When the library asked me if I wanted to pick three of my favorite musical films for their annual “Spring Musicals” series, my first thought was that it was impossible to choose three favorites — not to mention the fact that a few years back, I’d convinced them to run one of the titles, Rouben Mamoulian’s Love Me Tonight (1932) — that would be on such a list. After some deliberation, I decided that instead, I’d pick three musicals that showcased the work of choreographer-turned-filmmaker Busby Berkeley.
The three I chose — Whoopee! (1930), Golddiggers of 1933 (1933) and The Gang’s All Here (1943) — represented different stages of Berkeley’s career. The first is little more than Berkeley repeating and expanding on the kind of thing he’d done in the 1920s on Broadway with another director, Thornton Freeland, handling the directorial chores. The second shows Berkeley in full-bloom as concerns his musical extravaganzas, but still with another director, Mervyn LeRoy, in charge of the non-musical scenes. The third features Berkeley in charge of the entire film. More than that, the films reflect three distinctly different eras — the simple “innocence” of the pre-Depression stage show, the Depression musical, and the war-time musical.
The process, however, got me thinking about the musical film in general and how a great many people absolutely can’t stand the genre. It’s a stance I’ve never understood, maybe because the first movies I responded to that weren’t horror pictures were the “Road” pictures with Bing and Bob and Dotty mixing comedy and songs in a world of studio-created exotica that stood in for South Sea islands, Africa, Alaska, Rio de Janeiro and Hong Kong. None of it seemed strange to me, but you may say that I was young and easily corrupted.
It may also just be that the range of movies offered to us at that time on television included a lot of musicals. Moreover, a lot of movies we encountered from the 1930s that weren’t musicals still thought nothing of suddenly injecting a song. A straightforward romantic comedy like Otto Preminger’s (yes, that Otto Preminger) Danger! Love at Work (1937) would suddenly have a musical number in mid-film and then go back to its original approach. It was this kind of attitude that made the big set piece in Alfred Hitchcock’s Young and Innocent (1937) work. No one went “what the hell?” when a musical number broke out, allowing Hitch to surprise you with the payoff at the end of that still amazing travelling shot.
I’m not, by the bye, putting forth a simple idea that this is necessarilly a generational thing. I know plenty of film fans of my generation who cross themselves and spit at the mere mention of the musical film. The usual excuse for their disdain is that musicals aren’t “realistic.” The irony that more often than not the person putting forth this supposedly damning charge has just finished waxing ecstatic over Lon Chaney, Jr.‘s transformation into a werewolf in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) seems to be lost on them. Of course, many of these same folks adore the Marx Brothers, and never consider that all of their films worthy of the term “a Marx Brothers picture” except Monkey Business (1931) are inescapably musicals.
The simple truth is that sound movies and music have always gone together quite nicely. Even before the movies learned to talk, they knew how to sing. The first uses of sound were for synchronized musical scores (the real idea behind sound films originally) and short films featuring popular singers. With the exception of Al Jolson’s A Plantation Act (1926) the efforts of these popular singers are today apt to make you wonder just who they were popular with, but that’s a separate cultural issue.
The movie generally referrred to as the first sound feature, The Jazz Singer (1927), is a mostly silent movie with a synchronized score (featuring large slabs of Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Overture), a few songs and a smattering of dialogue that legend tells us was started when an overenthusiastic Al Jolson adlibbed, “Wait a minute, wait a minute. You ain’t heard nothin’ yet! Wait a minute, I tell ya, you ain’t heard nothin’! You wanna hear ‘Toot Toot Tootsie?’ All right, hold on, hold on.” It’s a great story — promulgated by Jolie himself — but the fact that the movie cuts to him saying it and that he’s overdubbed when he turns to musical director Lou Silver and adding, “Lou, listen, play ‘Toot Toot Tootsie’ — three choruses, you understand? In the third chorus, I whistle. Now, give it to ‘em hard and heavy,” makes its veracity doubtful. But then Jolson was never one to let the truth get in the way of a good story, especially if the story made him look good.
In a sense the first talkie, then, was a musical. It was a natural progression, since one of the few things a silent movie couldn’t be was a musical. And so with the advent of sound, the movies quickly found themselves with a new genre — and the mathematically unsound advertising slogan, “100% All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing!”
Even as a fan of the genre, I’ll admit this wasn’t inevitably a good thing. The start was clunky and often didn’t make good sense. Why, for example, did Universal make a straight part-talkie version of Show Boat in 1929, but base the film on the novel, not the stage musical, incorporate none of the songs, but present some of them (and not the more famous ones!) in a stagebound prologue? That’s just odd. And there were more than a few questionable artistic choice, few of which survive in the repertory today. (If you ever see Noah Beery, Sr. in blackface singing about his little whip in 1930’s Golden Dawn, you’ll know why.)
One that does survive is The Cocoanuts (1929), which is still shown because it stars the Marx Brothers. As a film, it’s pretty dismal. As a musical, it’s … quaint. “The Monkey Doodle-Do” is a catchy song and the number isn’t badly done, and boy, did somebody (the cameraman or the director) really like looking at the dancing girls’ backsides. But otherwise, it not only suffers from a largely immobile camera, but by following the concept put forth at the time by composer Irving Berlin. Berlin got it into his head that the future of the musical lay in movies with a very few songs — and those few would be repeated. As a result, Oscar Shaw and Mary Eaton perform “When My Dreams Come True” early in the film. Then Harpo plays it on a clarinet and later as a harp solo. The final scene opens with Eaton singing it again, and then the film can’t end without her having another outburst of it. By then, you’re ready to strangle her and slap Berlin.
The interesting thing is that it didn’t take all that long for audiences to have had enough. By 1931 theaters would proudly advertise “This is not a musical” whenever possible. Warner Bros. had bought Cole Porter’s stage show 50 Million Frenchmen, but by the time they filmed it in 1931 — complete with stage star William Gaxton — they made it as a comedy only with Porter’s songs used as background score.
The musical situation and early sound film was soundly satirized in the Moss Hart-George S. Kaufman play Once in a Lifetime, which interestingly (in that it directly satirizes studio head Carl Laemmle) Universal Picures made into a film 1932. (Unfortunately, the film, which is the movie 1952’s Singin’ in the Rain only thinks it is, is almost unknown today.) The whole “backstage musical” genre comes in for abuse. Late in the proceedings playwright Lawrence Vail (Onslow Stevens) refers to a film as “all talking, all singing,” and is interrupted by elocution teacher May Daniels (the divine Aline MacMahon) with, “all rotten,” prompting Vail to remark, “Guess that must be what they mean by a hundred percent.” Try slogging your way through 1929’s Best Picture winning The Broadway Melody sometime and you’ll know of what they speak.
Not all musicals were anathema, of course. The Maurice Chevalier pictures carried on unscathed, for example. On the other hand, Warner Bros., who’d “created talking pictures” (their claim) with Jolson parted company with Jolie after Big Boy (a bizarre recreation of his stage show that found the performer in blackface for the entire film) in 1930. Jolson wouldn’t work in movies again till 1933. But his closest rival, Eddie Cantor, kept right on knocking out a popular picture each year. There’s no denying that the Cantor films were just better, but Ol’ Banjo Eyes had a secret weapon — large production numbers created by Busby Berkeley. It was no surprise then that Berkeley would turn out to be the saviour of the musical film.
Busby Berkeley — and the Warner Bros. — made musicals cool again with 42nd Street in late 1933. The non-musical scenes moved like lightning and the comedy was rude (Ginger Rogers’ character, Anytime Annie, is described as only having said “no” once, “and then she didn’t hear the question”), while the drama was amusingly over-the-top. But the real selling point were Berkeley’s spectacular musical extravaganzas.
Berkeley had done some elaborate stagings before, but 42nd Street outdid them all. Though what he was creating invariably started and ended with a proscenium arch and a curtain, there was never any attempt at creating the illusion that what came in between was actually taking place on a stage, which was probably just as well, because not even the most credulous viewer would buy it. It didn’t matter, because he swept the audience up into the spectacle at hand. He wasn’t so much making musical numbers as he was making short films that fitted into the narrative of the film’s backstage story (though I defy anyone to make sense out of the shows being put on). In one regard, his numbers were the most outrageous fantasies and were totally unrealistic. In another sense, however, the films themselves were realistic — and for those bothered by such things, they rarely had people bursting into song and dance except on the supposed confines of a stage.
42nd Street is shrewdly structured not to give the game away as to what’s in store. We see rehearsals (which — and this remains a constant in the films to follow — have no relation to the show we finally see) and Bebe Daniels gets to sing a straightforward version of “You’re Getting to Be a Habit with Me,” but that’s it until the film hits the 70 minute mark. Here Berkeley gives us “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” which is done in a fashion where the spectacle not only could be done on a stage, but retains that illusion, while being shot cinematically. With “Young and Healthy,” this shifts with Berkeley’s camera becoming the real star of the proceedings as it glides between the spread legs of the chorus girls onto a close-up of Dick Powell and Toby Wing.
The kicker, however, is the title number where Berkeley transitions from Ruby Keeler tap dancing in front of a backdrop to her being atop a taxi and the stage has suddenly become a huge city street set on a soundstage — with cars and cops on horses and a large cross-section of the habitues of 42nd Street. Berkeley stages mini-dramas as his camera glides up and peers into the windows of apartment houses and speakeasies. And it all climaxes with the camera tracking “up” the side of a skyscraper to an apparently gigantic Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler pulling down a fire curtain. There’d never been anything like it and it’s still astonishing today.
The formula was more or less repeated with Golddiggers of 1933, except that the film opened with a Berkeley number — “We’re in the Money” with, among other things, a disconcertingly gigantic close-up of Ginger Rogers singing the song in pig-Latin. The song is used ironically, because the thrust of this film is the Depression. In fact, the performance is interrupted when the costumes and scenery are repossessed. The Depression hangs over the whole film, despite the musical numbers and the upscale surroundings which come to dominate things in typical escapist fashion.
Since expectations were high and there was no surprise attached to the level of spectacle to be expected, Golddiggers delivered one of the set-piece numbers, “Pettin’ in the Park,” early on, before holding out for the plot to hold the film up to the last big numbers, “The Shadow Waltz” and “Remember My Forgotten Man.” Once the curtain goes up on these, there’s zero pretence of reality in terms of what happens, but the second has a different kind of reality. The escapist quality vanishes and Berkeley hits the audience with the reality of the Depression without comedy and without flinching. He may never have done anything finer. Her certainly never did anything as profoundly moving or important.
From there the formula stayed in place through Footlight Parade (1933), Dames (1934) and Wonder Bar (1934), altering slightly when Berkeley became a full-fledged director with Golddiggers of 1935. It was not the best of ideas. The musical numbers were still great. In fact, “Lullaby of Broadway” vies with “Remember My Forgotten Man” as Berkeley’s best. However, Berkeley just wasn’t much of a director when the music stopped. Some of the downturn can be attributed to the increased censorship of the Production Code. The dialogue and situations had to be toned down to conform. References to promiscuity (like Anytime Annie) and drugs (“Say what does he smoke? I’ll use it, too,” says Aline MacMahon at one point in Golddiggers of 1933) were gone. The plot got less grubby and a good deal sillier. But really, a lot of it rests on Berkeley being out of his depth away from the numbers.
It would never be the same and Berkeley worked out his contract making ever less spectacular programmers, finally ending up at MGM, where the studio’s established white-bread approach had no relation to his strengths. The numbers were sometimes big, but they were flat. And when he landed in the realm of Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland musicals, the stars were the stars, not Berkeley’s numbers.
There would be one final outburst of the Berkeley genius, though, in 1943 when he went to 20th Century Fox to make The Gang’s All Here and met up with Technicolor and Carmen Miranda and her fruit-festooned hats. Again, the film suffered from Berkeley handing the straight portions as well as the musical numbers, but those numbers were something else again, especially “The Lady in the Tutti Fruiti Hat,” which was surprisingly sexual and a showcase for pop art before anyone knew what pop art was, and the kaleidoscopic finale, which was psychedelic before anyone knew what that was.
It’s hardly to be wondered that these films became iconic in the 1960s and 1970s when kids were discovering old movies. Yes, there was a built in camp value, but the films themselves were fast and funny, racy and rude, and felt very much counterculture — and the numbers were unlike anything then going.
The only time anything like Berkeley hit the screen again was when Ken Russell made The Boy Friend with Twiggy for MGM in 1971. Russell deliberately emulated Berkeley’s work and expanded on it. Where Berkeley had one elaborate turntable of dancers, Russell would have two — side-by-side. He even evoked the camp value, duplicating situations and dialogue from 42nd Street. The results were both respectful and slyly humorous. Unfortunately — and unlike the Berkeley films — The Boy Friend has never been released on DVD. There was a properly letterboxed laserdisc, which won’t do most folks any good. The VHS release at least letterboxes the musical numbers, but unfortunately not the rest of the film. (Complain to MGM today!)
Those of you who “don’t like musicals,” ought to give Berkeley a try. You might just be surprised. I’ve used Golddiggers of 1933 — usually successfully — as an icebreaker for people who don’t like “old movies,” nevermind musicals. And if you still don’t like musicals, there’s probably just no hope for you. But I would be curious to know why — just don’t tell me it’s because they’re not realistic while you’re on your way out the door to see Iron Man.