In the early 1930s the director and choreographer* Busby Berkeley created a new form of film musical. Berkeley designed and directed elaborate production numbers featuring armies of chorus girls moving in geometrically precise arrangements. The production numbers in previous musical films had generally been shot from static positions in front of the proscenium—a theater audience's point of view. Berkeley's innovation was to make the camera a part of the choreography by placing it directly overhead, on the chorus line, or even tracking between the dancers' legs onstage.
We've recently been watching several of Berkeley's early musicals for Warner Brothers, and I thought I'd offer a quick survey. I realize that calling these movies "Busby Berkeley musicals" neglects the contributions of directors like Lloyd Bacon and Mervyn LeRoy, who were often in charge of the dialogue scenes. But with all due respect to Bacon and LeRoy, it's the Berkeley-directed dance numbers that make these movies unforgettable. So, in descending order of watchability:
1. Gold Diggers of 1933 is Berkeley's masterpiece, containing some of his most jaw-droppingly enjoyable numbers. Joan Blondell, Ginger Rogers and comedienne Aline MacMahon play wisecracking but good-hearted chorus girls (a setup so successful it was recycled a few years later in the excellent Stage Door (1937), also starring Ginger Rogers). Ruby Keeler is (what else) the ingenue, and her love interest Dick Powell is a rich kid slumming it as a Broadway songwriter. But all you need to know is that the screenplay provides enough snappy dialogue and comic situations to keep you thoroughly entertained between numbers.
And what numbers! From the opening "We're in the Money" (featuring chorus girls clothed in coins and Ginger Rogers singing the lyrics in pig latin) to the "Shadow Waltz" (with dozens of dancers playing neon-lit violins), Berkeley's stagings of the Harry Warren-Al Dubin songs are mind-boggling. My favorite may be the delirious "Pettin' in the Park," which says more about the sexual mores of my grandparents' generation than I really want to know. Here are the last two minutes or so of this sequence (formerly available in its entirety):
The movie closes with "Remember My Forgotten Man," a harrowing song about the mistreatment and neglect of World War I veterans, unforgettably performed by Joan Blondell and Etta Motten. Don't miss this one.
2. 42nd Street (1933) became the template for every backstage musical to follow: when a Broadway show's star (Bebe Daniels) breaks her ankle just before opening night, the ingenue chorus girl Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) has to go on as her replacement. The movie has Harry Warren and Al Dubin's great title song about that "naughty, gawdy, bawdy, sporty" (or as Ruby Keeler sings, "spawty") thoroughfare, and the classic line delivered to Peggy by the harried director (Warner Baxter) just before she steps onstage: "You're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!"
It also has Ruby Keeler's first and worst film performance. Her line readings are stiff and unconvincing, and worse, her dancing is ungainly and looks like the hard work it must actually be. When she launches into her clomping tap-dance* break during the climactic version of the title song, the tempo of the music audibly slows down instead of speeding up.
Throughout the film Keeler has a stricken, deer-in-the-headlights look. Perhaps she herself realized the ludicrousness of the scene in which another chorus girl gives up her chance to take over the leading role in favor of Keeler. That other chorus girl, who in fact handles the snappy dialogue and the jazzy choreography much more smoothly than Keeler, is played by Fred Astaire's future partner Ginger Rogers. Nah—she could never carry the show...
3. Footlight Parade (1933): Jimmy Cagney burns up the screen in an intense performance as the harried director of spectacular live "prologues" supposedly put on before movie screenings (sure—if the movie theater is the size of an airplane hanger and the exhibitor has an unlimited budget). To win a contract he's got to stage three prologues on one night in three different theaters—and he's only got a single weekend to prepare everything.
But you can forget (or enjoy) the multiple implausibilities when the movie includes Cagney, the great Joan Blondell, and one of the most absurdly spectacular numbers Berkeley ever filmed, the "water ballet" "By A Waterfall."
The inevitable Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler are also in the cast, with Keeler giving one of her better performances as a secretary who steps onstage and becomes a star. Just don't think too hard about the racial politics of the final number, "Shanghai Lil" (in which Cagney shows that he can sing and tap-dance a little, too).
4. Gold Diggers of 1935: Lightning does not strike twice; this sequel-in-name-only to Gold Diggers of 1933 testifies to the (temporary) exhaustion of the Berkeley formula—or perhaps, after his grueling work schedule of the previous three years, to Berkeley's own exhaustion. This time, instead of playing a gee-whiz kid, Powell plays a cynical and jaded gold digger himself. The plot centers on the creation of a charity stage show which is so spectacularly lavish that it loses tens of thousands of dollars.
The two main production numbers, to the Warren-Dubin songs "The Words Are In My Heart" and "The Lullaby of Broadway," only partly compensate for the unsatisfying plot. The opening and final images of "Lullaby" are a direct homage to the photographs of Man Ray, suggesting that Berkeley's surrealism was highly self-conscious. And talk about surrealism: the "Lullaby" number is staged as a bizarre morality play which ends with the Broadway Baby (Wini Shaw) falling to her death from a skyscraper—an eerie anticipation of the suicide of Dorothy Hale, immortalized in Frida Kahlo's famous painting. A strange coda to an oddly dark film:
(This is only a fraction of this number, which is nearly 15 minutes long; the full sequence is no longer available.)
* see Jeffrey Spivak's comments below.
Update 6 Feb 2011: Jeffrey Spivak's Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley has been published by the University Press of Kentucky. Thanks again to Jeff for his detailed comments below.