He was brilliant. He was irritating. He was offensive. He made me angry when I was a kid because of some bad taste that made my jaw drop. But I loved much his other work.
The word "iconic" is tossed around a lot nowadays. However, that word certainly does apply to the visually stunning musical numbers that were staged in 1930s Warner Brothers musicals by director Busby Berkeley. Movies hadn't even celebrated their 10th birthday in the sound era before Berkeley, with the help of studio masters of lighting, cinematography and production design, made an innovate cinematic stamp in Hollywood films that would fascinate audiences and influence future directors. He gave the camera wings and erased the feeling of musical numbers being stage-bound and flat. He broke through the barriers. Depression Era audiences needed that fascination and frequently risqué movie entertainment. Busby Berkeley truly left his mark in Hollywood. His name became synonymous with a specific look in a film musical number.
Last week, entertainment news reported that actor Ryan Gosling will play Busby Berkeley in a big screen biopic.
I have not read a lot Berkeley's life. But, in my youth, I did read about a serious incident that happened during his Warner Brothers years in the 1930s. Keep in mind, that's when major Hollywood studios had the power to keep scandalous news covered up or alter how it was reported. There was no TMZ, Twitter or E! Television then. Hollywood celebrities had the help and protection of studio press departments. Reportedly, Busby Berkeley was a heavy boozer. One night in 1935, he left a Hollywood party and his speedy drunk driving killed two or three people and injured others. He had his problems and a nervous breakdown.
However, after the drunk driving fatalities, he continued to get work at top studios. He directed Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland when they were young rising stars. He directed their Babes in Arms (1939) and Strike Up The Band (1940).
My passion for classic films began when I was in grade school. Back then, we didn't have Netflix, DVDs or DVR. Local stations showed old movies a lot. With commercial interruptions. Channel 9 and Channel 11 in Los Angeles aired plenty of Busby Berkeley work. Channel 9 was attached to a large Warner Brothers film library. The classic Berkeley numbers thrilled me. The shiny, art deco look of them was fabulous and kaleidoscopic. They were sensational and surreal. With his signature-style overhead shots, dancing chorus girls became set pieces and props.
At one point in the number, the chorus girls look like they're lifting large, uncircumcised sex toys.
For all his sexual leering and somewhat militaristic dance routines, Berkeley could incorporate some social grit and urban reality into a great number. My top two examples are the "Lullaby of Broadway" number in Gold Diggers of 1935...
...and the "Remember My Forgotten Man" number concluding Gold Diggers of 1933.
The "Lullaby of Broadway" number has a sex-as-financial survival for single females vibe and an almost fascist devotion to the Manhattan party scene that proves deadly for one dame. The "Remember My Forgotten Man" number feels relevant today in how it pleads society's attention to our war veterans who fought our wars then came home only to be discarded by the Depression. Joan Blondell plays the prostitute with a heart o' gold who defends and protects the homeless, down and out veteran from police trouble. Each one of those numbers alone is better than all of Need for Speed, a new movie that I paid to see this month in New York City. I kid you not. I had to review Need for Speed for a TV show. I just wanted to slap that movie's screenwriters for wasting my time.
Busby Berkeley did things that made me want to slap him too.
He was heavy-handed with his use of ethnic and sexual stereotypes, especially in the 1930s. A gay man was a "pansy" or "too too divine." I was watching 42nd Street on television when I was a kid. The "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" number was on and my mother watched it with me. She cringed at the number's closing shot of a snoring black porter on a train who fell asleep while shining shoes. A good number ends with an irritating visual racial stereotype. Here's something I notice today: For as much as film critics praise his best extravagant numbers, they rarely -- if ever -- mention his maddening affection for blackface numbers. Al Jolson, Eddie Cantor (Roman Scandals, 1933) and teen stars, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, all had to slap on blackface for Busby Berkeley shoots.
One afternoon, my younger sister and I were watching TV. We got a really remote station, Channel 55, from outside Hollywood or Burbank. The station was practically public access. It showed a Busby Berkeley movie called Wonder Bar. This movie had been on Hollywood's Channel 9/KHJ TV, but a number was always cut out. Local stations often edited movies down to make room for commercials. Sometimes scenes were cut out for social sensitivity in the 1960s and '70s. Channel 55 showed Wonder Bar with the numbers intact. This is the 1934 musical that has a gay male couple dancing to the swanky nightclub music as the Dick Powell and Al Jolson characters cast a glance.
My sister and I knew how those theatergoers felt.
From 1934's Wonder Bar, here is the number that offended two African-American kids in South Central Los Angeles. I wonder if the reported biopic will touch on this aspect of Busby Berkeley's career.
Pork chop trees. Uncle Tom. Giant watermelon slices. Nappy wigs. Dice. Don't get me started. That's why KHJ TV/Ch. 9 (now KCAL) cut the number. But, for history's sake, we can see Wonder Bar it is entirety on Warner Archive DVD.
When film critics write about Busby Berkeley numbers that Ryan Gosling should see before he begins filming, this one doesn't get included. Did any African-American people ever confront Berkeley about those numbers? If so, that conflict could make one heck of a good biopic scene.
Busby Berkeley. Many times, brilliant. Other times, what the hell was he thinking?!?!