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Busby Berkeley's dance numbers are still eye-popping

August 01, 2008|Kenneth Turan | Times Film Critic

"I always named 'em the Berkeley Girls, and no one picked any girls but me. I picked 'em all. Always." Busby Berkeley's voice rumbled like a semi-active volcano. "Once a producer came up to me and said, 'Buz, that one on the end looks cute,' and I said, 'Oh, sit down.' People have the damnedest ideas about beauty."

It's been 37 years since I interviewed Busby Berkeley, then a crusty but still energetic 75, in a Berlin hotel room, but the memory remains vivid. Just like his singular films, which are getting a very welcome 10-picture retrospective starting today at the Hammer Museum's Billy Wilder Theater courtesy of the UCLA Film & Television Archive.

You wouldn't necessarily know it from the framework UCLA has chosen, which calls the series "Sex and the Single Girl: The Escapades of Busby Berkeley" and focuses on the arcane academic notion of the "seraglio effect," but the eye-popping dance numbers Berkeley created during a long career in Hollywood need to be seen -- and seen on a big screen -- because they are, plain and simple, an enormous amount of fun.

Because his name is so euphonious, it's likely that more people have heard of Berkeley than have seen his astonishing dance numbers in their entirety. These routines so dominated the films they were in that if Berkeley wasn't the director, he got second billing as the person who "created and directed" the sequences. These were not two- or three-minute interludes but super-elaborate affairs that could go on for 10 minutes each and in "Footlight Parade" make up almost all of the film's final half hour.

"I never bothered with the directors who did the dramatic parts of the pictures; most of the times I'd never even see them," Berkeley told me in Berlin. "They did their job and I did mine. Of course, my sections were more expensive. We once figured out they cost about $10,000 per minute on the screen, and people yelled about that, but I hollered 'em down."

Even at $10,000 per minute, Berkeley gave the studios their money's worth. To see his dizzying routines, rife with overhead shots that emphasized elaborate kaleidoscopic patterns constructed of bare female legs, is the equivalent of taking a mind-altering drug before you enter the theater. No one had seen anything like this before Berkeley thought it up, and no one has seen anything like it since.

Berkeley often didn't pull his ideas together until his troops were right in front of him.

"I never did much advance planning. I'd get all the people on the set before me, and when they were all there, that's when I'd start to think and go to town," he told me. "I only used one camera; I didn't need any more than that. I knew what I wanted. . . . If you use four cameras, the editor gets to choose the shot he likes. They didn't do that with my pictures. They went together the way I wanted them to go together."

Whether you're familiar with Berkeley's work or not, three films have to be seen: "42nd Street," "Footlight Parade" and "Gold Diggers of 1933" were all released by Warner Bros. in 1933 and, taken together, they revolutionized the Hollywood musical.

This trio has other points in common besides their year of release. For one thing, they all made references to the reality of the Depression. When a character says, "Bread line, I hear you calling me" in "Footlight Parade," you believe it.

More to the point, all the films were backstage stories, valentines to the joys and agonies of putting on a Broadway musical. This allowed for the fiction that Berkeley's choreographed musical numbers were created for a show, though the reality was you'd need a theater the size of a football field to actually stage them.

"42nd Street" is the mother and father of all backstage dramas, filled with gruff gangsters, secret boyfriends and theatrical imbroglios. Ginger Rogers played a been-around gal nicknamed Anytime Annie, as in "she only said no once, and then she didn't hear the question," but the performance everyone remembers is Ruby Keeler's wide-eyed ingenue. "You're going out a youngster," the show's slave-driving director memorably tells her, "but you've got to come back a star."

"Footlight Parade" is blessed by having James Cagney, displaying energy, style and dancing ability to burn in his first sustained musical performance. Among its memorable numbers are "Honeymoon Hotel," "By a Waterfall" and the politically incorrect "Shanghai Lil," in which a disappointed Eastern European type complains, "She won't be mine for all of Palestine."

What sets "Gold Diggers of 1933" apart, aside from the opening "We're in the Money" number sung by Rogers, is its closing sequence, "Remember My Forgotten Man," one of the most socially conscious song-and-dance routines ("You put a rifle in his hand, you shouted hip hooray, but look at him today") ever conceived by Hollywood.

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