Saturday, October 17, 2020

Busby Berkeley: When good Americans die, they go to Paris



FASHIONS OF 1934

1934
Directed by William Dieterle
Written by Harry Collins, Warren Duff, F. Hugh Hubert, Carl Erickson, 

Spoile alert: moderate


Fashions of 1934
 is "a Busby Berkeley movie," and it is, furthermore, "a Bette Davis movie," though its status as either one has grown pretty attenuated over the years.  In Berkeley's case, it's because while its centerpiece sequence earns it a place in any respectable compilation of the choreographer's achievements, it only has the one, single number to recommend it as "his" movie.  (The credits say "numbers," but besides a brief little non-musical piece of set design eye-candy involving dresses toward the end, that looks like it might've been Berkeley's effort, what we have is otherwise entirely the creation of its director, William Dieterle.)  In Davis's case, it's because the movie arguably contributes even less to her legacy than Berkeley's, at least in any positive sense.  The only important thing about it on that count is that it served as the first climax of her quarrels with Warner Bros. management, representing the final and most aggressive attempt by Jack Warner to turn her into a standard-issue glamor girl, something that she resented immensely and which, in any event, didn't work out well enough financially for Warner to continue resisting her efforts to get herself attached to roles that she felt better-suited both her talents and her looks.  (Davis was unnecessarily hard on herself in the latter regard, but then, strange as it may be to say considering what a big star she became, so were her colleagues in her formative years as a performer.)

Nevertheless, as Davis perhaps comes up more often than Berkeley, I suppose that Fashions is likely best known for being one of the last things Davis did before she got herself loaned out to RKO to do Of Human Bondage, the success of which allowed her, when she came back home to Warners, to work somewhat more upon her own terms, at least until their next quarrel began.  As for Berkeley, whose involvement was clearly a little more incidental than Davis's, presumably he shrugged off its middling box office, and just kept on keeping on, though I guess it was around this time that he became a dangerous drunk.

So if it is a little more obscure than some other films to which he contributed*, and treated more as a footnote to someone else's career rather than a significant work of his, that's kind of a shame.  I mean, it is minor Berkeley, undoubtedly.  Quantitatively, it would be hard to describe it as anything else.  But Fashions is a fun little confection—and if Warners roughly plugged a Berkeley musical number into their in-development non-musical comedy simply because said musical numbers had proven popular the year before, then they must have at least done so early enough for the script to build up to that number as a culmination of its major plot.  Better yet, that number is absolutely top-tier Berkeley, maybe a slightly humbler example of his craft than the prodigious setpieces he'd done previously for the studio, in Gold Diggers of 1933 or Footlight Parade, but perhaps the circumscribed scale forced him to hone in on pure visual pleasure rather than the sprawling (and unsatisfying) one-scene narrative plays that comprised the majority of his contributions to the latter.

So: as with seemingly every comedy made during the Depression, Fashions begins with a venture going out of business.  In this case, that's Golden Harvest Investments, run by one Sherwood Nash (William Powell) with the help of his assistants, the loyal Snap (Frank McHugh) and the rather more fickle Glenda (Dorothy Burgess).  We make Sherwood's acquaintance as a repo man patiently waits for him to finish a "phone call" before informing him that, actually, he's here to take the phones and knows they were disconnected three days ago.  Things look bleak, but when Snap introduces Sherwood to a young fashion designer, Lynn Mason (Davis), he gets the idea for an entirely different racket.


Soon, they're pirating the latest in fashions from Paris, and although the bosses of New York retail shut him down soon enough, Sherwood subverts them just as quickly, asking them why they pay such rich prices for Parisian designs, when they could just as easily be part of his scam, too.  All they need to do is send him to Paris, where he'll steal the newest fashions before they can even arrive in New York.  (And this is the clever little subtext of Fashions.  It's so unstressed that you wonder if the overwhelming experience of the Depression was just unconsciously bleeding through, but Fashions is pretty clear in its unspoken critique, with every successive layer of its capitalist cake represented as just a slightly more genteel version of the same basic scam.  Anyway, the actual answer to Sherwood's question, "why do they pay for the real thing?", is that fixed retail stores would have a much harder time avoiding litigation.  I said "clever," not "smart.")  Either way, the retailers send Sherwood, Lynn, and Snap to Paris.  But once there, Sherwood hatches an even bigger scheme, to coronate himself the new king of Parisian fashion by overthrowing the current one, Oscar Baroque (Reginald Owen).  To do this, he'll need the help of Baroque's aristocratic paramour, the Grand Duchess Alix of Imperial Russia—better known to Sherwood as Mabel of Hoboken (Verree Teasdale)—as well as the backing of Joe Ward (Hugh Herbert), a down-on-his-luck American ostrich farmer who, for unstated reasons, appears to have been hanging out in a Parisian bar for months, anxiously waiting for an unscrupulous operator to make the comeback of ostrich feathers a crucial part of his master plan for European style.

With Mabel extorted into lending "the Grand Duchess's" celebrity to his endeavor, and Baroque gulled into putting his name on it too, they all get together to stage an enormously-budgeted fashion revue—i.e., a musical show, specified as a $75,000 effort, and one half-wonders if that was also the figure Berkeley presented to the studio—and, like I said, this effectively ends the film, though it still has about a quarter hour left to go.  Here's the thing: what you'd expect the arc of this movie to be—Lynn's ascent from the junior partner of a fashion pirate to the greatest couturier in Paris, with a little help from the trickster she's fallen in love with—doesn't even seem to have crossed its screenwriters' minds.  Indeed, on a mechanical level, Fashions' screenplay is straight-up trash, having obvious difficulty filling up even a petite 78 minutes with enough coherent plot to keep you from noticing that what you're watching doesn't really have much of a narrative.  This leads to some truly clumsy storytelling, from the way it introduces Lynn by materializing her in front of Sherwood's door to kick off the scenario, to the way it dispenses with Glenda, a character who'd previously come off like one of the bigger wheels in the film, but who disappears by the twenty minute mark anyway (which is still for the best, insofar as Burgess is playing her no-good dame so broadly that Babs Bunny would have problems with it, and in a film that gets by otherwise with rather lighter, less arch performances, even from the clearly-designated comic relief—McHugh playing "put-upon and horny," while Herbert does "childlike and constantly drunk"—Burgess belting every line from her pelvis isn't missed).

It is, anyway, contrived as fuck, but this doesn't really hurt it.  What hurts it is that it has no better sense of its characters—even Sherwood's more of a plot engine than a person—and without any keen idea of what its characters' hopes and dreams might be, it just defaults into the reediest kind of romantic farce.  The better part of it involves Lynn jealously mistaking Mabel's usefulness to Sherwood as affection.  The completely dysfunctional part gins up a dubious "conflict" between Sherwood's grandiose designs and Lynn's... well, Lynn's apparently laser-focused desire to return to America for a life of domestic boredom with him, I guess, which is awfully deflating and kind of misogynistic, given that she's a young artist who presumably had some sort of passion for her art, even if we're never invited to see the slightest indication of it.

That stinks, but I regret there's no way to criticize the very blatant problems that Fashions has without making Fashions sound worse than it actually is.  Structurally, that screenplay might be a disaster—structurally, practically the only thing it even gets right is setting up the Berkeley number—but, on a line-to-line basis, it's chock full of snappy, funny screwball quipping, and even on a scene-to-scene basis, the constant, distracted hopping from harebrained scheme to harebrained scheme manages an impressive sensation of desperate Depression-era hustling, while always maintaining that hustling as the stuff of brisk, enjoyable comedy.  It's the illusion of functionality more than actual functionality, but the illusion is sufficient.  (Dieterle manages a few wry visual gags, particularly a cut from a chorine's gams to a pair of ostrich legs, but mostly the director seems to have been around to ensure the camera was on, and even then he's not necessarily great: Fashions gives off the very odd vibe of a movie that gets more expensive as it goes along, with a lot of time spent early on in underbuilt deco-style soundstage "offices," and with a distractingly arid soundscape even for a movie from 1934—pretty much nothing but lines of dialogue and silence—and while it's an impoverishment that does reflect the film's story, there's no damn way I'm crediting it as intentional.)  Even so, worse movies have been made with more, and Powell is at least charismatic as his warm-hearted bullshitter.

Meanwhile, the one figure that Fashions probably was pretty important for seems to have had a tremendous time exploiting the blank check that its premise offered him.  This was Australian expat, Cary Grant boyfriend, and soon-to-be-topflight costume designer Orry George Kelly—by this point already working as "Orry-Kelly," so he'd sound, er, European? institutional? either one annoys me—and, whatever else Fashions does or doesn't do, it accomplishes a whole hell of a lot of early-30s couture in sleek black-and-white, from absurd gowns to smart suits (for men and for women; Davis didn't like her clothes in this movie, almost as much as she didn't like the platinum blonde wig they stuck her in, but she carries both off well).  Ultimately, Orry-Kelly finds his way to the kind of costumes you'd never see anywhere but in a fashion designer's fever dream, including several based on historical portraiture, such as a gown based explicitly upon that painting of Cardinal Richelieu.  Needless to say, Orry-Kelly had a ball with the ostrich plumage.


Which brings us to the main attraction, the Berkeley, and it's fantastic Berkeley, presented as the climax of Sherwood and Baroque's whatever-it-was-supposed-to-be (we only see the end of it, and by "it," I naturally mean "a Berkeley fantasy sequence that has no obvious diegetic connection to the events on the stage, or even the stated reasons for putting on the show").  So, as Mabel sings Sammy Fain and Irving Kahal's "Spin a Little Web of Dreams" (another pleasant but undistinguished piece of 1930s pop, sung with such overriding vocal affectation that its lyrics are almost wholly unintelligible), a playlet unfolds next to her on stage, involving a young blonde woman in a sweatshop combing ostrich feathers.  Exhausted, she rests her head on the bed of feathers, whereupon we are transported out of stagebound reality altogether.

The first place we visit is a music room fit for the gods, where golden women play bejeweled harps made out of other women, an astonishing and bizarre piece of surrealist production design that I wish Berkeley had let us soak in for a little longer than he does.  This dissolves into a pre-Code sexual wonderland of women in blonde wigs much cheaper than Davis's, and barely covered otherwise by a combination of fancy lingerie and feathered fans.  This gives us a heavenly five minute meditation on all the possibilities Berkeley could find, in his customary style, for feathers, curvilinear set design, barely-differentiated grayscales, and objectification, which works out outstandingly well.  (If it's not the most genuinely erotic thing in his oeuvre—it's never jokey like Berkeley numbers usually are about their sexiness—then it's at least the most erotic so far.)  The bodies and plumage create a vision of textured whiteness, with feminine figures emerging from abstract cloudlike masses of feathers, moving hypnotically in rhythm with the soothing song, and finding various geometric arrangements, including an endless undulating wave of fans, and a kaleidoscopic pattern that presents itself as a blooming white flower; the sequence finally concludes with the riverboat of Venus, which, like the harps, is also partially constructed of blonde women.

There's probably some sort of objection one could have with this, but I'm not the one to make it; I'm content to accept that Berkeley's goal was to celebrate black-and-white cinematography and chorus girls' athletic butts, and, on both counts, he outdid himself.  It certainly elevates a film that would've merely been an acceptable diversion with an iffy third act, and while there's no question that Fashions of 1934 would've benefited from more Berkeley and a role that Davis didn't feel embarrassed playing, it's equally true that it should be remembered a little more fondly, and a little more frequently, than seems to be the case.

Score: 7/10

*Albeit far from the most obscure, and I've even skipped his fourth 1933 musical, Roman Scandals, which he did for Goldwyn.

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