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The Lesser Berkeleys, Part One

Above: Dick Powell and Joan Blondell, Gold Diggers of 1937.
The Busby-Berkeley-ization of the American film musical seems to have flamed out almost as quickly as it caught fire. From 1933 to 1935, in pictures from 42nd Street to Dames to Footlight Parade to Gold Diggers of 1935, the increasingly surreal geometric arrangements of possibly thousands of chorines defined not just a genre, but all of popular entertainment itself. And then...well, just how high can one build a tower of showgirls before it collapses?
Gold Diggers of 1937, which ought to have been the final picture of the Gold Diggers series (for reasons we'll get to in part two of this post), answers the question via the extremely expedient course of not addressing it at all. Directed by Warner stalwart Lloyd Bacon with musical numbers by Berkeley (and incidentally based on a play co-written by Richard Maibaum, who many years later went on to co-script a dozen Bond films), the question it does address, and rather satisfactorily, is "What do you do with a pre-code cast in a post-code film?" The female leads here are two of the sexiest and sassiest pre-code dames, Joan Blondell and Glenda Farrell. Blondell plays a down-on-her-luck hoofer who takes an unglamorous job at an insurance office, and with the help of colleague and potential romance Powell and scheming Farrell, tries to make a sugar daddy out of blubbering Victor Moore, the better to get a show off the ground with.
The skimpy lingerie and double-entendre banter of the pre-code productions is predictably absent here; nevertheless, the chemistry between Powell and Blondell gives the movie something none of the Berkeley musicals ever had before: genuine sexual tension. Indeed, 40 minutes in a viewer is likely to beseech the pair to just get a room and get on with it, already.  (The fact that Powell seems like far less of a, shall we say, dink when acting opposite Blondell than with Ruby Keeler could have something to do with Powell's maturation, or the fact that Powell and Blondell were a real-life couple at the time.) Also of interest is the spectacle of Moore, only a year away from his subtle and heartbreaking performance in McCarey's Make Way For Tomorrow, playing broad as a barn in the role of a dizzy magnate.
The finale, however, sees the dance designer trying new ground, eschewing the celebration of the female form for the most part and veering into the realm of out-and-out abstraction, as the rows of white flags coalesce into a blank field. Ad Reinhardt might be proud. One friend, on the other hand, intimated a postmodern evocation of a Klan rally.
1937's Hollywood Hotel represents Berkeley's most fully-realized solo directorial outing to date (his terrific They Made Me A Criminal would be made in '39.) He breezes through its ostensibly convoluted plot—striving wannabe stars Powell and Rosemary Lane enact a Boy-meets-Girl, Boy-loses-Girl, Boy-is-smacked-by-Hollywood-diva-that-Girl-had-been-paid-to-impersonate, Boy-refinds-Girl, and so on, rondo with apt insouciance, and concentrates on bits, enacted by a humongous stable of then-bit players, including Ronald Reagan, seen with Powell below.
Others contributing their particular talents include still-snarky Farrell, here gay-baiting a prissy dress designer—played by Curt Bois, the Berlin-born actor who, fifty years after this film, would play one of the most haunting non-spectral presences in Wim Wenders' Wings of Desire.
And then—to name just a few—there's one-time Stooge-meister Ted Healy (to whom cable news grouch Bill O'Reilly bears an uncanny, not to say inapt, resemblance), slow-burn maestro Edgar Kennedy, disturbing ditz Mabel Todd, and even more disturbing, stammering yutz Hugh Herbert, who provides the film's one stab at racial "humor:" as the daffy dad of a movie diva, he dons blackface to infiltrate the set of a bathetic Civil War musical she's starring in. As thoroughly distasteful as the bit is, one can almost forgive it for the way Berkeley shoots one of the film's very lengthy and entirely delightful musical interludes. A spectacularly shot and cut scene of Benny Goodman and his full orchestra tearing into "Sing, Sing, Sing" morphs into the Goodman quartet—the leader on clarinet, Gene Krupa on drums, Lionel Hampton on vibes, and Teddy Wilson on piano—joyously jamming on "I've Got A Heartful of Music." Goodman was one of the first white bandleaders to integrate his group, forming the Goodman trio with African-American pianist Wilson and adding vibe master Hampton in '36. This meant, among other things, that he couldn't tour in the Jim Crow South. The way Berkeley shoots and cuts the jam has a sheer kinetic joy to it, but as it happens he also gives each of the individual players their due, never privileging Goodman. For that, this sequence is nothing less than a jazz-in-cinema classic. Although I do wonder if it was snipped out of prints exhibited below the Mason-Dixon line.
The wonder of the "numbers" here lies in the kinetic joy mentioned above. The epic "Let That Be A Lesson To You" unfolds both on Goodman's bandstand at a live performance, and over the radio at the drive-in restaurant Callahan's, where Powell's character is in exile as a car-hop. He sings along anyway, and soon enough the entire lot is bopping. The scene is as elaborate, and exhilarating, as any of Berkeley's architecture-in-motion epics, with the perspectives lateral rather than overhead.
The movies discussed above are available in "The Busby Berkeley Collection Volume Two" DVD set, from Warner Home Video. 

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