Above: Priscilla Lane, the primary Lane sister, in Varsity Show, 1937.
"Were you drunk when I came home the other night?" my wife asked me a few days back. No, I was not, but why do you ask? "Well, you seemed kind of groggy...and you were watching that movie with Dick Powell and, who's that guy, Fred Waring...?"
Now my wife is no kind of philistine, and yet she can be forgiven for believing that one might have to in a not entirely rational state in order to enjoy the curio that is Varsity Show, to which director/dance designer Busby Berkeley contributed the finale. The William-Keighley-directed picture begins operetta style, with a gaggle of young singers and dancers—stalwarts Sterling Holloway, Rosemary Lane, and Mabel Todd—singing about how doggone great their varsity show is going to be. Leading them is one Ernie Mason (played by Waring, the great popularizer of choral pop music of this era, and the man for whom the Waring Blender was named—he wasn't it's inventor, just its investor), who immediately hits the wall of the college's staid profs, who insist that none of that jazzy stuff the kids wanna do is gonna be staged. Stymied, they hit on the idea of getting an alumnus, Chuck Daly, now a Broadway star, to wage their battles for them. They ask the janitors Buck and Bubbles what they think of the idea.
They respond in the most bug-eyes, slow-talking, Stepin-Fetchitty terms possible. And later, in the film's finale, they are transmogrified into one of the slickest tap-dance and piano duo you've ever seen.
It kind of blows one's mind, honestly, the schizoid cast of mind that milks these two African-Americans for cheap racist laughs on the one hand, and then celebrates their imminently celebration-worthy talent with the other. For the record, "Bubbles" was John William Sublett, who just two years earlier had been tapped by George Gershwin to play Sportin' Life in Porgy and Bess. Ford Washington Lee was "Buck"...and, yeah, their act consisted of both the deft dancing and playing and the post-minstrel show schtick. There's one Berkeley film which likely won't make it to DVD ever (although the numbers themselves were on a Warner laser disc of Berkeley material) that's even more disquieting in its treatment of race: 1934's Wonder Bar, in which lead performer Al Jolson eschews blackface throughout, until the grand finale, the "Goin' To Heaven on a Mule" number, a Berkeley phantasmogoria in which a corked-up Jolson enters a paradise featuring gigantic slices of watermelon (presaging the giant fruit Berkeley would surround Carmen Miranda with in The Gang's All Here) and pork chops hanging from trees. The shot of Jolson reading the Hebrew-language newspaper The Forward while getting a shoe-shine, in its way, as deranged as anything David Lynch has concocted. Two years after this film Jolson would insist on being allowed to duet with actual African-American music pioneer Cab Calloway in the picture The Singing Kid. The age of Hollywood racism is far from over, but this particular period of it roiled like no other.
As for Varsity Club's Berkeley concocted-finale, it's a relatively restrained affair for him, one in which he allows a realistic detail he had heretofore recoiled from: note the scuff marks on the floor of the stage. Such things were inimical to the effects Berkeley went for in his prior fantasias.
1938's Gold Diggers In Paris might have seemed like a good idea on paper, but it's possible the dreariest of the pictures Berkeley lent his talents to, and the two performers below are the reasons why. Crooner Rudy Vallee had not yet developed the gift for self-parody that would serve him so well in Preston Sturges' The Palm Beach Story just four years later. He is just thoroughly simpy as crooner Terry Moore, making the Berkeley stalwart Dick Powell look like Jimmy Cagney by comparison. And while co-star Rosemary Lane is not without appeal, the debut in Varsity Show of her sister Priscilla definitively established the latter as the perkiest of the Lane clan. (Priscilla's particular adoreableness also shines in Anatole Litvak's terrific 1941 Blues in the Night, recently out on DVD.) Her chemistry with Vallee is nil.
Berkeley's chorus line-against-not-quite-white-seamless suggests either budget limitations or lack of inspiration...
...and his attempt to make something of the proto-Spike-Jones combo The Schnickelfritz Band comes to not very much at all.
The probably unreleasable Wonder Bar aside, there's still quite a bit of Berkeley out there for Warner Home Video to work with, including his last picture for the studio, at least for this era, The Garden of the Moon, which stars Pat O'Brien and whose plot involves Rudy Vallee not showing up. After leaving Warners for a spell, Berkeley would be adrenalized by Technicolor, essaying the epochal The Gang's All Here and eventually returning to Warners to, among other thing, refine his underwater work with Esther Williams.
The movies discussed above are available in “The Busby Berkeley Collection Volume Two” DVD set, from Warner Home Video.