Sunday, May 19, 2013

Busby Berkeley Tribute

The Man Who Saved the Hollywood Musical

By Ed Garea

By the year 1933, the movie musical looked as if it were headed for extinction. The musical was a natural child of the revolution in sound technology; in fact, the first talkie was a musical – The Jazz Singer. Musicals were also a novel way to use the new technology in that, while the audience was being entertained in song, the studios were also figuring out who could speak and who couldn’t; who had charisma and who didn’t. Plus, with sound technology still in its primitive stages, placing a boom microphone over the stage while the assembled cast joined in song was far easier than the problems in drama with hidden microphones in plants and on women’s corsages, with the result being that actors were talking into those plants and corsages.

And – of course – the advantage of filming musicals in those early days was that almost every musical was a hit. But the other side of the coin was that every studio was filling their theater bills with them. It’s like candy: as a tasty treat, fine, but too much and the urge is lost. And it happened that way with the musical. Over 100 were released in 1930 to ever dwindling box office as the novelty wore off. In 1931, only 14 were released. Save for the emergence of Marlene Dietrich in such vehicles as Morocco, and the Marx Brothers in Animal Crackers and Horse Feathers, the musical was in bad shape. In both cases, it was the curiosity about the stars rather than their vehicles that propelled the box office. In Dietrich’s case, her films were quickly shifted from being musicals as such to being dramas with music in them. She would often play a spy or shady character who also worked as a chanteuse or musician in a nightclub, palace or other venue. (Blonde VenusDishonored – where she played the piano, The Song of Songs, etc.)

And yet the itch to do a musical rested like an egg in the studios’ nest, waiting for the right time to hatch. Warner Brothers, a studio noted for more for their “ripped from the headlines” dramas starring Jimmy Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, or Barbara Stanwyck, decided to take a chance with a book to which they recently purchased the rights, a novel by Bradford Ropes entitled 42nd Street. Amazing, isn’t it? 42nd Street plays just as if Warner Brothers had written it themselves. But no, there was an actual novel on which the movie was based.

While the studio would assign one of its usual directors to handle the story, they brought in Broadway veteran Busby Berkeley to handle the musical numbers. It was Berkeley’s novel approach to the combination of choreography and camera work that set his musicals apart. Of course, his lavish numbers for the movies contained scenery and an ensemble way too large to fit in any conventional Broadway theater, but this was Hollywood. His genius lay in the fact that he perfected the technique of synchronizing the filmed images to a previously recorded soundtrack. Thus, microphones and the problems inherent with them in those early days were not necessary to the action, and the camera no longer had to be imprisoned in soundproof booths. This gave them the freedom that they previously enjoyed during the Silent Age. Now for the first time, fluid camera motion and intricate editing were now possible, and this gave the musical an even greater range than previously. Berkeley took full advantage and then some by placing his cameras on custom-built booms and crafted monorails. 

What’s even more amazing about all this was that Warner Brothers, one of the most frugal studios in Hollywood, gave him the freedom to do so, even if it cost a few more pennies on the production side of the ledger. The result of this unexpected lavish spending was box office receipts that not only allowed the studio to survive those Depression days, but to actually flourish in the times.
42nd Street (1933) Director: Lloyd Bacon. Cast: Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, George Brent, Guy Kibbee, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, George E. Stone, Ginger Rogers, Guy Kibbee, Una Merkel, Ned Sparks, and Allan Jenkins. Black and White, 89 minutes.

Sawyer, you listen to me, and you listen hard. Two hundred people, two hundred jobs, two hundred thousand dollars, five weeks of grind and blood and sweat depend upon you. It's the lives of all these people who've worked with you. You've got to go on, and you've got to give and give and give. They've got to like you. Got to. Do you understand? You can't fall down. You can't because your future's in it, my future and everything all of us have is staked on you. All right, now I'm through, but you keep your feet on the ground and your head on those shoulders of yours and go out, and Sawyer, you're going out a youngster but you've got to come back a star!

Did we really talk like that back then?

This is it, the granddaddy of them all; the archetypical backstage musical; the one we all go back to when discussing the subject. It captures the essence not only of the Warner Brothers films, but also of the decade itself. Loaded with the gritty urban atmosphere and hip dialogue that was the hallmark of 1930’s Warner Brothers films, the movie was the genesis of several show business musical plot devices that later became well-worn clichés:

The hard-driving Broadway stage director whose finances, teetering health, or other condition finds him literally dying for a new hit;

     The egotistical star who gives everyone else a hard way to go, then right before the big performance, breaks a limb, paving the way for . . .

     The unknown, overlooked, but talented kid from the chorus who takes over the star's role on opening night and makes the musical into the biggest hit on The Great White Way.

We would believe that 42nd Street sprang full-blown out of the mind of Darryl Zanuck, but it wasn’t that way at all. As previously mentioned, the musical is actually derived from a novel of the same name written by Bradford Ropes and published in 1932. Ropes had worked as a dancer on Broadway and put his stage experiences into novels such as 42nd StreetStage Mother (filmed by MGM in 1933), and Go Into Your Dance.

Given its urban setting, 42nd Street was a perfect vehicle for Warner Brothers: it follows a Broadway musical from casting call to the opening performance. The backstage part of the movie meant constant action, so there’s sure to be no dead spots where the ingénue is romancing the juvenile or the cast director is making eyes at the chorine.

As the movie opens we see director Julian Marsh (Baxter) in the office of producers Jones and Barry. They want him at the helm of their new musical, “Pretty Lady,” and he is totally amenable. It seems that he was quite flush before the Crash, but now he needs the money. A phone call interrupts the meeting. It’s from his doctor, who tells him that he just got over a breakdown from too much work, and this new assignment could kill him. Thus we have Marsh’s motive: he needs the money, even if it will kill him. He’s also got another reason for taking the job: a money-drawing star in Dorothy Brock (Daniels). It seems her new sugar daddy, kiddie-car mogul Abner Dillon (Kibbee), is financing the musical.

Word about the new musical quickly goes out, and it is just as quickly discovered that everyone involved or soon-to-be-involved knows it beforehand anyway. This is done using a very clever montage of the sword being passed around. Soon the hopefuls arrive and among them is a woman with a monocle affecting an English accent, soon discovered to be Ann Lowell (Rogers), aka “Anytime Annie.” According to stage manager Andy Lee (Stone): “Not ‘Anytime Annie’” Say, who could forget ‘er? She only said ‘No’ once and then she didn’t hear the question.”

Another featured player introduced is Lorraine Fleming (Merkel). One of the stagehands notices that she’s been hitting the bottle. “Yeah,” another replies, “the peroxide bottle.” That leaves two characters: the juvenile, Billy Lawler (Powell), and the ingénue, Peggy Sawyer (Keeler), and we meet them in short order as Keeler accidentally enters Billy’s dressing room while he’s clad only in his underwear.

Now that we have the assembled the necessary players, the movie concentrates on the reason they’re assembled – to put on a show. Marsh is a no-nonsense, driven director. He’s fighting the clock to the opening while trying to get the best performances possible from the cast he’s chosen. And along the way he has to deal with problems that suddenly crop up, such as the fact that his leading lady, Dorothy Brock, is still in love with her old vaudeville partner, Pat Denning (Brent), seeing him on the sly. If her sugar daddy should find out, he could pull the plug in the whole shebang, and Marsh would left on the outside looking in. To put Denning in his place, Marsh calls upon a few underworld pals of his and they give Denning a message he’s sure to understand, capped off with a sock in the jaw.

But try as he might, Marsh can’t keep Brock and Denning apart and things come to a boil when Brock explodes at a pre-opening party. She ends up throwing everyone out, including her sugar daddy. She also breaks her ankle in the fracas and it looks as if the show is sunk. But Sugar Daddy Dillon has a solution: his new squeeze, Anytime Annie. Marsh turns the suggestion down, but Annie herself pitches for young Sawyer, telling Marsh that if she would turn down this chance of a lifetime, it must be in favor of someone who is really talented. So, it’s Sawyer. Marsh rehearses her until she almost collapses, but then she goes on not only to save the show, but to make it a hit as well.

Once the musical numbers begin, the movie belongs to Berkeley. The first number, “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” about a young couple (Keeler and an uncredited Clarence Nordstrom) on their honeymoon to Niagara Falls, sets the tone. Berkeley expands the rail sleeper car into a huge stage, as the just married couple dances their way down to aisle to the accompaniment of Merkel and Rogers warbling a cynical parody of the lyrics. From there Powell takes over in his “Young and Healthy” number, accompanied by Toby Wing, a young actress who might best be described as Berkeley’s “protégé” at the time. A former Goldwyn Girl, it seemed as if the talented Wing was heading for bigger and better things, but her career inexplicably stalled and she reverted back to being the eye candy that filled out a scene.

Everything works up to the big finale, where Keeler sings the title song. Right before she goes on, Marsh gives her the big speech (quoted above). The finale, of course, is wonderful, with Keeler dancing on that we first think is a stage, but as the camera pulls back we see that it’s the top of a taxicab. Keeler has been criticized over the years for her “heavy-footed” dancing in this scene, but keep in mind that she was trained as an Irish step-dancer (yes, they had them even back then), and – anyway – she’s just fine as she is. What she can’t do, however, at least in this film, is act. It’s a good thing her lines were at a minimum, because she is clearly stage acting instead of film acting – and there is a difference, a big difference.

Another line that may at first go unnoticed with all the other innuendo flying around is Marsh’s entreaty to Andy Lee on the last night of rehearsals, asking Andy to come home with him that night because he’s lonely. In the Ropes novel, Marsh is clearly gay and his lover is the show’s juvenile, Billy Lawler, which is how Billy gets all his roles. But not even Warner’s in all its Pre-Code glory could go that far, and it was decided to make Billy infatuated with Peggy instead. Besides, a role such as that for the young Powell would have killed his career before it even got off the ground.

As a movie, 42nd Street was just another offering from Warner Brothers that year, albeit a very popular offering. Today it’s seen as a groundbreaking classic.

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) Director: Mervyn LeRoy and Busby Berkeley (musical numbers). Cast: Warren William, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Guy Kibbee, Ned Sparks, and Ginger Rogers. Black and White, 96 minutes.

Although given the material and the time in which it was made, to think that this film is entirely original would be an erroneous assumption. Its roots go back to a 1923 Warners’ silent entitled The Gold Diggers, a comedy adapted from a play by Avery Hopwood about the uncle (Wyndham Standing) of wealthy young Wally Saunders (John Harron) and his efforts trying to dissuade him from marrying chorus girl Violet Dayne (Anne Cornwall) because he believes all chorus girls are ruthless gold diggers, only after a man for his money. When sound arrived the film was remade as Gold Diggers of Broadway in 1929. The story is essentially the same, only now music is added and the film was shot in two-strip Technicolor.

The success of 42nd Street caused Warners to examine other projects that might be suitable; thus it was only natural that Executive Producer Darryl Zanuck would green light Gold Diggers of Broadway for an update. The original play and movie focused on the efforts of two sisters to hit the big time. Gold Diggers of 1933 would center around three chorines – Keeler, Blondell, and MacMahon – in pursuit of not only their dancing careers, but also three rich men – Powell, William, and Kibbee. Their backstage hijinks would be clothed in a hodgepodge of mistaken identity and screwball romance, flavored with just enough innuendo to keep the audience’s attention in case things began to flag.

Just before filming was to begin, Zanuck and LeRoy decided to change the opening, and in doing so, created not only one of the movie’s most memorable scenes, but also a trademark scenario for movie musicals in general. The film was supposed to open with a semi-documentary montage of closed theaters, empty ticket agencies, and deserted office buildings. After the change, the picture opens on a theater stage, where we see a performance in progress. As the camera pulls away we see that it’s a dress rehearsal and the tune being rehearsed is “We’re in the Money,” with chorines dressed in outfits sporting coinage and Rogers singing a chorus in Pig Latin. It’s not only pure Berkeley, but also changes the entire tone of the movie. A musical is no place for realism – especially a musical set during the Depression.

Of course, as with any Busby Berkeley Warners’ musical, we eagerly await the end to see what Berkeley has come up with to entertain and enthrall us this time. And Gold Diggers of 1933 is no different – not only are we entertained, we are also awed with the amount of imagination that went into each number. “The Shadow Waltz,” where Berkeley used 60 electrically-wired violins and a huge curving staircase to feature them, was definitely awe-inspiring. The number “Pettin’ in the Park,” was one of the most risqué, even in those Pre-Code times, and had to be edited down to prevent some state censorship boards banning the film altogether. The “highlight” of the number was when the women are caught in a sudden rainstorm and have to change behind a flimsy screen. They re-emerge in metal costumes that seem to stump the men until a lecherous baby (played by Billy Barty) hands Powell a can opener.

“Pettin’ in the Park” was supposed to be the last number, but Berkeley moved it ahead, replacing it with a number he was inspired to write while in Washington D.C. during the march of the “Bonus Army,” a group of disaffected veterans from World War I that were seeking advance payment of bonuses due them during the next decade for their service during the war. The number, “Remember My Forgotten Man,” is sung by Blondell (voiced by Jean Cowan) and is a deftly produced and shot plea for those left behind by the economics of the times. It is darkly pessimistic and owes more to the German Expressionism of the ‘20s than the American optimism of the musicals of the ‘30s. It also brings the gaiety of the previous numbers to a crashing halt, giving us all something to think about as we leave the theater.

Trivia: Watch for the “call boy” paging the cast before the “Forgotten Man” number. It’s none other than Berkeley himself.
Footlight Parade (1933) Director: Lloyd Bacon. Cast: Jimmy Cagney, Ruby Keeler, Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, Frank McHugh, Guy Kibbee, Ruth Donnelly, Hugh Herbert, and Claire Dodd. Black and White, 102 minutes.

Berkeley already had some ideas for musical numbers when Gold Diggers of 1933 wrapped production. He was thinking ahead and knew here’d be another musical soon down the road. Now all Warners had to do was supply the necessary backstage plot. While Zanuck and his assistants worked out those necessaries, the studio announced that none other than Cagney would star. As if another musical from the hot hand of Berkeley wasn’t enough to draw customers in, the added lure of Cagney playing against type was certain to draw a curiosity factor. What most fans didn’t know at the time was that Cagney got his start on Broadway as a dancer and was always eager to play the same in movies. As soon as he saw the posting for the role he began lobbying Jack Warner for the role. Zanuck immediately saw the box office potential of Cagney in the role and quickly acquiesced to his star’s request.

Now that they had the star, it was time to secure the supporting cast. Powell and Keeler were added; after all, they were a big hit in the previous two films, even to the point where fans thought they were an item offstage, not realizing that Keeler had been married to Al Jolson since 1928. (When Powell wed Blondell, some fans were dismayed, thinking that he was married to Keeler.) Speaking of Blondell, casting her was a natural, for no one in those days – absolutely no one – could deliver a comic line like her. McHugh, a close off-screen pal of Cagney’s, was also added in a supporting role, as were Warners stalwarts Kibbee and Herbert. Now all they had to do was come up with a passable plot to support the musical numbers.

Cagney is Chester Kent, a musical producer who finds himself out of work with the coming of sound. He may be down, but he’s not out. He convinces two partners to throw in with him in producing a series of live action prologues that will precede the feature film in theaters. However, everything’s not going as well as can be expected. For one thing, his main competitor, Gladstone, seems to have a knack for taking his ideas and beating him to the punch with them. There’s a leak somewhere, and Blondell as Nan Prescott, his loyal – and lovesick – secretary, is determined to find it. Nan also has other problems to distract her. For one thing, she and Cagney’s new gold digging girlfriend, Vivian (Dodd) don’t get along. But for Blondell, things come together when she discovers that the source of the leak is none other than Vivian herself, who has been secretly working for the competition. This leads to the best line of the picture, when Blondell is kicking Vivian out of the office – literally. Vivian asks what she’ll do now, to which Blondell replies, “Outside countess. As long as they’ve got sidewalks you’ve got a job.”

The prologue comes off well, highlighted to that point by Berkeley’s number “By a Waterfall,” featuring an 80-foot-by-40-foot swimming pool, lined with glass so that Berkeley could film the swimmers underwater. He designed their suits to as to create the illusion they were naked. They result was so impressive that the audience at the premiere gave it a standing ovation. (Point of logic: Kent is producing prologues to fit in theaters. How does one fit anything that size into a small theater?)

Now a glitch develops: the male lead in the “Shanghai Lil” finale (with Keeler impersonating a Chinese woman) gets too drunk to go on. Enter Cagney in his place, and he and Keeler bring the joint down with their exuberance. Now to the question that’s been on the minds of almost everyone who’s seen the film: In the “Shanghai Lil” sequence, is that John Garfield we see as one of the extras at the beginning? Almost each time I’ve discussed this movie with a film fan, that question always comes up. What’s really amazing is that Garfield in on screen for only 5/6 of a second, yet we remember him. Some historians think it’s him and point to the fact he was doing extra work in addition to his stage roles in Los Angeles at the time. But others, including Garfield’s daughter, insist it’s not him. All I can say is that, if it wasn’t Garfield, then he has an identical twin out there. I will leave the final word to my late wife, a big Garfield fan since she first laid eyes on him in Four Daughters. She said it was definitely Garfield in that scene and I will not disagree.

Both Warner Brothers and Berkeley would go on after this to produce Wonder BarDamesGold Diggers of 1935Stars Over Broadway, and Hollywood Hotel, using basically the same formula. And when something is overused it loses its novelty. This is what essentially happened: the formula used so successfully by Warners grew stale and was replaced with the Art Deco stylings of producer Pandro Berman’s Fred Astaire and Rogers musicals at RKO. Berkeley, however, would start afresh at MGM with Gershwin music and Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland as his stars, creating a new take on his by now classic style. And just when we began to believe we’d seen the last of Berkeley and 42nd Street, it popped up once again, this time on the Broadway stage and became the biggest thing on Broadway that year. What goes around comes around – only to go around and come back around again – and again.


  1. Ed,

    An addendum to your interesting piece on Busby Berkeley:

    1. In the "Remember My Forgotten Man" number, Joan Blondell's voice was dubbed by Jean Cowan in the finale. Sultry singer Etta Moten was featured in the number singing the reprise of Blondell's opening monologue.

    2. The gradual waning of interest in the type of musical Berkeley was making was due to many factors, not the least of which was Berkeley's trial for murder in the midst of his prolific rise at the studio. As you noted, his career did flourish at MGM and reached his apotheosis with the 20th Century-Fox film "The Gang's All Here."

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

    1. From Ed:


      Thanks so much for your comment on the article. Your book is THE reference on the gifted, tragic director. I made the mistake of lending it to a friend when it came out and haven’t seen it since.

      1. Yes, it was Jean Cowan doubling Blondell’s voice. I mentioned that in an earlier piece, but for some reason mistakenly substituted Moten.

      2. And yes, the waning of interest in Berkeley’s musicals is a combination of several factors: his murder trials, his alcoholism catching up with him, and his breakdown. The Recession of 1937 forced Warner Bros. to cut back. Berkeley‘s musicals were expensive to stage compared to the cost of the Astaire-Rogers format.

      Finally, like every other novelty, entropy took over. Nothing lasts forever. But it was a great ride while it lasted. What Berkeley really needed was a rest (which he got) and a change of scenery (which he also got with his move to MGM).