Combustible Celluloid
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With: Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, George Brent, Ruby Keeler, Ginger Rogers, Guy Kibbee, Una Merkel, Ned Sparks, Dick Powell, Allen Jenkins, Edward J. Nugent, Robert McWade, George E. Stone
Written by: Rian James, James Seymour, based on a novel by Bradford Ropes
Directed by: Lloyd Bacon
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 89
Date: 03/07/1933

42nd Street (1933)

4 Stars (out of 4)

Berkeley Flair

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

MGM was always known for its expensive, colorful, cookie-cutter musicals, but it was the scrappy little Warner Brothers that made arguably the biggest impact on the genre. From 1933 to 1935, Warners made a series of so-called "backstage" musicals all about choreographers, dancers, singers, chorus girls, directors, etc. who fight, try to sabotage one another, and fall in love. The same cast turned up over and over again signing numbers ranging from delightful to silly to forgettable, and when they broke into song, it actually made sense because they were already in the theater. But what set these films apart was their big finale, usually three separate numbers, choreographed by one Busby Berkeley.

Berkeley (1895-1976) learned how to manipulate large groups of people while serving as a field artillery lieutenant during World War I. He worked on Broadway during the 1920s, creating a trademark with his ability to form packs of dancing girls into geometrical shapes. Berkeley's skill was so quickly and apparently evident that he overshadowed the men who actually directed the movies. His segments depicted musical numbers that would have been impossible to perform on stage, or at least for an audience to properly see; these numbers were crafted specifically for the cinema.

The routines had a number of odd effects. Berkeley could get away with blatant suggestions of sex, but at the same time dehumanize the chorus girls into mere shapes, round faces and wide eyes with oval, kissing mouths. Patterns were Berkeley's specialty, but he had an innate gift of playing to the motion picture camera, emphasizing body parts, choosing shades of darkness over bland, even brightness, and incorporating ever more dazzling non-theatrical escapades, like waterfalls and trains. Critics complained that Berkeley's numbers had little to do with one another, or in fact, little to do with the plot of the movie in question; it's likely that Berkeley simply came up with the numbers independently of one another and simply used his most recent idea.

His first, and most beloved film is still 42nd Street (1933), directed by Lloyd Bacon, in which a relentless, but secretly kind-hearted, director (Warner Baxter) tries to whip a bunch of singers and dancers together for a Broadway show, while a love triangle untangles itself. Ruby Keeler made her movie debut, and Dick Powell and Ginger Rogers co-star. Berkeley's trio of numbers for this film, "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," "You're Getting to Be a Habit With Me" and "42nd Street," represent just the beginning of his talents. Notice how the camera swoops and dives to capture all the perfectly-timed activity, both dazzling and shocking, in a fictionalized New York Broadway district.

Arguably Berkeley's greatest achievement, however, is Footlight Parade (1933), also directed by Bacon. When movies threaten to shut down the legitimate stage for good, a crafty producer, Chester Kent (James Cagney), comes up with the idea to create live prologues for new movies. Like Berkeley himself, Chester racks his brain, 24-7, for themes out of which to craft musical numbers. (Cats? Flowers?) Unfortunately, a spy keeps leaking his ideas to a rival company, and the usual love triangle threatens to tear everything apart. Cagney himself takes part in the final musical number, "Shanghai Lil," replacing an injured leading man.

Unfortunately, after Hollywood adopted the Hays Code in 1934, many of Berkeley's sexy trademarks disappeared. Moreover, his particular skill did not translate to directing feature films, and his subsequent career petered out. He graduated to directing a series of unremarkable, routine films through the late 1940s and more or less retired by 1954. But his energetic, fantastic early work continues to hold a fascination for musical and cinema buffs, and it's as dazzling as the day it first appeared.

Warner Home Video already released a six-DVD box set featuring five Berkeley films and an amazing sixth bonus disc containing a "best of" collection of Berkeley routines. But the best deal is the TCM Greatest Classic Film Collection. It brings together four films on two, two-sided discs for a bargain price. The set includes 42nd Street and Footlight Parade, as well as Ray Enright's Dames (1934) and Bacon's Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936).

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