Saturday, November 04, 2006

More Busby Berkeley

You know, when I was a younger movie-musical buff, I had kind of a snobbish attitude to Busby Berkeley. I thought of him as kind of a one-trick pony -- put a bunch of chorus girls on an enormous stage with some bizarre gimmick like neon violins or giant rocking chairs -- and was over-conscious of the fact that he wasn't a very good choreographer (he couldn't dance all that well himself, and his choreography tended to consist of having people do the same step over and over). I thought of him as kind of a camp icon rather than a genius.

Now I am older, and I am wiser, and I have the Busby Berkeley Collection on DVD, and I know I was wrong: Berkeley really was a genius. For one thing I've come to realize just what an incredible imagination the guy had, what an ability to make art out of visual ideas that no one else would try; "The Shadow Waltz" may sound kind of goofy in description, but when you see the lights go down and reveal the line of glowing violins, it's magical. I've also come to better appreciate his technical sophistication; his use of the camera and of special effects was beyond a lot of directors today, never mind in 1933. And I've come to appreciate his outlandish sense of humor, the fact that he's being intentionally funny a lot of the time. And of course I appreciate that he had the good sense to work with Harry Warren and Al Dubin and get great work out of them.

(An aside: the only studio for which Harry Warren didn't do great work, oddly enough, was MGM; he gave them one hit, "On the Atcheson, Topeka and the Santa Fe," but most of Warren's songs for Arthur Freed musicals are not up to his usual standards before and after his stint at MGM. I suspect this might have had something to do with Freed's generally less-than-optimal taste in songs; his biggest flaw as a producer of musicals was that he often picked songs that were pleasant but bland.)

Here are two Berkeley numbers from his WB prime, both to songs by Warren and Dubin. "Pettin' in the Park" from Gold Diggers of 1933, with Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, cops on roller-skates, women in iron dresses, and Berkeley's favorite horny midget, Billy Barty:

And from Gold Diggers of 1937, "All's Fair in Love and War," with Dick Powell and Joan Blondell leading opposing armies of guys and gals:

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