42nd Street is the film that really made choreographer Busby Berkeley a star; and that, in itself, is telling. Although directed by Lloyd Bacon (a 1930’s version of a Ron Howard-type assembly line director), it was Berkeley who rightfully grabbed the honors.
The musical, it seemed, had already run its course when Warner Brothers released 42nd Street. Al Jolson’s The Jazz Singer (1927) had been the ground-breaker, ushering in the advent of sound. But, in the six short years between The Jazz Singer and 42nd Street, the genre had already grown stale. Warner, on the verge of bankruptcy, took a huge gamble (studios used to do that) and brought in the innovative Berkeley, teamed him with the competent helmsman Bacon, an unknown (fresh) cast, and the expert songwriting team of Al Dubin and Harry Warren (who make a cameo in the film).
The plot is hackneyed, and would set the pattern for what constitutes a “Berkeley” film. It’s a backstage story about the struggles of a Broadway musical production (who really thought 1980’s Fame had an ounce of originality?) with an overly intense, self-destructive director (Warner Baxter, an archetype later taken to the extreme in Roy Scheider’s portrayal of Joe Gideon in 1979’s All That Jazz) and an understudy (Ruby Keeler) who, at the last moment, fills in for the injured star (Bebe Daniels) and becomes a star herself.
Of far more interest, plot-wise, is the nuanced filler material. Virginal Keeler and her leading fellar, golly-gee-wiz swell guy Dick Powell have limited charm and register as flat and clunky next to the wisecracking chorus girl Ginger Rogers (already projecting star quality) and the dirty old rich lecher Guy Kibbee. This is the Depression era and there is talk aplenty about the desperate struggle for money and success, which gives the film moments of sweaty substance. Star Daniels, no fluff actress, is clearly an occupant of Kibbee’s casting couch, even if she is in love with George Brent.
Baxter’s chain-smoking director registers, even when saddled with groan-inducing dialogue: “You’re going out there a dancer, but you’ve got to come back a star!” The film, remarkably, ends on a downer, with Baxter in a state of collapse and exhaustion, giving the audience the feeling that he keeled over dead two seconds after the credits rolled.
There is a streetwise milieu in the dance numbers and in the motivations of the secondary cast (it’s a grittier effort fro, Warner Brothers). Hints that dancers are resorting to prostitution are not so subtle. Promiscuity is the norm, rather than the exception. One well-known number, “You’re Getting To Be A Habit With Me,” has had numerous classic recordings, from Bing Crosby to Diana Krall. But, Berkeley’s music video version threatens to spoil all the pleasant memories of those renditions: diva/slut Bebe Daniels, in splendid silk pant suit, goes through a bevy of Johns, and the art of romance is graphically equated with drug addiction.
Scenes like this are one of many examples why the 1960’s acid culture canonized Berkeley. Although they claimed him as one of their own, they had to get in line, because the surrealists and the avant-gardists had already called dibs on Berkeley back in the 1930s.
And there is Berkeley himself, stamping the film with his brilliant, questionable personality. Make no mistake about it, Berkeley’s choreography can be best described as “Misogynist Surrealism.” While Berkeley was hardly the only misogynist in Hollywood, nobody objectified women at the level Berkeley did; and he did it with such a two-fisted original style that nobody at the time seemed to care.
What Berkeley did for the musical is the equivalent of what Hitchcock did for the thriller and what Lucas did for science fiction. Berkeley’s obsessive-compulsive dance direction amounts to the most dazzling anti-erotic pornography ever mounted. He is John Waters` pope.
In “Young and Healthy” Berkely’s dolly takes us through the spread legs of nightmarishly anonymous women, leading us to his climax for un-billed chorus girl Toby Wing. Her penciled eyebrows stretch across a face of frozen plasticity. The entire sequence is geometric minimalism adorned in panty-less, skimpy costumes.
The novelty song “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” takes place in a train, with Keeler and Clarence Nordstrom as newlywed riders. Berkley’s camera glides, following the porter who is collecting a strategically placed row of ladies high heel shoes. Ginger Rogers, stealing the whole scene, does little more than sit atop her perch, like the temptress Eve eating from the forbidden apple, slyly hinting at the hanky panky to come for the innocent bride Keeler with her pawing groom when they retire to their sleeper car.
“42nd Street” is, literally, the killer number. Keeler dances (badly) atop a taxi cab as the street drama unfolds. Gangsters, fruit venders, hookers, con men, dancing girls, and streetwise thugs are the occupants of Manhattan. A domestic fight between lovers erupts into gunfire and a spectacular 2nd-floor swan dive escape, which, unfortunately for the poor girl, is short-lived when her overheated John plunges a knife into her back. Dick Powell nonchalantly observes from above. The number hardly stops to mourn the crime of passion. It’s just a dead woman. Following that violent act, the chorus merges into a monstrous New York City skyscraper atop “42nd Street!”
The discerning eye will quickly notice how little dancing there is in Berkeley’s numbers. Berkeley, amazingly, was a self-taught choreographer. He had no formal training and did not know how to dance himself. Rather, he learned how to manipulate large groups of people through his training as a field artillery lieutenant in World War I. This potential weakness gave rise to innovative strengths.
Busby Berkeley’s approach to his art has never been equaled, let alone surpassed. His private life was as dark,chaotic, and ingeniously loathsome as his numbers. His was an acceptable, spuriously intoxicating porn for Hollywood’s Golden Age. This was escapism made to order to counteract the harsh reality of the Depression breadlines. Yet, paradoxically, the sexually charged, outlandish Berkeley cosmos may not be our contemporary idea of the paradisaical hour. For the clueless who think our predecessors were ancient artifacts from a hopelessly naive Plesantville (1998), Berkeley’s brutal altar of plasticity cuts such misconceptions down to size.