Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Busby Berkeley: Manhattan babies don't sleep tight


Directed by Busby Berkeley
Written by Robert Lord, Manuel Seff, and Peter Milne

Spoiler alert: moderate

There is a tendency with films containing the choreography of Busby Berkley to overlook their actual, credited directors.  This is a natural tendency, because, after all, nobody today is watching even the funniest, sweetest Busby Berkeley movie for its comedy or its romance, and I'm not sure anybody did then, either.  Now, it's an unfair tendencythere are very real distinctions to be made in the quality of the direction on the narrative phases of Berkeley's movies, and frankly it's made a big difference every single time.  That's why the extreme form of the tendencyto basically just sit back with the Berkeley numbers and ignore the rest as immaterialgrates on me so terribly, because your evaluation of two-thirds of a movie's footage probably ought to have some bearing on whether you think the damn thing is good or not.

But it's also unfair for a different reason: it forgets that Busby Berkeley, "choreographer," was his own director, a filmmaker with his own unit at Warners that operated with substantial independence, at least from the men credited with making his movies, who perhaps could be more aptly-described as his co-directors.  (Of course, Berkeley's bosses, particularly producer Hal Wallis, exercised some supervision.  And this was wise, given that Berkeley, if left entirely to his own devices, would probably have crafted dance numbers that were massively overbudget, legally obscene, orlikeliest of allboth.)  To some degree, anyway, the title "choreographer" undersells Berkeley's achievements as arguably the best director in Hollywood in the 1930s, whose particular niche allowed him to continue to experiment with the expressive possibilities of cinema as a delivery device for pure image, despite (with no little irony, I suppose) the arrival of sound and all that this meant for practically everybody else in the business.

In a real sense, Berkeley represented the continuation of silent cinema into the sound erafor all that he did "musicals," when those musicals turned toward his segments, all the limitations that sound had imposed fell away.  You don't need an enormous, unwieldy camera soundproofed against its own clacking noise if you're just going to ask your performers to dance to separately-recorded music.  And when your whole deal is bizarre abstraction, you can get a hell of a lot more out of the most absurd fancies of your visual imagination than you could if your first duty, instead, was just to make sure that the studio's contract actors were accurately reading their lines from a script that somebody else wrote over the weekend.

Which brings us to that exciting moment, then, when Busby Berkeley got to direct the whole movie, the first time since 1933's exploitative social issues drama She Had to Say Yes (which no one ever much discusses, except as a footnote, since it's not a Berkeley musical).  In many respects, of course, Gold Diggers of 1935 is more exciting in theory than in actuality: Berkeley was not a god and all the technical and industrial limitations that had accrued to his narrative co-directors in the past fell on him like a ton of bricks, too, so that, for example, there's a musical recitation halfway through the picture that was evidently directed by an automaton programmed for shot/reverse shot (and not necessarily even programmed well), whereupon our choreographer-director's musical feature debut wallows in the most astounding blandness for nearly three minutes.  And there are stretches otherwise, mostly when the screenplay's comedy is at its highest pitch, that are more functional than lyricalwhich is not to say that "directing functional comedy" is easy, and several of Berkeley's co-directors had failed to manage it altogether.  But for the most part, Gold Diggers '35 makes the case for Berkeley as a very good director of narrative film, and the only thing that's really unsuccessful about it is that you can always perceive how his interest fluctuated across the ramshackle story he was given, and even that he might have had some ambitions for it that he couldn't articulate yet.

Yeah: it's hard to shake the feeling that if he'd had time, and more invested collaborators, and if he'd really pushed, Gold Diggers '35 would be remembered as an achievement as revolutionary as 42nd Street had been, rather than simply one of the better comedies to get itself attached to a couple of amazing Berkeley numbers.  As it stands, it actually replicates the "plot-plot-plot-FINALE!" structure of 42nd Street and everything else besides its immediate predecessor in its, ahem, "series," Gold Diggers of 1933, to a degree that's slightly disappointing, considering that the 1933 film's "number-plot-number-plot-FINALE!" structure is so blatantly superior.  Even so, there is the definite sensation that Berkeleyof all peoplewas indeed trying to figure out how to bring his musical and his story together, and for a brief moment of shining possibility, Gold Diggers '35 comes extremely close to transforming right before our eyes into a straight-up integrated musical.  It does not get there!  But the fiddling Berkeley does with the "Berkeley musical" formula brings shocks of life into Gold Diggers '35 in ways that, e.g., Ray Enright's congealed direction on Dames never, ever could.

Or maybe I'm reaching.  Either way, we begin with one of Berkeley's attempts to infuse his comedy with musical spirit, with a splendid little piece of light choreography revolving around the preparations for the summer opening of the Wentworth, where the elite retreat to beat the heat and, also, get grifted by the helots who serve them.

This musicality persists in a superbly edited montage that explains that Gold Diggers '35, like its series precursor, is all about money, and what it takes to get it in an economic hellscape hollowed out by the Great Depression.  The Wentworth's manager, Louis Lampson (Grant Mictchell), having assembled his staff for the season, notes how generous he is that he doesn't pay them, because anyone else in his position would make them pay him in order to get access to the wealthy patrons of the hotel, and thus the exorbitant "honoraria" they'll be receiving. ("Tips," he clarifies to his dumber employees.)  In practice, the system's even crappier than it sounds, and as that montage hammers home (in its frothy, comedic way), even when they do earn those prodigious tips, they're all siphoned off up the chain by a parasitical hierarchy of bosses atop bosses.  Worse than that, when someone like flypaper magnate Matilda Prentiss (Alice Brady) comes to the hotel, the porters can, at best, expect to split a quarter between the five of them.

Well, accompanying the widow Prentiss are her two adult childrenson Humbolt (Frank McMugh) and daughter Ann (Gloria Stuart)brought along, quite explicitly, so she can maintain her domineering control over their lives.  In Humbolt's case, it's to keep him away from the peons constantly trying to marry him.  In Ann's case, it's to push her into marriage, with another guest of the hotel, fellow millionaire T. Mosley Thorpe (Hugh Herbert, portraying a virginal, teetotalling middle-aged dweeb whose sole ambition is to write the definitive history of snuffboxes, and for some reason playing this character as a comic drunk; but for whatever reason it works).  Ann, naturally, is reluctant to contemplate marriage to this non-entityfor his part, he barely seems to be aware that he's "courting" her in the first placeand she wheedles a concession from her mother to have some small measure of fun before she weds.

Ann's fun comes in the form of Dick Curtis (Dick Powell), a medical student paying his way (barely) by serving the Wentworth as a clerk, and when Mrs. Prentiss takes a shine to his clean-cut, Dick Powelly demeanor, he's in no position to say no to $500 in return for showing Ann a good timewithin the bounds of class and decorum, of course, though you can probably guess how this works out.  Still, you'd think Dick's own fiancĂ©e, Arline (Dorothy Dare), would be angry.  But she understands money as well as anyone, and Dick's stint as Ann's gigolo is at least supposed to be spent with enough room for the holy ghost between them.  Meanwhile, a foreign deadbeat, Nicolai Nicoleff (Adolphe Menjou), is on the cusp of getting thrown out of the hotel.  However, Lampson suggests an alternative, by offering Nicoleff's services to Mrs. Prentiss as (nominally? actually?) the greatest theatrical director in the world, and who better to put on the dowager's annual charity show than a man all-but-guaranteed to do it with the kind of massive cost overruns that they can both get fat off of?

This latter plot, into which a clear plurality of the film's runtime finds its way, is, of course, just one more standard-issue excuse for the Berkeley numbers that will end it, though it's possibly a little more self-congratulatory than usual; but like I said, Gold Diggers '35 pokes at the formula without actually overturning it.  It's a fine opportunity for a lot of escalating farce, howeverit even picks up two more conspirators, including the world's greatest set designer, the differently-foreign August Schultz (Joseph Cawthorn), and Thorp's stenographer-turned-sexual-blackmailer, Betty Hawes (Glenda Farrell)and I want to praise it, because it is funny, which is maybe all you can fairly ask of a 30s musical comedy anyhow.  But it's certainly not a tight screenplay, or one with humans in it, and that's slightly annoying, because it probably could be with only slightly more work.  In the meantime, Dick and Ann's romance exists in what practically amounts to an alternate dimension, and a compact dimension, at that: a lot of Gold Diggers '35's script is lumpy and discontinuous, but Dick and Ann's part is practically concluded before it even starts, the pair evidently falling in love roughly thirty seconds after Mrs. Prentiss engages Dick's services as an escort.  Now, they do intersect with the other plot when they're cast in the leads of Nicoleff's show; but it's possible that I didn't actually miss why they were, and the movie simply never says.

The extrinsic answer, obviously, is "Dick Powell is starring in this musical."  Powell is also the center of that aforementioned integrated sequence that feels very much like Berkeley is trying to paper over the gaps in his script, by employing (in the best musical tradition) a song that shows how our couple fall in love.  That doesn't really work out, but it's a great scene anyway: "I'm Going Shopping With You" is a very cute (and rather suggestive) mid-tempo number that bounces around between rhyming dialogue and actual song, and involves an ambitious little dolly shot walk-and-sing around the Wentworth hotel, right before it gets into a sprightly, humorous montage of Dick realizing, with more than a little bemusement, that this chick is in fact a lot hotter than he initially thought, once she starts spending wads and wads of her family's cash.  On the minus side, Powell is likewise the center of that other aforementioned "number" where nothing of interest happens, when he sings "The Words Are In My Heart" at Ann on a boatand I mean, literally nothing about this is interesting.  For starters, Stuart's shy debutante part would've been better played by Ruby Keeler.  Even the song, if you like it for some reason (for it is straight back to pleasantly-boring Warren & Dubin romantic boilerplate for this one), still gets repeated, and when it does, it offers a lot more worth paying attention to.

This first of the film's climactic pair of Berkeley Segments™ begins with Powell once more tenoring at Stuart about love or whatever on a moonlit night in a romantic glade; but we do not stay here any longer than necessary, for with a dissolve we find ourselves looking instead at a diorama of the scene, with tiny little Powell and Stuart figurines, arrayed upon a piano in a strange parlor, where three women in strange costumes continue the song in Powell's stead.  I think this transition gets overlooked, because of the more spectacular elements of the segment, but it's fascinating in its effect, suggesting some sort of transcendent plane of love goddesses, or maybe even Fates.  It emphasizes the mysticism that's incipient in so many of Berkeley's numbers, but had never once been so insisted upon as it is here.

Shortly, we shall find ourselves kicked up to an even more fundamental plane of existencecall it the Piano Zone, the factory floor of musical reality upon which innumerable feminine figures play the song that, as far as we can tell, makes every song (and every romance) possible.  And once again I find it difficult not to reach for superlative-sounding language to describe it, not just the sheer beauty of it, but the magnitude of it, as the pianos themselves begin to dance.  Now: I do understand that in "reality" it's just guys dressed in black moving white "pianos" while the female chorines sit at them and pretend to play, their seats attached to the men's cumbersome "costumes"there's about twelve frames at the start where one of the guy's legs are clearly visible, in factbut in watching it, it's damn near impossible not to believe these pianos are moving on their own, that Berkeley has somehow accomplished some monumental feat of set engineering to move these pianos with the grace and precision of an enormous, interlinked, invisible machine, which of course would be a pretty good metaphor for something akin to God.  There are individual moments here that gave me legitimate physical tingles, and there's something about "The Words" that reaches for genuine profundity in its imagery that even the best of the rest of Berkeley does not.

The next is also an atypically serious example of Berkeley's art, though by no means is it mysticalindeed, it breaks pretty decisively from all his usual bag of tricks.  This is "Lullaby of Broadway," essentially a complete narrative short film unto itself, albeit one that can, with some effort, be plugged thematically into the rest of the movie (or, at least, considered as a companion to it).  It begins with a point of light in a sea of blackover the next few, long moments, the camera will push in to reveal that this is Wini Shaw's head, hovering in the darkness like the narrator in Zardoz, singing what is by some substantial margin Gold Diggers '35's catchiest song.  Her subject is the life of the Broadway baby, the marginal woman at the bottom echelon who's hot enough to catch the attention of someone higher, and young enough to think she's lucky.  It is, for some time, generous in its cynicismit certainly grasps the appeal of a life lived at night, boozy and freneticbut between the faintly sour way the music presents the lyrics, and the not-even-slightly-faint horror with which Berkeley's machinegun montage captures the images, it is very clear something diabolical is bubbling right under the surface.  This girl intends to party herself straight into the grave, and so it's no surprise when something like that "happens" (of course, "Lullaby" isn't the kind of cinema where you describe it by reference to the events of its "plot"), and I prefer to see it more as metaphor than moralizing, considering who's behind "Lullaby's" cameraa man who was already an alcoholic, and within six months of Gold Diggers '35's release, a killer.  If it is moralizing, Berkeley surely should've taken his advice to all the other Broadway babies who'd been given a flash of cash and all the opportunity they needed to damn themselves.

In any event, it's the emotional and visual intensities that it finds that are more important, from the endless series of dangerously canted angles ("Lullaby" is every single shot in debt to the legacy of German Expressionism), to what I assume must be the best (or at least the most) tap dancing ever put on film.  "Lullaby" was one of the few times Berkeley did have to resort to on-set sound recording, and you can hear why: the pounding thunder of over a hundred men and women slamming their shoes against a palatial set in time, as Shaw and an oddly-imperious Powell watch.  On a purely musical level, that extended rhythmic beat of the tap dancers might be the most extraordinary thing Berkeley ever put on film.  Visually, it's very much in the running, once it gives itself over to the infernal dance: the army of tappers is given a frightening rigidity and ominous costumingthe black two-pieces on the women are undeniably sexy creations, but there's a tinge of evil here, not least in the ways it borrows its signifiers from fascismand even as cool as it is, it's built to overpower you, and it absolutely succeeds.

But as I noted up top, we do have to treat with the whole movie.  Happily, Gold Diggers '35 doesn't really leave you wanting; it's awfully clunky, to be sure, but it is never once bad, and mostly it's a modest blast even before getting to the meat of it.  It is, miraculously, never unfunny when it's trying to be, and sometimes it's very funny indeed, particularly in any scene involving Alice Brady leaning into the full live-action cartoon possibilities of her role; moreover, it fully lives up to the Gold Diggers name, by offering a fun fantasy where the rich are all easily-bested idiots, then ending with the kind of harshness that the film prior hasn't in the least prepared you for.  It's a welcome relief coming off of Dames, anyway: leave it to Busby Berkeley, I guess, to direct the Busby Berkeley movie that actually gives a shit about anything besides Busby Berkeley!

Score: 9/10

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