Tuesday, May 12, 2020

Busby Berkeley: How?


Directed by Thornton Freeland
Written by William M. Conselman, E.J. Rath, and Robert Hobart Davis (based on the musical play by William Anthony McGuire based on the regular talking play by Owen Davis)

Spoiler alert: high, but it's 90 years old, you don't care

In 1895, Berkeley William Enos, who at some point in his childhood acquired the name Busby, was born to a pair of showpeople, and I suppose there was never much question of what path he would take in life, though the dislocation of World War I brought him into the U.S. Army's officer corps, and there is the persistent suggestion that the sight of hundreds of men drilling in regimented precision inspired something in him that would ultimately shape the way he pursued his art.  Certainly, once he'd returned from war, he kept himself busy on Broadway as an increasingly-sought-after choreographer.  It was there he honed his skills, but he wouldn't stay forever, because a new industry had been built on the other side of the country, and it was calling his name.  Or, alternatively, he was simply the most obvious choice when Florenz Ziegfield and Samuel Goldwyn hired him to choreograph the movie version of the stage musical he'd already choreographed once for Ziegfield in New York.  This was Whoopee!, stage and screen productions alike being a vehicle for one of the late 20s' and early 30s' more popular multimedia personalities—he sang, he gave little fireside chats, he made faces—a fellow by the name of Eddie Cantor.

In terms of Berkeleyology, the striking thing about Whoopee! is that so much of it is already on the screen; there was evidently no embryonic talent not yet sure of what he wanted or how to get it, but rather a man who had some fairly well-developed ideas about how cinematic technology expanded the horizons of his stagecraft far beyond the proscenium.  Even several of Berkeley's most famous trademarks were, it turns out, registered right here in his very first film.  It's a bit more "primitive" in its construction, insofar as in this movie, for example, you can see the camera's iris on the edges of the frame as it tracks through the chorus girls' legs; and Berkeley isn't attuned to the ways that editing could be used to elevate his numbers yet, nor is his marriage of architecture and dance really on full display.  But, nevertheless, it's kind of amazing just how much "classic Berkeley" is already present in his first film.

Of course, it's striking for other reasons, too, and I daresay the phrase "cultural artifact" was invented for such circumstances.  Spoiler: this 1930 film is real racist.

So: our story involves a lawless small town out in a very nebulous "American West," to which sickly, wealthy, dweeby Henry Williams (Cantor) has retired for reasons that I do not believe are exposited in the film.  Here he is cared for by his nurse, Mary (Ethel Shutta), who not-very-secretly pines for his affections.  Over the months, he has become sufficiently entwined with this community to get accidentally embroiled in a love triangle with the townsfolk, involving the daughter of a local poobah, Sally Morgan (Eleanor Hunt), her betrothed, Sheriff Bob Wells (Jack Rutherford), and the man she actually loves but could never marry, Wanenis (Paul Gregory), an assimilated Indian (or "Indian"), taught white ways, but reared at the reservation by Black Eagle ("Chief Caupolican"—and you almost got me, 1930! he was a Chilean named Emile Barrangon, and I'll admit, that's at least potentially closer than I would've guessed).

Sally accepts that the miscegenation she'd prefer is but a hopeless dream, but in order to at least avoid marriage to the hated Sheriff, she tricks Henry into driving her out of town, while leaving a note claiming that they've eloped; and this is, of course, unacceptable to the Sheriff, who rounds up a posse to track them down and force Sally into wedlock—I told you this town was lawless—and it's unacceptable to Mary, too, who dons a mustache and joins the posse to wreak sexual vengeance upon her Henry.  It's not the last dubious disguise in the film, either.

Obviously, it's a confection, never more than a cartoon showcase for a few songs by composer Walter Donaldson and lyricist Gus Kahn, most prominently "Makin' Whoopee," which Cantor had popularized two years prior on Broadway, and which is no doubt by far the most famous thing about this movie that you've likely never heard of.  It's also the best song in the set—popular music of the era sounds so featurelessly homogenous to my ears that it's nice to hear a song that has any personality; and I'll concede that its lyrics are fairly funny in their sexist register (for its lyrics are somewhat more complicated than just "makin' whoopee means fucking"), and it gets quite remarkably cynical as it charts out the life cycle of a toxic marriage, which of course was the only kind of marriage permitted at the time.  And while Whoopee! has never previously been a film to insist upon its own reality, "Makin' Whoopee" might as well have been dropped into the movie out of an airplane, presented as something akin to an entr'acte wherein Cantor showily drops character in order to play his hit.

In honesty, the first half or so of Whoopee! isn't too unpleasant; for starters, it at least seems to be groping toward a "racism is actually bad" message, despite racism in the presentation, and then there's Cantor, around whom the film bends like a variety hour, though I suppose the comparison is somewhat anachronistic, but when you're talking about something this old, anachronisms are inevitable.  So just go ahead and imagine an unholy cross between Harold Lloyd, Jerry Lewis, and Woody Allen.  (You might not even be imagining the former—the writer of the play Cantor's play was based on, The Nervous Wreck, sued Harold Lloyd for plagiarism in the mid-20s, and Cantor is aggressively returning the favor here.)  Okay, now give that figure a hypochondriac New Yorker to play in the alien environment of the West.  Now gay-code him (a surprising sequence involves Cantor rolling around with another guy as they exaggeratedly attempt to show each other the "surgery scars" under their pants).  And now bring to mind the broadest, haziest idea of "vaudeville" that you can conceive.  There: you've got Cantor here, except I didn't mention his signature move, using his large, expressive eyes to effect, amongst other things, the most extravagant eyerolls possible, so that it looks like he's constantly cumming.

Some of this is, I hesitate to say it, funny, mostly due to Cantor's commitment to each disparate, disconnected bit.  I'll admit: the screwball patter surrounding his hypochrondria and visceral disgust with the possibility of touching female flesh got some reluctant but audible laughs out of me.  Sometimes this was because it was genuinely clever, but mostly it's just because of how desperate it is to entertain.  It's an easy energy to respond to, even if one feels a bit dirty and ashamed at oneself, especially when Cantor punctuates every third joke by sending his pupils into the back of his skull—which is almost invariably a step too far over the line, and collapses the already-threadbare illusion that this was actually a good comedy.  It likewise doesn't help that almost every other person in the movie is completely incapable of even desperate comedy—no more than one or two performers (and none of the principals, except, marginally, Ethel Shutta) are ever operating on Cantor's wavelength, or even seem to be aware that there might be a wavelength to operate upon.  The idea, I expect, was for Cantor to be a bolt of chaos who vibrates all of these squares in interesting ways, but, unfortunately, they're implacable blocks of stone.

And then it just nosedives, because about halfway through they run out of hypochondriac material and just put the pedal to the metal in favor of Cantor stumbling ass-backwards into blackface—paying off on the dreadful portent of the Sheriff's line, "don't let a white man get by ya."  One makes allowances for movies of this era; you know that, from time to time, they'll be screamingly racist.  For most such movies, it won't define the entire project.  Most such movies don't keep their star in blackface for 18 minutes of a 92 minute production, however; there's probably more blackface in The Jazz Singer, I guess, but there's barely more blackface in Bamboozled.  And the instant he gets out, they contrive a way to get him into redface, which is still maybe an improvement, because at least that's just a headdress, and not such a thoroughly nauseating, dehumanizing caricature.  On the other hand, you have Black Eagle, whose vocabulary is almost entirely limited to "hhhhh!", so what the hell do I know about oppressed peoples.

This is where I'd sometimes say, "but the worst part is, it's just not funny, and the way they stick to a failed scenario that's just not working out derails the momentum of the comedy completely," but while this time that's not the worst part, it's not inaccurate, and Whoopee!'s comic momentum does, indeed, come to a grinding, catastrophic stop.  They keep hanging around this single location, with Cantor pretending to be a cook, and the increasingly arbitrary characters and complications they come up with probably would've turned Whoopee! into a slog even if it weren't bracingly offensive.  (Then the plot halts, and even the dim light within it goes out: the happy ending is that Wanenis isn't a Native American after all, but the white, adopted son of Black Eagle.)

Which brings us back to Berkeley, who at least gets the least-racist racist part of the movie to call his own.  He's already abandoned the horizontal plane once with his cowboy and cowgirl dancers, and one of these numbers is fairly inventive otherwise, with the girls atop the boys' shoulders, doing some manner of crunching exercise in a synchronized wave; there's also some fun business with the hats, and an early example of his "parade of faces," where many of the gals get their own close-up, as well as that dive between their legs.  And these are, at a minimum, lightly-iconic Berekely.  The climax, though, this is basically an announcement to all the world of what this choreographer's going to be about, although it still may be best to describe it as more of a preview, because it's rather short in terms of actual dance choreography.

It's culturally insensitive as all hell, but graciously limits itself to (white) girls in fanciful "Sexy Plains Indian" costume (and therefore virtually all of their costume is on their heads), and visually, at least, it's fairly splendid, above all when Berkeley arranges his most famous trademark, with the camera set high above the dancers as they undulate their headdresses in rhythm and become a single pulsating object for that kaleidoscopic money shot.  Like "Makin' Whoopee!," it's just thrown in, but this is the Berkeley way—I don't know if any Berkeley number qua Berkeley number ever had a substantial connection to the movie it was in, and this one certainly doesn't, with the action transported to an evocatively-backdropped mesa we've never seen before—and, of course, one of the charms of Berkeley choreography is how clearly it exists for no sake but its own.  It closes out early, however, and the balance of it is a bizarre fashion pageant, with girls on horseback coming down the mesa, wearing increasingly implausible headdresses; the final iteration requires the support of two men with poles.  It's a little nuts.

It is maybe more striking still, because it's in color, which I ought to have mentioned earlier, though I didn't because as far as two-color Technicolor goes, it's mostly pretty horrid stuff, and Whoopee! is, in the end, a product of 1930 in more ways than one, with iffy, tinny sound recording and—outside of the musical numbers and the emphasis on Cantor's dumb fucking eyeballs—almost entirely constructed by director Thornton Freeland out of indifferently-arrayed long shots and indifferently-arrayed medium shots, capturing mostly-ugly sets which instantly find the uncanny valley between "abstracted stagecraft" and "movie magic."  Some of it is probably down to preservation, but most of it is that early sound cinema sucks, and neither a vigorously bad central performance nor intense white supremacy, nor even Busby Berkeley, were going to fix that.  In any event, I can see why special features talking heads imply that his first movie was 42nd Street, and not just because it was Warner Bros. paying for them.

Score: 3/10

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