more stars than in the heavens

not in our stars, but in ourselves

Surreal Fascism: The Musical!

Do you ever find yourself sighing in disappointment as you watch a musical film?  Do you ever think, “Well, sure, Gene Kelly can dance; sure, Judy Garland can sing; but what I really want is a bizarre explosion of time and space in pure cinema, with a slice-of-life montage and seeming fascist overtones.” Well!  Have I got the number for you.

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At the end of Gold Diggers of 1935, the follow-up to Gold Diggers of 1933 (note: post- and pre-Code, and yes, I will address that), we have the utterly insane Busby Berkeley-directed “Lullaby of Broadway.” All Berkeley numbers ostensibly take place on a run-of-the-mill stage in a conventional theatre, but that doesn’t stop him.  The “Lullaby” number begins with an extreme long shot of Wini Shaw – rather, of only her face, a tiny spot of light in a sea of black.  She sings the whole song as a disembodied face in the dark:

Come on along and listen to 
The lullaby of Broadway.
The hip-hooray and ballyhoo, 
The lullaby of Broadway.
The rumble of the subway train,
The rattle of the taxis.
The daffodils who entertain
At Angelo’s and Maxie’s.

When a Broadway baby says “Good night,”
It’s early in the morning.
Manhattan babies don’t sleep tight until the dawn:
Good night, baby,
Good night, milkman’s on his way.
Sleep tight, baby,
Sleep tight, let’s call it a day,
Hey!

Come on along and listen to 
The lullaby of Broadway.
The hi-dee-hi and boo-pa-doo, 
The lullaby of Broadway.
The band begins to go to town,
And ev’ryone goes crazy.
You rock-a-bye your baby ’round 
‘Til ev’rything gets hazy.

Hush-a-bye, “I’ll buy you this and that,”
You’ll hear a daddy sayin’.
And baby goes home to her flat
To sleep all day:
Good night, baby,
Good night, milkman’s on his way.
Sleep tight, baby,
Sleep tight, let’s call it a day!
Listen to the lullaby of old Broadway.

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As she sings, the camera zooms in until her face fills the middle third of the screen.  She puts a cigarette in her mouth, turns herself upside-down, and in a dissolve, her face transforms into a map of Manhattan.  Then, we go into the map, and see the city waking up: the milkman making his rounds, newspapers being delivered, people waking up, coffee pots boiling over, commuters riding the subway, and pencils being sharpened.  While all these good little citizens are beginning their day, the Broadway Baby’s (Shaw) is just ending: she and her beau (Dick Powell) pull up in front of her apartment building, dressed to the nines after a long and boozy night out, and kiss goodbye.  She goes up to her flat, gives a stray cat some of her freshly delivered milk, and goes to bed.  That night, she wakes up and goes out again.

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Then it gets REALLY weird.  So far, we’ve just been playing fast and loose with the notion of this being a stage musical number – pretty standard, as far as Berkeley is concerned.  But then we see the Broadway Baby and her beau in their natural element: a huge, seemingly empty except for them, nightclub with strange cement-looking stairs at crazy angles.

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A dancing couple, clad all in white, swishes onto the floor.  They dance together for a little while, and then they call for reinforcements: the female half of the couple shimmies off and returns with dozens of other dancing women all in black; the male half returns to the floor with dozens of men doing something suspiciously like the “Heil Hitler” salute.  They all perform an elaborate group tap routine, and then they implore the Broadway Baby to “come and dance!” She pretends to put up a fight, but soon joins them, passing herself from man to man and then back to her beau.  She plays hard-to-get again, runs out to the balcony, and closes the glass doors behind her.  Her beau, followed by the dozens of dancers, pursues her.  He kisses her through the glass – and then the force of all those bodies behind him pushes the doors open, as the Broadway Baby plummets to her death.  The chorus sings, in hushed tones, as the camera goes back over her empty apartment, the soon-to-be starving cat outside her door, the map of Manhattan, and then Shaw’s face.  Once more, she sings, as if from beyond: “Listen to the lullaby of old Broadway!”

a Busby Berkeley Gold Diggers of 1935 DVD PDVD_013

There’s a lot to talk about here, and others have covered it much better than I can.  However, I’d like to start with the fascist overtones – you know, just for a laugh.  Berkeley denied any such overtones, but lots of people deny lots of things that are true anyway.  It was 1935.  While the rest of America may have been ignorant of what was happening in Europe, most Hollywood insiders weren’t.  Half their creative talent had come flooding over specifically because of fascism.  Besides the Hitler salute, jerkily performed several times in a row by the male dancers, there is also the interesting costume choice for the female dancers: they are literally blackshirts.  Well, black crop-tops, anyway.  The men and the women dance together in the kind of military formations for which both Berkeley and the fascists were famous: precise, repetitive, organized specifically to be photographed from above rather than understood from the ground.  Perhaps Berkeley was just having a wry joke by invoking fascist imagery here, as if to say, “Yeah, so they’re stealing my ideas over in Europe.  Top this, assholes.” I like to think so, anyway.

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But what of the fate of the poor Broadway Baby?  Why is she punished, so to speak, for being a good-time-gal?  She doesn’t seem to be hurting anyone.  Her beau seems to be perfectly happy with her.  What gives?

I’ll tell you what gives: the Production Code.  That foul instrument of oppression!  That boa constrictor of creativity and fun!  In Gold Diggers of 1933, we get a naughty number like “Pettin’ in the Park” and a subversive one like “Remember My Forgotten Man” – with no particular answers or punishments for anyone involved.  Everyone is just having a great time, or trying to get by, and nobody minds.  By 1935, the Production Code minded.  Rather, its aggressive enforcer, Joseph Breen, minded.  Mick LaSalle makes this point much better in his excellent book, Complicated Women: Sex and Power in Pre-Code Hollywood, but to summarize as best as I can: during the Pre-Code era, women were able to have just as much fun as men.  They could sleep around.  They could fall in love without necessarily wanting marriage.  They could run companies.  They could be feisty.  Once the Code, with its specifically Christian worldview, came to be upheld – well, goodbye to all that.  Vice was punished, end of story.  If you sinned, you would have to atone and/or suffer for it.  If you were a woman and you wanted to have your fun, you had better make sure it was with just one man after you’d manacled yourself to him before God and everyone else.  The Broadway Baby is a relic of a lawless time – but by 1935, lawlessness is out.  Fascism is in.  And so she literally goes out the window.

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2 comments on “Surreal Fascism: The Musical!

  1. Karen
    April 24, 2013

    Okay, you have me convinced. I’m seeing a Gold Diggers double feature in my future!

    • mcwhirk
      April 24, 2013

      All part of my evil plan… *twirls moustache wickedly*

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