not in our stars, but in ourselves
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: no Surrealist can match the sheer nuttiness of a Busby Berkeley movie. And in Footlight Parade (1933), he’s at his nutty best. We’ve got pussycats. We’ve got quickie marriages. We’ve got pervy babies. We’ve got naiads. We’ve got barroom brawls. We’ve got opium dens.
We’ve got dancers forming an American flag with FDR’s face superimposed…
…and then re-forming into the New Deal eagle.
It gets WEIRD. And awesome. The only time Berkeley surpassed this level of batshit insanity was with the truly astonishing “Lullaby of Broadway” number in Gold Diggers of 1935 (see it here and here and do not doubt me), but only just.
But let’s backtrack, because technically Berkeley isn’t the director; Lloyd Bacon is. And there’s more to it than just the musical numbers, although they’re the whole point – in terms of both plot and cinematic fabulousness. As I’ve said, looking for a plot in one of these wild Warner Brothers musicals is an exercise in futility, but they always make some sort of attempt at it, god love ’em. The film opens with an announcement: Hollywood is going to be all talking, all singing, all dancing. Stage musicals are a thing of the past, because it’s cheaper for theatre owners to put on a musical film. That doesn’t sit right with stage musical wunderkind Chester Kent (James Cagney) – but he has to adapt. He puts out “prologues” instead of full-scale musicals, to be performed before the film. His secretary, Nan (Joan Blondell), is crazy about him but he’s got bad taste in women – and Nan is great.
There’s all kinds of backstage nonsense as Chester struggles to devise three dazzling prologues that will woo a successful theatre owner to sign a contract with his company; and as new juvenile Scotty Blair (Dick Powell) and dancer/secretary/dancer again Bea Thorn (Ruby Keeler, adorable and terrible as ever) pretend to hate each other and then love each other as soon as she gets a smart new makeover; and as Chester very nearly commits matrimony with gold-digging Vivian Rich (Claire Dodd), who is introduced by Nan as “Miss Bit — I mean, Rich”; and as a bumbling representative of some censorship office or other makes a lot of plainly idiotic statements about what can and can’t be on the stage because “you know Connecticut”; and on and on and on.
It’s a busy little hour and a half.
There’s a lot in that nonexistent plot that would be quite interesting to address in its own right, but I’ll leave that for later, or for someone else. What fascinates me, and what keeps me coming back to all kinds of Berkeley movies (but especially this one – my favorite of them all), is how purely cinematic they are. They don’t make sense. Within the diegesis, they’re meant to take place on a standard-issue stage, as if they were a revue of some sort. But they explode space open; they use cuts and close-ups and dissolves to advance the action within the routine; they employ formations that would make no sense if they occurred on an actual stage, because they’re meant to be seen from above or below or wherever; they include swimming pools and subway cars and even animation sometimes. They are, in short, stunning bits of nonsense.
I vaguely remember reading or watching or hearing one of the Beatles saying that he was quite proud of A Hard Day’s Night, because there are parts of it that are just “pure film.” Four silly Liverpudlians goofing around in a field may not make for narrative or thematic development – but it can be awesome to look at. That’s just what Busby Berkeley’s numbers established as a precedent: it doesn’t have to advance anything in the plot, and in some ways is better if it doesn’t. It’s just a ten-minute extravaganza of the power of film to create meaning out of what would have been chaos otherwise. Isn’t that great? I think that’s great. You should watch Footlight Parade, or Gold Diggers of 1933, or Dames, or 42nd Street, and see what you think. You won’t even think – you’ll just find yourself a bit starry-eyed. Trust.