Busby Berkeley

The Phynx (1970)

Before I get into this review, let me just say one thing about what I am about to describe: I’m not making any of this up. I’m well aware of how bizarre this is all going to sound, but I promise you, all of this actually does happen.

When several influential world figures such as Colonel Sanders, Butterfly McQueen, Dorothy Lamour, Xavier Cugat, Edgar Bergen (and Charlie McCarthy), and Johnny Weissmuller are kidnapped to Albania, a band of secret agents gets together to find a way to bring them back. This band of secret agents is led by some guy with a box on his head and the band of secret agents includes hookers, the KKK, some guys who work on Madison Avenue, and some boy scouts. One of the boy scouts suggest they ask a computer named MOTHA (Mechanical Oracle That Helps Americans) what she recommends. MOTHA comes up with the elegantly simple and failproof plan of manufacturing a rock band and have them become successful enough be invited to perform in Albania so they can free these world figures.

MOTHA also gives the names of the people she has chosen to be in this fake rock band, which she has decided will be named The Phynx. Once they’ve all been officially recruited, they start training to be rock stars. Naturally, they end up being a huge success in America and in the rest of the world. Meanwhile, other world figures like Joe Louis, Busby Berkeley (and the original Gold Diggers), Maureen O’Sullivan, Patty Andrews, and Pat O’Brien have also gone missing. Luckily, by then, the band has gotten successful enough for the Albanian Minister of Culture to want them to perform at their national flower day event.

Once in Albania, the band sneaks into a castle where an Albanian leader and his wife, played by Joan Blondell, are keeping all these world figures. They’re also treating Colonel Sanders like a servant. It turns out they kidnap these stars because Joan Blondell’s character is American and misses American culture, so they bring it to Albania. In addition to all the stars already mentioned, they’ve also kidnapped George Jessel, Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall, Ruby Keeler, Cass Dailey, Rudy Vallee, the Lone Ranger and Tonto, just to name a few.

The Phynx decides to play a song for all the stars in hopes of inspiring all the stars to return to America. The plan is a success and the stars are moved by this song. First, George Jessel says they should leave and Butterfly McQueen seconds the idea. But how will they get out? Huntz Hall suggests they all sneak out by hiding in carts full of radishes and I guess nobody else had any other ideas, so they went with it, leading to a moment where Johnny Weissmuller and Maureen O’Sullivan reprise their famous “Me Tarzan, Me Jane” lines in a radish cart. The plan is a success and all these influential figures return to America!

…No, really, I did not make any of this up. This actually is what happens in The Phynx. I have absolutely no explanation as to why this movie was ever made. I have no idea why all these people agreed to be in this movie. (In addition to all the kidnapped stars, people like Richard Pryor, Dick Clark, and Ed Sullivan all make cameos. Why? I don’t know.) It’s one of the most completely incomprehensible movies I’ve ever seen, but the fact that it exists at all absolutely delights me.

The Phynx didn’t have much of a release back in 1970 (now that, I can understand) and was never officially released on home video until Warner Archive released it on DVD a few years back. It’s kind of dull in the beginning, but if you stick with it to the end, it goes completely and totally off the rails with this cavalcade of movie stars and other celebrities. Some of the stars make total sense to have together like Maureen O’Sullivan and Johnny Weissmuller; Pat O’Brien, Leo Gorcey, and Huntz Hall; and Busby Berkeley, Ruby Keeler, and Joan Blondell (alas, there were no scenes where Berkeley, Blondell, and Keeler actually interact with each other). But somehow, it all seems so incredibly thrown together and random. As a fan of so many of these stars, I loved getting to see them all together, even if it was in such a nonsense movie. If nothing else, I was excited to see that Ultra Violet makes an appearance in this because it means The Phynx is a movie that appeals to my interests in Busby Berkeley musicals and Andy Warhol’s factory scene. Because, really, how often do I get to combine those interests?

I’m just going to leave you with a few screencaps of my favorite moments from this movie, if for no other reason than to prove that these things actually happened. This is definitely a movie that needs to be seen to be believed.

The Phynx Leader Box Guy

The leader of the band of secret agents.

Joan Blondell Colonel Sanders The Phynx

Joan Blondell with Colonel Sanders, which is my new favorite picture.

Joe Louis Johnny Weissmuller Colonel Sanders The Phynx

Joe Louis and Johnny Weissmuller looking serious with Colonel Sanders in the background.

Maureen O'Sullivan, George Jessel, Edgar Bergen, Charlie McCarthy The Phynx

Maureen O’Sullivan, George Jessel, and Edgar Bergen with Charlie McCarthy

Ruby Keeler and Busby Berkeley The Phynx

Ruby Keeler and Busby Berkeley reunited

The Phynx Lone Ranger and Tonto

The Lone Ranger and Tonto

The Phynx Maureen O'Sullivan and Johnny Weissmuller

Maureen O’Sullivan and Johnny Weissmuller having a Tarzan reunion in a cart full of radishes.  (OK, this moment was cute.)

Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall The Phynx

Leo Gorcey and Huntz Hall

Shout out to Danny from pre-code.com for bringing this movie to my attention and inspiring me to write my most baffling review ever.

Gold Diggers of 1935

Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935)

During the summer months, the Wentworth Plaza is a popular destination for wealthy people to beat the heat. Among them is Mrs. Prentice (Alice Brady) and her daughter Ann (Gloria Stuart). Although Mrs. Prentice has more money than most people could ever dream of having, she’s notorious for being an absurdly cheap penny-pincher. She also wants Ann to marry T. Mosley Thorpe (Hugh Herbert), an older but very rich man who is an expert on snuffboxes. Thorpe is not Ann’s type at all and she desperately wants to have some fun.

Finally, Mrs. Prentice agrees to let her have some fun by hiring Dick Curtis (Dick Powell) to be her escort for the summer. Although Dick is engaged to Arline (Dorothy Dare), she approves of the idea since the money is good. Dick and Ann have a lot of fun together (and enjoy running up Mrs. Prentice’s bills), and it isn’t long before they fall in love with each other.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Prentice is at work organizing her annual show to raise money for the Milk Fund. She ends up hiring Nicoleff (Adolphe Menjou) to direct the show, but she doesn’t realize that he’s working with other people to make the show as lavish and extravagant as possible so they can get more money out of Mrs. Prentice.

Simply put, Gold Diggers of 1935 pales in comparison to 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, or Gold Diggers of 1933. It’s not like the basic plotlines of those movies are anything complex, but the plot of Gold Diggers of 1935 feels paper-thin in comparison. I also really missed stars like Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, and Ginger Rogers; although Alice Brady clearly has a field day hamming it up as the wealthy cheapskate.

But, since this is a Busby Berkeley movie, Gold Diggers of 1935 features some truly stunning musical numbers. Although 1935, on the whole, is really weak compared to his big hits of 1933, Busby Berkeley was still bringing his “A” game to the musical numbers. In terms of ambition and creative vision, he really outdid himself. No one is expecting anyone to honestly believe these numbers could actually be done on a real stage, but they’re an extravagant feast for the eyes. “The Words Are in My Heart” number with all those pianos is simply breathtaking and calling “The Lullaby of Broadway” a musical number almost feels like it’s selling it short; it’s more like a short film unto itself.

Pre-Code Essentials: Footlight Parade (1933)

Footlight Parade By a Waterfall

Plot

When talkie pictures come into popularity, it starts cutting into business for Broadway musical producer Chester Kent (James Cagney). He’s in dire need of a hit show, but everyone keeps flocking to these newfangled talking pictures instead. He’s convinced this is just a fad, but when his business partners take him to the theater to see one for himself, he becomes fascinated with the musical stage show the theater puts on before each movie. Chester decides he needs to get into the prologue game and convinces his business partners what a brilliant plan it is.

Chester gets right to work on his prologues with help from his faithful secretary Nan (Joan Blondell). Nan is deeply in love with Chester, but Chester is so busy, he doesn’t even realize it. He’s got all these prologues to produce, which is anything but a smooth process. He’s going through a divorce and now finds himself getting caught up with gold diggers. Everything that can go wrong does, but when a huge opportunity comes along, he has no other choice but to pull himself and his team together and get three prologues ready to perform in three days.


My Thoughts

Sometimes, an actor or director gets on a big streak of hit movies that when we look back, we say, “Wow, that was a great year for them!” For Busby Berkeley, that year was 1933. In 1933, his distinct brand of choreography made 42nd Street a huge hit, and then he topped himself by following it up with Gold Diggers of 1933. Last, but certainly not least, he one-upped himself again with Footlight Parade. These three movies are some of the most iconic movie musicals ever produced and the fact that they all came out in the same year is absolutely astonishing. With Footlight Parade, Berkeley really pushed himself and came up with some of the most imaginative and whimsical numbers of his career. (For years before I’d even seen any Busby Berkeley musical, I’d see pictures of the chorus girls standing on that fountain as part of the “By a Waterfall” number and know it was a Busby Berkeley scene. That’s how emblematic that scene is for Busby Berkeley.) By this point, he was pretty much done even pretending that these musical numbers could ever be produced on a real stage. But they are so witty, clever, saucy, and imaginative, it’s really easy to just go along with it.

For me, Footlight Parade is also one of James Cagney’s best movies. He is truly a force of nature in it; he truly leaves me in awe. Actors who can do gangster movies and musicals equally well are a rare breed and Cagney certainly falls into that category. He absolutely nails its rapid-fire dialogue and excels at working in such a fast-paced environment. And his dancing…oh, my.  Some of the dance moves he does in this movie look like early precursors to some of Michael Jackson’s dance moves. And like Michael Jackson, he makes all that dancing look so incredibly easy and effortless. But if you ever try some of those moves yourself, you’ll quickly realize how hard it really is.

However, out of Berkeley’s big three hits of 1933, Footlight Parade is the one whose plot now seems the most dated. 42nd Street is the classic backstage musical and people have no problem understanding Gold Diggers of 1933 deals heavily with the Great Depression.  But the fact that many movie theaters used to put on these musical prologues before movies during the early talkie era is now largely forgotten, except by film history buffs.


The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

All of the musical numbers.

“Outside, Countess! As long as they’ve got sidewalks, you’ve got a job!”


Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Each of Busby Berkeley’s three big musical hits of 1933 are full of pre-code material, but Footlight Parade easily tops them all. Innuendo, adultery, references to prostitution, tons and tons of chorus girls in skimpy outfits, bawdy musical numbers…Footlight Parade spends many of its 104 minutes openly thumbing its nose at censors. I love how there are several instances of Chester being told that censors either will or do object to content in his prologues. These are clearly jabs at movie censorship boards and the movie is essentially acknowledging and making fun of its own pre-code-ness, which is something I have never seen happen in any other pre-code movie.

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.

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