A Tribute to “The Shadow Waltz” from Gold Diggers of 1933

Shadow Waltz Gold Diggers of 1933

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Busby Berkeley musical numbers.  “42nd Street,” “We’re in the Money,” “By a Waterfall,” “Lullaby of Broadway,” I just can’t tear myself away from the TV if one of his numbers is playing.  Picking just one to call my favorite is definitely a challenge, but “The Shadow Waltz” from Gold Diggers of 1933 is certainly very close to the top of the list.

I’ve heard people say that all Busby Berkeley had to do for inspiration is look into a kaleidoscope, but I think that really does a disservice to Busby Berkeley’s creativity.  A musical number like “The Shadow Waltz” would have required a lot more thought than that.  And to be able to translate that vision into what we see on screen would have required a great deal of creativity, precision, and persistence, not just from Busby, but from the dancers as well.

Shadow Waltz Skirt Gold Diggers of 1933One thing that sets “The Shadow Waltz” apart from other Busby Berkeley musical numbers is how heavily it relies on the movement of the skirts worn by the chorus girls.  These aren’t skirts that were designed to be particularly pretty or fashionable, their main purpose is to move in a very specific way.  If one person’s skirt didn’t spin just right or got caught on something, the whole shot wouldn’t look right and they’d have to do another take. There’s even a couple moments when two circles of dancers move back and forth between each other, their skirts sort of meshing together as they pass.  It must have taken a lot of practice to get those skirts to move between each other like that.

The big thing I love about “The Shadow Waltz” is that it’s fantasy for the sake of fantasy.  This isn’t the kind of musical number that furthers the story or offers any kind of commentary.  “The Shadow Waltz” is supposed to be part of a show taking place on a stage in front of a live audience, but Busby Berkeley seems totally aware of the fact that this number could never actually happen on a stage. Dissolves, sideways shots with mirrors, that bit where all the dancers stand in the shape of a violin and a bow comes out and moves across them, he knows how unbelievable this all is. But he’s trusting the audience to put aside their disbelief and let themselves get lost in the moment and enjoy it for what it is.

The only thing “The Shadow Waltz” was ever meant to be was a few minutes of pure escapism.  Gold Diggers of 1933 was released in the midst of the Great Depression and these are the kind of moments audiences loved. And even though it isn’t 1933 anymore, isn’t it nice to lose yourself in the moment like that every now and then?

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4 comments

  1. Great to see a Busby Berkeley tribute! Nicely written. Keep ‘em coming. The Shadow Waltz is one of his finest works. Not to go way off topic but I got tickets to see “Footlight Parade” out in LA as my family is going on vacation there in June. Needless to say, I’m SO excited. I’m especially excited to watch By a Waterfall on the big screen. It may be my absolute favorite Berkeley musical number.

    1. Sadly this is the last post for Gold Diggers of 1933’s turn as Movie of the Month. Perhaps more Busby Berkeley movies will come in the future though :)

      But Footlight Parade on the big screen should be amazing! I’ve never seen one of his musicals in a theater before, but I can imagine it would be pretty incredible to see “By A Waterfall” in that setting. Have fun!

  2. An excellent choice. Berkeley had the idea for the violin number after seeing a woman play the instrument many years earlier during his Broadway days. In addition to playing the violin, she danced in a circle, and issued a slow, elegant high kick. With Busby Berkeley it’s everything times 100(!) as many chorines “played” their neon violins to the patterns of Buzz’s vision. Notice also that he never forgot that elegant high kick.

    Jeffrey Spivak, author “Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley”

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