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The Busby Berkeley Collection
reviewed by Matt Hinrichs

March 31 , 2006 | Think "Busby Berkeley" and you might picture dozens of female bodies arranged in abstract patterns. Or apple-cheeked lovers Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler harmonizing under a tree. Or chubby chorines high-stepping on sets too huge for any normal-sized theatre. Seen several decades later, Berkeley's work reveals him as master of equal parts kitsch and innovation. His imaginative staging of musical numbers introduced a new vocabulary to filmmaking, a style and panache that still reverberates in today's TV commercials and music videos.

Berkeley's Warner Brothers films in particular reflected the naughty, baudy, gaudy, sporty spirit of Depression-era America's consciousness like nothing else done in any media during that time. These films have finally gotten the deluxe DVD treatment they deserve with Warner's new box set The Busby Berkeley Collection.

The box collects five of the most iconic musicals Berkeley worked on at Warner's -- 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933 and 1935, Footlight Parade, and Dames. It must be said that the entertainment in these films is not entirely Berkeley's responsibility. The hallmarks of the studio's early '30s output -- quick pacing, economical storytelling, palatable sense of grim reality -- came as much from the assured hands of journeymen studio directors Mervyn LeRoy, Lloyd Bacon, and Ray Enright as from Berkeley. And where would any of them be without the instantly hummable songs of Harry Warren and Al Dubin?

For such escapist entertainment, these earlier musicals refuse to ignore the hardships of show business -- especially 42nd Street, the film that started it all. The backstage saga of the naive chorus girl who replaces the lead on Broadway may have passed into clich, but there's a gritty rawness here that gives the story an emotional resonance rare in musicals. All involved have to make sacrifices. The female characters sacrifice their sexuality to get decent roles in the show. The men sacrifice their money (or, in the case of Warner Baxter's harried director, their personal lives) to ensure the show's success. The cast endures arduous rehearsals, the show almost falls through, but in the end everyone perseveres in triumph -- a valuable message to 1933 filmgoers.

Watching all of these films together allows one to notice a glaring fact: as Berkeley's numbers became more lavish and daring over time, the films they supported became that much more formulaic. The pre-Code Gold Diggers of 1933 still dazzles with a top-notch cast and Berkeley's "Shadow Waltz" (with dozens of chorines playing neon-gilded violins) and "Remember My Forgotten Man" (his most socially relevant work). Footlight Parade stands out for James Cagney's dynamic lead performance and the knockout punch of three climactic numbers lined up in a row. By the time Dames came out in 1934, a familiar pattern sets in -- although Berkeley's proto-psychedelic staging of the title number remains a weird gem. The contrived country club shenanigans of Gold Diggers of 1935 might be completely forgotten if it weren't for the deliriously unsettling "Lullabye of Broadway" number. The combination of expressionistic camera angles, oppressive armies of tap dancers, and one tragic party gal add up to Berkeley's masterpiece.

Warner Home Video has packaged these DVDs with a host of excellent bonuses. Except for 42nd Street (which is a direct copy of an earlier DVD release), every disc contains newly produced featurettes, vintage shorts and cartoons, and original movie trailers. The featurettes are nicely done and earn points simply for not including the same three talking heads that seem to appear on the DVDs for every other pre-1960s film. The gathered experts (including filmmakers John Landis and John Waters) provide great insights on the making of these films and heartfelt appreciations from a fan's perspective. Also of interest are the animated shorts which Warner Bros. made to capitalize on the songs featured in these films. Intended to compete with Walt Disney's Silly Symphonies, the results are both hyper-cute and bizarre.

And that's not all - the set also includes a sixth disc of Berkeley's musical numbers isolated from the films they appeared in. Although this volume repeats the same material from the other discs, a few other numbers Berkeley staged at Warner Bros. are also included (with the notable exception of the lavish but non-p.c. "Goin' to Heaven on a Mule" performed by Al Jolson in Wonder Bar). The clips can be played in a nonstop program, a veritable orgy of Berkeleyana.

Matt Hinrichs is a Phoenix-based writer and designer. In addition to Mindjack Film, he blogs regularly at scrubbles.net.

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