The Busby Berkeley Collection
Technically, of course, each of the 1930s movies that features the astounding work of legendary choreographer Busby Berkeley qualifies as a musical. But you could also think of them as suspense movies. The suspense lies in waiting through the mundane setup — for an hour or so, you get some chatty backstage comedy — and wondering what kind of mindbogglingly wild and surreal production numbers will pile up in the final half-hour. These extended song-and-dance payoffs are some of the most delirious sequences in cinema history. Referring to them in merely orgasmic terms almost doesn’t do them justice.
For the last decade, I’ve been holding onto my outmoded laserdisc player primarily for one reason: In the early ’90s, Warner Home Video released a nearly three-hour compilation of these musical numbers, called The Busby Berkeley Collection, on laserdisc, and I was afraid that spectacular clip job would never find its way to DVD. At last, I can think about relinquishing that LD player, now that that desert-island disc of mine has made it to a non-defunct technology. That 163-minute program has just been released as part of a boxed set, which itself is called The Busby Berkeley Collection. The other discs in the set are devoted to five of the best Berkeley-choreographed movies: 42nd Street (the only one previously available on DVD), Footlight Parade, Gold Diggers of 1933, Gold Diggers of 1935, and Dames. Each of those individual features is augmented by vintage cartoons and featurettes, newly produced documentaries, and other fun stuff. But the primary draw is to come and meet those dancing feet.
By consensus, the ”best” of the films is 42nd Street; that’s the one that includes the famous (if usually misquoted) line, ”You’re going out a youngster, but you’ve got to come back a star!” But the most enjoyable is Footlight Parade, if only because it has real star power in addition to chorus-line power: Berkeley regulars Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, and Guy Kibbee are joined by James Cagney, playing a stage director who — surprise! — has to step in for his yellow-bellied lush of a leading man literally at the last second. If you’ve never seen Cagney do tap, or move like a cat (in some very Fosse-ish steps), you’re in for a real top-of-the-world-ma revelation. (And if you love the movie’s outrightly risqué ?Honeymoon Hotel? number, there’s a great bonus on the disc: a cartoon version of the same number, with animated insects enacting the no-tell-motel raciness.)
Even if you’ve never seen one of Berkeley’s musical acts, you’ve seen parodies. Filmmakers through the years haven’t been able to resist paying homage to those famous overhead shots, where dozens of leggy young ladies form shifting geographic patterns on a stage or in a giant pool. A personal favorite is the tracking shot that has the camera moving between the outstretched legs of a battalion of would-be Rockettes before zeroing in on the smiling faces of Powell and Keeler. He could stage a narrative number as well as any more conventional director: See the war-set ”Shanghai Lil” or the weirdly tragic ”Lullabye of Broadway” to get a sense of his storytelling. But abstraction was more his thing, and for Berkeley, there was no success like excess: His sets, which have seeming casts of hundreds milling about on heavenly staircases or diving into celestial ponds, seem to stretch on for entire city blocks.
Which adds up to a hilarious lack of verisimilitude, since all these numbers are meant to be taking place on a literal stage — Cagney is supposedly just coming up with ’em at the last minute in Footlight! — and not in a multimillion-dollar fever dream. As contemporary choreographer Randy Skinner says in one of the documentaries: ”One of the fun things…is that we, as the film audience, are really supposed to believe that these humongous production numbers are taking place on a Broadway stage. But there is no theater in the entire world that could house one of those production numbers that Busby Berkeley devised.”
One warning: Though the clip compilation in the set is invaluable, you really are better off watching the individual films, which parcel out the musical numbers as multiple movie-ending desserts. Watching the almost three-hour ”Busby Berkeley Disc” (which does include a few numbers from movies not in this set) all at once is like eating too much chocolate, riding too many rollercoasters, or (we imagine) having too much sex. Seventy years after his heyday, the movies still haven’t offered any greater pleasures than Berkeley’s patented brand of choreography porn. Just don’t take a lethal dose.