Saturday, July 4, 2020

Busby Berkeley: After three weeks, to me a leg is just something to stand on


Directed by Lloyd Bacon
Written by Rian James and James Seymour (based on the book by Brandon Ropes)

Spoiler alert: moderate

The years before 1933 represent a little-discussed period in the history of the film musical (reportedly little-discussed for good reason), and entail maybe the quickest mass extinction of any popular genre ever seen in American cinema.  Upon learning about the first death of the musical in 1931, I personally had a lot of questions, above all, "How could people possibly have gotten sick of a genre that had only even been technologically achievable for four years?"  The answer is maybe more akin to an enormous supernova than an extinction.  That is, rather than a flowering of life cut short, it was more like a big stupid thing that couldn't help but blow itself up.

Less metaphorically, the answer is abominations like Whoopee!, the first film choreographed by Busby Berkeley, though let's not overestimate 1930s audiences, since that racist trashfire actually proved successful.  The majority of its fellow class of 1930 were not.  As it turns out, pretty much the very instant that sound cinema became semi-viable, everybody and their mother went hard at the musical, in pursuit of that Jazz Singer and Broadway Melody money, and our latterday superhero movies and shared universes ain't got shit on what the studios did with the musical, producing more than a hundred in 1930 alone.  I wouldn't have assumed that America made a hundred movies at all in 1930.  Most of them were reputedly even chintzier than Whoopee!'s ugly-looking, ugly-sounding stageplay adaptation, amounting to little more than concert videos and filmed vaudeville.  Fatigue set in fast, and the reaction collapsed the genre by a full order of magnitude: 1931 saw only about a dozen muscials, 1932 even fewer.  Musical sequences were stripped from already-shot films.  There's indication that some pictures were advertised as not being musicals.

So, for 1933, the brains at Warners decided to make a musical—indeed, a backstage musical about putting on a show, i.e., "this still sounds like what we're already tired of, but at least sound recording technology has markedly improved."  Clearly, something about it inspired confidence in the studio, since before 42nd Street was even released, they had a follow-up in the pipeline, reviving their first-wave musical franchise Gold Diggers with a sequel ready to be retooled in 42nd Street's image.  That "something," I assume, was Berkeley, who had choreographed a few musicals between here and Whoopee!, and who'd even directed his own whole movie earlier in 1933, She Had to Say Yes (not itself a musical, but a sourer rendition of the bleak economic themes his early musicals worked with).  Berkeley had some pretty crazy ideas for 42nd Street, and they must've impressed somebody.

Upon the film's release, they impressed everybody, and now 42nd Street gets to be one of the most important movies ever made, credited with single-handedly reviving its genre, which is a promethean feat considering that musicals dominated the marketplace (on and off, but mostly on) for three decades afterward.  It thus serves as a milestone by which we could map the beginning of the first epoch of the film musical's golden age.  But one thing at a time, and as for the 70-odd minutes that 42nd Street expends before at last arriving upon Berkeley's contribution, I can't see how these inspired too many great expectations, and archetypal as it is, it presents a scenario that I imagine was well-worn even by 1933.  And yet 42nd Street demonstrates enough verve that it's hard not to suspect it must be one of the more propulsive renditions of the standard.

42nd Street launches itself right out of the gate—its very first image is a shaky airplane shot of New York City, and it's only onscreen for two seconds, maybe less, before giving way to a quick-cut montage of signage situating us in its very particular part of Manhattan.  This in turn recedes before a blast of voices excitedly passing along the big news, "Jones and Barry are putting on a show!"  We only settle down, a little, once we meet Jones (Robert McWade) and Barry (Ned Sparks) in their office, finding them discussing terms with their director, semi-has-been and borderline nervous exhaustion case Julian Marsh (Warren Baxter).  Against this scene is arrayed a lunch date between the show's star, Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels), and its rich and horny financial backer, Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee).  Thus within a three minute stretch, we find Marsh renouncing all thought of art, in favor of the money he needs to replace his Black Friday losses, whilst Dorothy, implicitly but with the frankness of pre-Code cinema, takes on the role of a rather more literal prostitute on behalf of her livelihood.  And so out of the ashes of the Great Depression, Pretty Lady is put into production.  42nd Street has its ingenue as well, of course, chorus girl Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler), who sparks a friendship with the show's juvenile lead, Billy Lawler (Dick Powell).  You can largely predict where this is going to go—though Billy gets some competition in the form of Dorothy's tenuous actual boyfriend, her former vaudeville partner Pat Denning (George Brendt), now a failure and relegated to sadly hanging around.

42nd Street's slightly less predictable than I make it sound, however, and one of its strengths is that it genuinely is the story of putting on this show.  Its focus sprawls, even offering up a certain immersive quality (in this silly 1933 musical fantasy) thanks to "characters," like the tetchy playwright or the jerk chorus boy, who have multiple lines and defined functions, but might not actually have names.  It's one of the truer ensembles you'll ever see, certainly at such a tidy runtime.  (Ginger Rogers and Lorraine Fleming, inter alia, fill out the supporting cast, though somebody decided to embarrass Rogers, possibly Rogers herself, who affects a British accent and often wears a monocle.)  Meanwhile, it just keeps moving with the most admirable efficiency: most every scene manages to fit in another piece of melodrama, another piece of cute comedy, another piece of sharp observation, and another step on the road to opening night, all at once.  It's complicated without feeling it—it's more impressionistic than procedural—but a lot of care and craft went into ensuring that nothing it does ever feels truly forced, and it only occasionally even feels contrived.  Certainly, we'll spot 42nd Street the wish-fulfillment fantasy at the center of Peggy's plot, on the basis that I doubt it could have gotten at its predetermined endpoint without some contrivance.

The most unpredictable part, then, is how Goddamn nice it is throughout, not just in the longeurs of a happy ending.  My understanding is that the novel it was based on is mean, even angry work, but 42nd Street the film, while deeply cynical, somehow also manages an incredible generosity of spirit—perhaps even by the standards of its genre (Gold Diggers of 1933, its immediate successor, bears similar qualities, but surely feels more jaded about it).  42nd Street is so nice that almost nothing bad ever happens to anybody in it: Marsh is a tantrum-prone taskmaster, but he's so consistently surly that you imagine nobody actually takes it personally when he's surly at them; Dorothy and Pat's brittle relationship is dramatic enough to get a sense of how painful it is for them, but they approach it with clear-eyed maturity; and, at one point, Marsh hires some gangsters to scare Pat off, but even a punch in the nose comes off as an opportunity for the poor guy to grow up.  Basically, nearly every turn of the plot hinges on somebody getting exactly what they want out of life, even if they didn't know it.  (It's nice to the point of borderline irresponsibility: when Dorothy gets her wish, even the old lech gets a consolation prize, in the form of a replacement that, as it happens, is finally getting what she wanted.)  It helps that it has such a game and gregarious supporting cast to bring it to life, if perhaps ranging somewhat in inherent fascination—though even Powell and Keeler, reduced to kid sweetheart stereotypes, still feel like these are simply their actual personalities.  What this all means is that 42nd Street is tremendously pleasant to sit with, and it's almost as if director Lloyd Bacon, recognizing that since his drama's a little too creaky to work at any higher pitch, determined to underplay it completely, to the point that the "drama" doesn't have to matter.

Then again, if 42nd Street's appeal topped out at "pleasant sit," nobody would care.  The selling point, of course, is that ultimately opening night does arrive, and with it, Berkeley.  Prior to this, 42nd Street is extremely resistant to putting too much musical spectacle into its musical spectacle.  (Indeed, the screen-to-stage adaptation of 42nd Street ropes in extra Harry Warren and Al Durbin songs from other movies in order to buff up its musical bona fides.)  In its first 70-plus minutes, there are just two numbers, each exceedingly normal, both presented as rehearsals, and the second serves purely as the truncated set-up to a joke about how old-fashioned its kind of tripe was even in 1933.  But those last fifteen minutes are still waiting for us to get there.

Like most (not quite all, but most) numbers designed by Berkeley, 42nd Street's tripartite climax has got fuck-all to do with the plot, at least beyond the banal explanation, "they are, notionally, part of the show that we saw being prepared."  (In fact, I don't know if it's my biggest problem with the film, or if it's something I find genuinely funny, but 42nd Street makes a game out of its play-within-a-play being completely incomprehensible as a narrative object: I have seen every last second of this movie twice, and I could not summarize the plot of Pretty Lady if you threatened to kill my pets.)

Truthfully, the Berkeley segment doesn't even become THE BERKELEY SEGMENT till a while after it starts: you'll find people saying that the train car that opens up like a kid's action playset for a newlywed couple in "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" is pursuing musical cinema in some revolutionary way, but I dunno—it's hard to say that "this couldn't be done on a stage" when everything about it is, indeed, done on a stage, with the only difference being that the camera can get closer.  It's a neat piece of production design (I adore the spinning wheels on this splayed "train's" bottom), but it's the next number that does something great.

I said with Whoopee! that Berkeley already had a strong grasp of how to exploit the difference between the movies and stageplays, but 42nd Street seems to mark his arrival as a specifically cinematic talent.  You can time it to the second, shortly after we enter one of his trademark geometric numbers, "Young and Healthy."  Here, Berkeley starts using editing in ways that exponentially enhance the potential of the shimmering DMT freakout of his choreography, and with this, he completely unshackles his art, not just from the requirements of reality that held on the stage, but even the conventional requirements of continuity on the screen.  In this number, you see Berkeley make the quantum leap, his numbers becoming free-floating associative fugues, only ever as connected as he wanted them to be—and, at their most abstract, as they are here, they become hypnotic white and silver shapes emerging out of a dark and uncreated void.  And that's another thing about 42nd Street: for all that I know damn well that Berkeley had some grand, grand ideas for color, there is something about black-and-white that seems totally inextricable from his aesthetic.  The song is also okay, though it also sounds a little bit like Warren and Dubin haven't quite figured out "We're In the Money" yet.

The finale, "42nd Street," is more ordinary in comparison (the geometric numbers are always gonna be my favorites), but it's still terrifically lively and inventive.  In this case, that's partly due to the film's one really good song.  It's a jazzy riff on how vividly scummy New York is, with the imagery to match, Berkeley delivering a stagey fantasia of a violent urban landscape.  It doesn't really kick into high gear till its last moments, however, with a deeply goofy idea (the chorus holding up placards representing buildings) that, fortunately, winds up executed with supreme skill (the vision of a shimmying metropolis is worth the silly set-up, and the way they disappear into a starry sky, to reveal the optical illusion of a skyscraper made out of a staircase with our couple beaming down at us, is borderline-breathtaking).  In the end, I suppose there's only a few brushes with actual greatness in this crucial piece of film history—and it makes you wait for them—but it augured well for Berkeley's future, and even discounting Berkeley, it's much gentle fun, despite being a total trifle even by the standards of trifles.

Score: 7/10

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