Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Busby Berkeley and the Projected Stage

Academic journal article The Hudson Review

Busby Berkeley and the Projected Stage

Article excerpt

The final number of Busby Berkeley's 1943 movie The Gang's AU Here begins with a dozen child couples dancing a decorous polka. Up to now there's been no sign of children in die movie, which takes place at a nightclub, a stage door canteen, and a posh Westchester estate. After Alice Faye sings a chorus of the "Polka Dot Polka," she observes that though the polka may be old fashioned, the polka dot lives on. The camera irises in on the fancy cuff of a little girl's sleeve, and as a symphony orchestra launches a sensuous beguine, the screen becomes a black void filled witfi a chain of pink neon hoops, gliding around in geometric patterns. Eventually we can see that the hoops are being carried in precision formations by sixty women in leotards. The rings become discs; die discs fuse into one circle that comes closer and closer to fill the screen. Then Alice Faye's face appears, looking up into the camera, her body swathed in blue silk. The camera pulls back and the picture splits into a kaleidoscopic color design. Finally the faces of the movie's stars zoom at us successively, singing lines of the lead song, "Journey to a Star." When they've each had a turn, their faces recede until they're all stuck neady against a field of blue, like round postage stamps. In nine and a half minutes, Berkeley has taken us from a hokey stage show to a firmament of twinkling movie stars.

The Gang's All Here was screened last January as part of a tribute to Busby Berkeley at die Dance on Camera 2009 festival, co-sponsored by Dance Films Association and the Film Society of Lincoln Center. This was Berkeley's first color film, and some consider it his masterpiece. It's the one with die phallic orchestrated bananas, the organ grinders and monkeys, and Carmen Miranda playing a circular banana-xylophone and then grinning and singing as the camera pans out to gaze on her towering tutti-frutti hat. Berkeley, who died in 1976 but whose career declined in the 1950s, is now little more than a series of clichés in the rhetoric of cultural history. It's said that his movies had no plots. He supposedly didn't know a step of dancing and what few steps he required for his spectacular numbers were devised by assistants. He made die film into a medium for hallucinatory visions, but he may have gotten stuck in his own cinematic devices, like the kaleidoscopic overhead shot and the jumbo chorus lines moving in wave patterns.

As a Hollywood icon, Busby Berkeley lives on in anecdote and hype, his work a series of decontextualized numbers lifted from gauzy screenplays. Even this achievement is looked down on by dance purists for its lack of "real" dancing. There is quite a lot of individual dancing, by stars like Carmen Miranda, James Cagney, and the redoubtable Ruby Keeler, but featured dancers do become subordinated to spectacular settings like the circular pink fountain that surrounds Tony de Marco and Sheila Ryan's waltz in The Gang's All Here, and to the larger choreography of extended numbers like the polka dot fantasy.

The public was consuming Hollywood musicals at a great rate in the years surrounding World War II. Between 1930 and 1940 alone Berkeley directed fourteen pictures, most of them musicals, and staged the musical numbers for twenty-one more. In these prolific decades Hollywood scrambled to concoct excuses for new models of the product. Basic boy-meets-girl misunderstandings and happy reconciliations were refurbished, with twists of character and goofy incident, in hotels, steamships, country clubs, quaint native villages, exotic hideaways, and Utopian cities, as well as theatrical milieux. Somewhere in every edition there had to be a pretext for dancing and singing: the nightclub of Gang's AU Here, the Broadway show of 42nd Street, the movie prologues of Footlight Parade.

According to film historian James Sanders, the "backstager" thrills the authence by giving us a glimpse of the hidden world of the theater. The fact that this was a highly fictitious world didn't bother the authence; implausibility may have added to the appeal. …

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