Golly, Judge Bryan Pope thinks this tribute to the musical master and his young and beautiful dames is keen!
"Sawyer, you're going out there a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!"
Pick a Busby Berkeley musical number—any number—and I'll argue that it ranks right up there with Kong scaling the Empire State Building as one of the most iconic of Hollywood images. Even the name "Busby Berkeley" has become an adjective to describe a particular type of dance number, one that marries people, color, and movement to form a breathtaking, ever-changing array of kaleidoscopic images.
This jaw-dropping collection from Warner Bros. is a massive, enormously entertaining celebration of old Hollywood musical extravaganzas, the kind only Berkeley could pull off.
Facts of the Case
The Busby Berkeley Collection contains five musical treasures spread over five discs.
Gold Diggers of 1933
Gold Diggers of 1935
Twenty-five minutes. That's how long it takes for 42nd Street to unveil its first musical number, and even then it's a no-frills piano rehearsal of Harry Warren's gleefully wicked love-as-substance abuse song "You're Getting to be a Habit with Me." That's a lot of dead air time for a film that is regarded, without question, as one of the most influential screen musicals ever created. Come to think of it, it's not until the final 20 minutes that 42nd Street trots out its big musical guns (most notably the epic title number, with its surprisingly grim undertones). Interesting, then, how it's those last 20 minutes that stick with movie lovers the most.
Ah, the power of a Busby Berkeley number. This splendid, sprawling collection-another top-drawer offering from Warner Bros.-is a dazzling tribute to a master artist who reveled in head-spinning visual trickery, recasting his performers as geometry. Berkeley had no formal training as a choreographer (look past the razzle dazzle of those grand numbers and you'll find very little actual dancing), but he made up for in precision and a knack for meticulous organization what he lacked in dancing know-how. And if that sounds like a frivolous waste of his military academy training, think again.
Berkeley's brand of entertainment-impossibly huge sets populated by armies of lovely, dumpling-like beauties-served Americans by rallying them through a depression. Gold Diggers of 1933, which wins my vote as the best of the bunch, kicks off with Ginger Rogers and a company of coin-adorned girls barreling through "We're in the Money," Warren's catchy ditty that morphs into a desperate battlecry against the nation's financial woes. Never mind that the illusion of prosperity dissolves within the movie's first ten minutes.
The films highlighted in this collection never stray far from the let's-put-on-a-Broadway-show blueprint, and part of the fun is pinpointing the exact moment when the film realizes that a stage is too small a venue to house Berkeley's extraordinary vision. You can almost hear Berkeley's imagination pop open and fill the screen with his legendary overhead shots and other wonders. The kaleidoscopic images are still way cool even today, but for sheer how-did-they-do-that amazement, nothing tops Footlight Parade's bevy of bathing nymphs plunging into a magnificent world of pools, fountains, waterfalls and slides to perform an intricate water ballet. The snake swim, with its continuous streams of symmetrical S curves, will have you scratching your head for days wondering how they ever pulled it off.
Although Footlight Parade's saucy "Honeymoon Hotel" dabbles in goofy, suggested eroticism, nothing matches the playfully sexy "Pettin' in the Park," from Gold Diggers of 1933. Drenched in innuendo (the naughty can-opener gag that brings down the curtain must have raised a few eyebrows) and coupled with a creepy-weird subplot involving a young Billy Barty as a roller-skating baby with mischief on his mind, "Pettin' in the Park" established Berkeley as one bad boy indeed.
1933's most stunning number, though, is the dreamy "Shadow Waltz," with its elegant fantasia of lovely, neon-lit violinists whirling across an elevated set that dips and flows like a piece of stray ribbon. In stark contrast is the closing number, the somber march "Remember My Forgotten Man," performed by Joan Blondell.
Dames has and always will be a fan favorite, and it's not hard to see why. "I Only Have Eyes for You," staged as a sort of valentine to Keeler, has been mimicked in films ever since (check out Joe Dante's hilarious parody in Gremlins 2), and the unbelievable "Dames," which pays tribute to feminine sexuality while managing to be horribly sexist ("Dames are temporary flames to you. Dames, you don't recall their names, do you?"), still amazes and forces us guys to fall in love all over again.
By the time Gold Diggers of 1935 arrived, the novelty of Berkeley's work had begun wearing thin, but at least it gave us another Warren classic, "Lullaby of Broadway" (not to mention an early performance by Titanic's Gloria Stuart).
If you're wondering why I haven't dipped too much into discussions about plot, you obviously haven't seen one of Berkeley's films. The stories are cute and serviceable, with 42nd Street alone in taking itself somewhat seriously, but they're also far too lightweight to stand a chance against Berkeley's extraordinary showpieces, which typically get tacked onto the end. And like a traveling theater company, you can count on seeing many of the same stars recycled for each subsequent film. It's rather comforting to know you're gonna cozy up to old friends Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Joan Blondell, Guy Kibbee, Ned Sparks, Hugh Herbert and Frank McHugh.
Once again, Warner Bros. proves to be the cineaste's best friend when it comes to showcasing the classics. The Busby Berkeley Collection is a celebration not only of one of old Hollywood's greatest dreamers, but of old Hollywood itself. The films themselves look and sound spiffy, as expected, with clean transfers that preserve each film's gorgeous black-and-white cinematography and Dolby mono audio tracks that have been cleaned up to ensure you don't miss a single word or note. But it's the huge assortment of vintage extras that really make this package sing.
But first things first. The collection contains five new featurettes: 42nd Street: From Book to Stage to Screen, Gold Diggers: FDR's New Deal…Broadway Bound, Footlight Parade: Music for the Decades, Busby Berkeley's Kaleidoscopic Eyes, and (buz be bur kle) n. A Study in Style. Clocking in at just over 11 minutes each and featuring insights from an eclectic mix of Hollywood insiders (sure, film historian John Kenrick and author Martin Rubin are logical choices, but John Landis and the admittedly fabulous John Waters?), the programs touch on every title in this collection, but focus largely on Berkeley himself. Viewed together, the repetition becomes apparent, but the myriad of talking heads do make some amusing, if not exactly revelatory, observations (contrary to what most cineastes think, Berkeley was not the director on most of his movies).
Next up are the 11 vintage live-action shorts: Harry Warren: America's Foremost Composer, which is nothing more than Warren performing at a piano; the generic Hollywood publicity piece A Trip Through a Hollywood Studio; The 42nd Street Special, another publicity piece, but this one about the titular train that transported celebrities (including a strikingly young Bette Davis) to Washington D.C. for F.D.R.'s inauguration; Seasoned Greetings, an amusing musical comedy sketch with a 10-year-old Sammy Davis Jr.; And She Learned About Dames, a hilariously dated fluff piece about a woman who is crowned "Ms. Complexion" in a magazine contest and wins a tour through the set of Dames; Good Morning, Eve, a Technicolor romp that sends Adam and Eve away from their garden and on a tour through history; and Double Exposure, starring a young Bob Hope. The package also includes four performance-based shorts: Rambling 'Round Radio Row #2Melody Master: Don Redman and His OrchestraRambling 'Round Radio Row #8, and Vaudeville Reel #1.
If your craving for shorts still isn't sated, check out the lineup of nine vintage cartoons: I've Got to Sing a Torch Song, Pettin' in the Park, We're in the Money, Honeymoon Hotel, Young and Healthy, I Only Have Eyes for You, Those Beautiful Dames, Gold Diggers of '49, and Shuffle Off to Buffalo. Obviously, these were created to capitalize on Warren's famous tunes, although the visuals are often at odds with the lyrics (a cottage full of toys inexplicably springs to life to sing "Those Beautiful Dames" for a poor moppet). Rather than being entertaining, the cartoons serve primarily as a historical curiosity. In fact, most are preceded by a disclaimer acknowledging the negative stereotypes that some viewers may find offensive, and some may make you blush in embarrassment (the Jewish and black babies in Shuffle Off to Buffalo were especially wince-inducing). Still, kudos to Warner Bros. for respecting film buffs enough to make these available.
Rounding out the first five discs are a Hollywood newsreel, notes on Busby Berkeley, notes on the 1980 Broadway adaptation of 42nd Street, theatrical trailers, and two "Direct From Hollywood" radio promos.
In case there's any question remaining regarding who is the real star of this package, the set also includes a bonus disc, the lazily but accurately titled The Busby Berkeley Disc. Nothing more than a parade of Berkeley's greatest hits, this compilation is guaranteed to send even the most hard-nosed cineastes over the moon. You'll find every musical setpiece from this collection neatly contained on one disc. You'll also find a few numbers from films not featured with this collection, including Fashions of 1934, Wonder Bar, Gold Diggers of 1937, and In Caliente (with its "The Lady in Red" sizzling thanks to Wini Shaw). That's 21 complete Busby Berkeley numbers clocking in at a whopping 163 minutes, and the quality of the clips matches that of the films on the other discs. The numbers are neatly sorted by film title with a "Play All" option provided within each grouping as well as for the entire disc. A fabulous bonus, and one that I suspect will get more playtime than the films themselves.
It will take you days to work your way through this fine package, but you'll be smiling the entire time. Keep up the fantastic work, Warner Bros. You've just given us what will undoubtedly be one of the year's best releases.
This judge is at a loss as to why the defendant was brought before the bench in the first place. All charges dropped.
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Scales of Justice, 42nd Street
Perp Profile, 42nd Street
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, 42nd Street
• Harry Warren: America's Foremost Composer (vintage featurette)
Scales of Justice, Footlight Parade
Perp Profile, Footlight Parade
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Footlight Parade
• Footlight Parade: Music for the Decades (featurette)
Scales of Justice, Gold Diggers Of 1933
Perp Profile, Gold Diggers Of 1933
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Gold Diggers Of 1933
• 42nd Street: From Book to Stage to Screen (featurette)
Scales of Justice, Dames
Perp Profile, Dames
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Dames
• Busby Berkeley's Kaleidoscopic Eyes (featurette)
Scales of Justice, Gold Diggers Of 1935
Perp Profile, Gold Diggers Of 1935
Studio: Warner Bros.
Distinguishing Marks, Gold Diggers Of 1935
• (buz be bur kle) n. A Study in Style (featurette)
Review content copyright © 2006 Bryan Pope; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.