weary demeanor.Continue Reading
British director Alan Parker’s third film, the high school musical Fame, has spawned a television series, a musical play, and a remake, not to mention inspiring reality competitions, the TV show Glee and other assorted bores about singing and dancing teenagers. What’s been forgotten is Fame works best as a gritty New York drama about teenage life in 1980. Parker, having just come off shooting the harrowing Turkish prison drama, Midnight Express, is no dance choreographer turned director. He’s a realist. Parker seems to be more inspired by the social realism of his countrymen Ken Loach and Alan Clarke rather than the Hollywood musical style of Busby Berkeley. He originally came out of television advertising and is often associated with popular English filmmakers of his generation like Adrian Lyne, Hugh Hudson, Ridley Scott and Tony Scott, who all started off in commercials and brought a shiny sheen to their films in the eighties. Although much of their work in that period (including Parker's) looks like champagne ads, Fame still resembles the unpolished look of seventies docudramas over the more purified work that followed. Fame is also one of the better films to casually capture the multicultural urban youth vibe of the times, unlike the John Hughes teenage whitewash that would come to dominate the eighties.
Fame depicts the lives of seemingly random students at New York’s School of the Performing Arts, from auditioning freshmen to upperclassmen. Ralph Garcia (Barry Miller of Saturday Night Fever) is a tortured Puerto Rican actor/stand-up comedian who worships comic actor Freddie Prinze and takes up some dangerously bad habits. The ambitious Coco Hernandez, played by singer Irene Cara (the original Sparkle), is a triple threat in acting, singing and dancing. Unlike her character Coco, Cara was never really able to capitalize on the attention Fame brought, although later she sang the hit theme to Flashdance. Bruno Martelli (Lee Curreri) is an obvious composing genius and his cab driver father will certainly tell anyone who will listen. Leroy (Gene Anthony Ray) only auditioned to help his girlfriend get in, but when the impressed dance instructors take an interest in his raw talent over her, he becomes the school's resident rebel. Even though her pushy stage mother believes in her, Doris (Maureen Teefy) may be a little too insecure for the competition. Speaking of insecure, acting student Montgomery, played by Paul McCrane (who would later appear as a great creep in RoboCop), is a wreck until he finally confronts his homosexuality. When the beautiful and wealthy ballerina, Hilary Van Doren (Antonia Franceschi), enters the school she inspires more competition among students.Continue Reading
The more one understands about their culture the easier it is to recognize the arts and entertainment of their time. I had always enjoyed watching Gilda for reasons that couldn't exactly be pinpointed until now. There was the impression that it wasn't just her sultry and thrill-seeking ways, or her liberation. It was her libido, actually, and the unapologetic way that the principles behind the production code in movies were instigated. And with style that was most-impressive and done by the likes of Jean Louis, just as any other big budget wonder. It's as if post-Depression a few filmmakers were asking themselves an important question: “Why keep pretending the dark edges of life don't exist?” In asking, it is as though life was breathed into this thought and the result was Film Noir.
This isn't to say that the majority of films in that era were not of great wit and integrity. Surely the way that these restrictions were handled by the likes of Frank Capra, George Cukor, and Leo McCarey was masterful and deserving of adoration. The same can be said of the glitz of Busby Berkeley, providing a much-needed solace for a body of people who were in despair. Still, there are many things about Vidor's esteemed classic that place it far ahead of the others in terms of sophistication. This is due to how human and flawed the characters are and the fact that it's a splendid battle of the sexes. For anyone with experience or imagination in the matter, I assure you that it surpasses even some contemporary works.Continue Reading