Wednesday, September 06, 2006


The release of a 6-disc Busby Berkeley DVD set has provided a good excuse for me to revisit some of these fun movies which helped to define the classic Hollywood musical genre. Though Berkeley did direct some films, his most famous ones, including most of the films in the set, are ones for which he did only choreography and direction of musical segments, but these films are remembered today almost solely due to his contributions. Most of these 30's films involve a traditional show biz plot, usually following the travails of a group of people struggling against odds to put on a show. The cast of characters almost always involves a beleaguered director, cost-cutting producers, a charming young leading man, and a chorus girl who gets a big break at a starring role. Here, James Cagney is the director whose shady producers (one of whom is Guy Kibbee) tell him they don't want to back a new Broadway show because movies are killing the stage musical. Cagney's response is to start a whole new business creating live traveling "prologue" shows, essentially free-standing production numbers, to accompany hit movies. Just as he gets his business off the ground, he runs into trouble when a rival company starts copying his show ideas. Suspecting there's a spy in the woodwork (and there is), Cagney locks his cast and crew in the theater while they finish rehearsing three new prologues. The film climaxes with the three numbers, all Busby Berkeley spectaculars. Dick Powell, as usual, is the juvenile lead and Ruby Keeler, as usual, is the chorus girl/breakout star (though her personality is so drab and her talent so average that I have a hard time buying her sudden stardom). Joan Blondell, usually a brassy second-string dancer in the chorus, plays Cagney's secretary and love interest, though she has to battle a couple of rivals (Blondell's trampy roommate Claire Dodd and greedy ex-wife Renee Whitney) along the way. The overstuffed plot also involves the producers cheating Cagney out of money and a backstage censor (Hugh Herbert) who tries to clean up a number involving dancing cats in heat. Also in the cast is Frank McHugh as a choreographer and Ruth Donnelley as Kibbee's conniving wife. Of the three main numbers, "By a Waterfall" is the most spectacular, a kind of forerunner of the Esther Williams aquashow numbers of the 40's; "Honeymoon Hotel" is the sexy one, with lots of married men using the name Smith spending the night with their mistresses; "Shanghai Lil," which features Cagney, is a narrative number of the kind done to perfection years later by Gene Kelly. The dance numbers defy description; just see them. My favorite line: Blondell to Dodd: "As long as they have sidewalks, you'll have a job!" [DVD]

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