Busby Berkeley

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?

Gold Diggers of 1933: The Ultimate Early 1930s Film

Gold Diggers of 1933 Ginger RogersWhen a movie is described as being a product its time, it’s often meant in a sort of apologetic way.  It’s the sort of thing I say about creaky early talkies like The Broadway Melody or The Hollywood Revue of 1929.  It’s basically a nicer way of saying, “Look, I know this isn’t particularly good by today’s standards, but you’ve gotta remember…”

However, a movie being a product of its time isn’t necessarily a one-way ticket to being dubbed a cinematic fossil just a few years down the road.  Movies such as Saturday Night Fever and Since You Went Away completely embraced the eras they were made in but are still loved by audiences today.  Gold Diggers of 1933 is another product of its time that remains as entertaining as it was eighty-one years ago.

Trixie Lorraine: “Isn’t there going to be any comedy in the show?

Barney Hopkins: “Oh, plenty!  The gay side, the hard-boiled side, the cynical and funny side of the Depression!  I’ll make ‘em laugh at you starving to death, honey!”

Gold Diggers of 1933 is a perfect reflection of so many things that were happening in the film industry at the time.  First and foremost, it dealt with the Great Depression during the Great Depression.  Even though times were tough, audiences were still flocking to movie theaters for a little bit of cheap escapism.  Gold Diggers of 1933 managed to directly address the Depression while still offering the fun and escapist qualities audiences craved.  When the character Barney Hopkins declares the show he’s producing is going to be a comedy about the Depression, it’s more like a mission statement for the movie because that’s exactly what it ends up being — funny but with a hard-boiled side.

Gold Diggers of 1933

When we first meet the main characters, they’re all struggling just like everybody else was at the time.  They lose their jobs in the first scene; they have to steal milk and avoid the landlady because they can’t pay their rent.  When they find out a new show being produced, the ladies play a game to decide which one of them goes to find out about it because they don’t have enough nice clothes for everyone to go.  Even though the name of the movie has the phrase “gold diggers” in it, the main characters aren’t heartless mantraps; they’re very likable characters who are mistakenly stereotyped as gold diggers.  It’s not hard to want these characters to come out on top.

The film’s escapist elements come from the extravagant Busby Berkeley musical numbers.  The musical numbers have nothing to do with the overall story of the movie, but they’re the most memorable scenes of the movie.  These numbers could never be done on a real stage, but it sure is fun to suspend disbelief and just enjoy them for what they are.  The opening number, “We’re in the Money,” is fun to watch although it sets an ironic tone for the movie.  “The Shadow Waltz” is a moment of pure whimsy.

Gold Diggers of 1933 Forgotten Man

Because Gold Diggers of 1933 was made in the pre-code era, it gets away with being more risqué and political than many people think of older films as being. “Pettin’ in the Park” is risqué comedy for risqué comedy’s sake.  For a movie that offers so much escapism, it ends on a very political and haunting note with the “Remember My Forgotten Man” number.  “Remember My Forgotten Man” is a scathing indictment of the way World War I veterans were being treated at the time.  Both gritty and extravagant, it’s a stunning finale.

42nd Street (1933)

42nd Street 1933When word gets out that producers Jones and Barry are putting on a new show, it’s the talk of the theater world.  Since the nation is in the midst of the Great Depression, a lot of people are depending on this show; everyone from electricians and set builders to chorus girls and the show’s director need it to be a hit.  Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) agrees to direct the show despite his doctor’s advice.  Julian has recently suffered a nervous breakdown and was advised to find a less stressful profession.  But Julian can’t afford to retire, so he needs it to be a hit so he can afford to get out of the business.

One person who is living comfortably, despite the Depression, is Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels).  She’s the girlfriend of Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee), the show’s financial backer, which means she has no problem securing a position as the show’s leading lady. Other ladies clamor for the chance to be in the chorus, including Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler), who is new to the theater world.  But Peggy has no problem fitting in and quickly makes friends with fellow chorines Annie (Ginger Rogers) and Lorraine (Una Merkel) and catches the eye of Billy Lawler (Dick Powell).

After rehearsals get underway, the producers find out that Dorothy has been seeing her former vaudeville partner Pat Denning (George Brent) on the side.  Not wanting to endanger the show, they try to put a stop to it.  But just before the show is set to open, Abner finds out about Dorothy’s two-timing, they get into a fight, and he wants her out of the show.  The producers protest, but when Dorothy injures her ankle, they have no choice but to re-cast the lead.  Abner wants Annie to take the lead, but she knows she isn’t up to the task.  However, she believes Peggy is.

When 42nd Street was released in 1933, the concept of the backstage musical had already been done before in movies like The Broadway Melody.  But when 42nd Street came along, it not only became the ultimate backstage musical, it revolutionized the entire genre of musicals.  Everyone wanted to mimic Busby Berkley’s style of choreography.  But unlike many early musicals, 42nd Street can hardly be described as creaky or dull.  Its slick production values, catchy songs, memorable choreography, and witty banter keep it fresh even after eighty years.

What’s on TCM: May 2013

Humphrey Bogart in High SierraHappy May, everyone!

Rather than have just one Star of the Month for may, there will actually be several.  Every Tuesday night this month, TCM will be spotlighting some of cinema’s greatest tough guys, so that includes people like Bogart, Cagney, McQueen, and Robinson, just to name a few.

Friday Night Spotlight will be back with Illeana Douglas as the guest co-host.  Illeana has chosen the theme of “Second Looks.”  All of the movies she’s chosen weren’t particularly well-received when they were first released, but she thinks they’re deserving of a second chance.  I agree with several of her selections and since I’m all about those hidden gems, I’m really looking forward to seeing some of her other choices.

If you’re a Harold Lloyd fan, mark May 23rd on your calendar because TCM will be playing his feature movies and short films all night long, the vast majority of which have never been shown on TCM before.

(more…)

Bird of Paradise (1932)

While sailing on a yacht in the South Seas, Johnny Baker (Joel McCrea) and his friends meet a bunch of natives while sailing close to their island.  But when Johnny sees a shark swimming nearby, he tries to catch it, and is pulled overboard.  Luckily for him, a beautiful native girl named Luana (Dolores del Rio) dives in to save him.  There is an immediate attraction between them, but when Johnny and his friends spend an evening with the natives, he’s told that she’s supposed to marry a prince on a nearby island.

That doesn’t stop Johnny from pursing her, though, and she feels the same way toward him.  They sneak away to see each other during the night, but when Luana’s father finds out what’s going on, he forces her to marry that prince immediately.  When Johnny finds out what’s happening, he crashes the wedding and whisks her away to a nearby island.  They build some shelter and spend weeks basking in their own, private tropical paradise.

Even though they are blissfully happy on the island, Johnny would like to bring Luana home with him.  Before he can do that, though, the volcano Pele begins to erupt and Luana knows that she will soon have to be sacrificed to appease the volcano god.  Sure enough, it isn’t long before Luana is dragged back to her island for the sacrifice.  Johnny follows, but he’s captured and is set to be sacrificed alongside Luana.  Johnny’s friends arrive to rescue them just in the nick of time.  He still wants Luana to come home with him, but Luana believes it would be best if she allowed herself to be sacrificed to the volcano god.

Bird of Paradise is likeable, but it just didn’t grab my attention enough for me to get terribly invested in it.  However, it’s a very beautifully shot movie.  Even though it’s filmed in black and white so we don’t get to see any lush, tropical colors, King Vidor really captured the essence of this tropical paradise.  There’s one scene where Luana and Johnny go swimming together and Luana isn’t wearing anything.  At first, I thought it was very reminiscent of the infamous swimming scene from Tarzan and His Mate, but then I realized that Bird of Paradise actually pre-dates Tarzan and His Mate by two years.

Joel McCrea and Dolores del Rio are both certainly fun to watch, but the movie also has a some other noteworthy names working behind the scenes.  Bird of Paradise has the distinction of being the first sound film to have a full symphonic musical score, which was created by none other than Max Steiner.  Busby Berkeley, who was still an up-and-coming choreographer at the time, choreographed the film’s jungle dance scenes.  Less than a year after working on Bird of Paradise, Berkeley would move on to bigger and better things when he went to Warner Brothers and made 42nd Street.

She Had to Say Yes (1933)

In the midst of the Great Depression, companies are doing whatever they have to to keep any business they can get and things are no different for Sol Glass’ (Ferdinand Gottschalk) clothing company.  When buyers come in from out of town, he had been arranging for call girls to take them out on dates, but the buyers were getting tired of being set up with gold diggers, so he decides to start setting the buyers up with the company’s stenographers instead.

Florence Denny (Loretta Young) is one of Sol’s stenographers, but she’s engaged to salesman Tommy Nelson (Regis Toomey) and Tommy doesn’t want her going out on dates. Florence agrees to stay out of it, but when fellow stenographer Birdie (Suzanne Kilborn) gets sick before she’s supposed to go out with Danny Drew (Lyle Talbot), Tommy agrees to let Florence fill in. Florence and Danny get along very well, but when Danny has too much to drink and gets a little too forward with her, she leaves, not wanting to be unfaithful to Tommy.

However, Tommy isn’t as faithful to Florence as she is to him.  He’s been seeing Bridie on the side, but after she finds out about it, Danny comes by to apologize for his behavior and takes her out on a real date. They continue to see each other and while they’re having dinner one night, she steps in to help Danny seal a major business deal with Luther Haines (Hugh Herbert).  But when Luther complains about Florence’s high pressure tactics, he makes Danny think that Florence has been living in sin with Tommy.

Danny is disappointed to think that Florence isn’t as virtuous as he thought she was. He brings her out to his friend’s empty house out in the country and tries to rape her, but doesn’t have it in him to actually go through with it. Unbeknownst to them, Tommy had followed them out and when Florence runs to him, Danny overhears Tommy accuse her of prostituting herself. Danny realizes that Florence was telling the truth after all and reams Tommy out for accusing her of such things.

On the whole, She Had to Say Yes is only a so-so movie.  The story has issues (who says stenographers can’t be gold diggers?) and despite the fact that Busby Berkeley was a co-director (his directorial debut, actually), it is surprisingly devoid of visual style. But if you like pre-codes, this is easily one of the wildest ones you’re apt to find.  It ranks up there with Baby Face, Red Headed Woman, The Story of Temple Drake, and Three on a Match.  Loretta Young is pretty good in it, but its pre-code appeal is definitely the movie’s strongest selling point. Even if you’re familiar with pre-codes, She Had to Say Yes still manages to be pretty shocking.

Fashions of 1934

What do you do when the investment firm you own goes under?  Why, naturally you decide to get into the fashion game!  Well, at least that’s what Sherwood Nash (William Powell) does.  When he meets aspiring fashion designer Lynn Mason (Bette Davis), Sherwood, Lynn, and Sherwood’s partner Snap (Frank McHugh) decide to start making copies of designs by famous designers and selling them to discount shops for a fraction of the cost.  When the owners of shops that sell the real deals find out about this, they want to put a stop to it, but Nash smooth talks them into selling his knock-offs, too.  Not only that, he gets them to send them to Paris to better copy the designs.

To get in to see the designs, Lynn pretends to be interested in buying something while Snap stealthily takes pictures.  But when their film gets confiscated, they have to come up with another plan.  By pure chance, they find out that the famous designer Oscar Baroque (Reginald Owen) turns to old costume design books for inspiration.  So they get some costume design books and let Lynn design some pieces based on what she finds in the books, then forge famous designers’ signatures to them.  The stores back in New York buy the designs up like hotcakes, but Sherwood can’t resist an opportunity to make money.  When he meets a man with an abundance of ostrich feathers, he gets an idea.  He buys up the feathers and goes to see Baroque’s fiancée Grand Duchess Alix (Verree Teasdale).  He knows Alix is no Grand Duchess, she’s really just Mabel from Hoboken.

Since Alix doesn’t want Sherwood to tell Baroque who she really is, he blackmails her into convincing Baroque to design a musical show full of ostrich feathered clothes that Alix could star in.  He agrees and the show is a big success, so then he decides to open his own boutique.  But Lynn is getting fed up with Sherwood’s schemes.  Also, she’s fallen in love with him and is jealous of all the attention he’s giving Alix.  Even though her designs are once again hugely popular at the boutique, the idea of running off with Jimmy the piano player sounds pretty appealing to Lynn.  But by now, Baroque has found out about the forged designs and calls the police on Sherwood.  Sherwood gets arrested, but he has one more trick up his sleeve to get out of jail, get Baroque to buy the boutique from him, and get Lynn.

If I had a rating system, I’d give Fashions of 1934 2.5 out of 4 stars.  William Powell is pretty good in it, but poor Bette Davis is woefully out of place.  It’s pretty well-known that Warner Brothers really didn’t know what to do with Bette Davis when she first started working for them.  She wasn’t a glamour girl, but Warner’s insisted on trying to make her into one and this was their biggest attempt to shoehorn into that type.  She had blonde hair and was decked out in all sorts of fancy Orry-Kelly gowns, it was so not her style.  At least in movies like 20,000 Years in Sing Sing, even though they tried to make her somewhat glamorous, her part still had some grit to it.  There’s nothing gritty or raw about Fashions of 1934.  It’s a fun and entertaining little movie, but think of it as a William Powell movie more than anything else.  Bette isn’t outstanding here and although Busby Berkeley was involved, there’s only one musical number.  But at least he made the most of his one number, Spin a Little Web of Dreams is a really beautiful scene.  And if you’re interested in costume design, there’s a lot to appreciate here.