Friday, February 19, 2010

What Do You Go For?

I've been flying solo these last couple of days, with Mr. Muscato on the road for business. As usual in such situations, I have dived into the voluminous Villa Muscato film archive, taking advantage of temporary bachelordom to catch up on various obsessions that the two of us may not entirely share.

Last night's treat was the comparatively least celebrated of Warner Bros.' run of early thirty musical spectaculars, Dames. There are perfectly legitimate reasons that it doesn't have the stature of, say, 42nd Street or Golddiggers of 1933, but it's still a fine evening's entertainment.

Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler do their usual business (brash and blushing, respectively) quite competently, and Joan Blondell, as always, livens the proceedings. The plot requires Guy Kibbee and ZaSu Pitts, as Keeler's parents, to bumble and dither as is their wont, but Pitts is oddly absent, doing nothing with what is basically a pretty nothing part (she looks like she wishes she were back with Stroheim in Greed).

The real reason for these pictures, of course, isn't the plot, but rather the numbers, and here Busby Berkeley certainly delivers. From an idyllic Central Park setting for the rather treacly "When You Were a Smile on Your Mother's Lips (and a Twinkle in Your Daddy's Eye)" to set the Powell-Keeler romance moving to the title number that highlights the inevitable show-within-a-show, the music moves along briskly. A bizarre Gibson Girl/Gay '90s number, "The Girl at the Ironing Board" gives Blondell the chance to frolic with an entire laundry's worth of en-puppetted long johns (a feint at least in part a result of her advanced pregnancy during filming).

One thing this picture does require is a very high tolerance for the standard that it launched upon the world, "I Only Have Eyes For You," of which one hears a very great deal in the course of the film's 91 minutes. It first appears early in the picture, but then gets the full-fledged demento Berkeley treatment later on, in an extravaganza that imagines the Second Coming as the Apotheosis of Ruby Keeler, or perhaps what Kim Jong Il might get up to if he had an unlimited supply of white organza (and Ruby Keeler). It might seem the last word in Bekeleyiana, but in reality it only sets the stage for the big "Dames" finale, which, like the rest of the best of Berkeley, is basically indescribable.

Actually, it's what Leni Riefenstahl might have done if she'd had better drugs and a sense of humor. In fact, it's odd having seen this movie and the Leni documentary in one week; it causes all sorts of thinking about what was really going on in people's minds in the 1930s.

I've decided that there is a truly fundamental difference between Riefenstahl's massed thousands of perfect Aryans and Berkeley's intricate compositions of giggling Hollywood chorus girls. It's that Leni came out of entertainment (having started as a dancer - of sorts, if the clips available are any indication - and actress) and applied what she had learned there to the glorification of Fascist pomp and circumstance. By contrast, Berkeley took his military-academy background - his love of regimentation, precision, the endless geometric replication of pattern - and applied it to the most basic tropes of show-biz: boy meets girl, kids meet fame (on a soundstage the size of all Burbank, in the company of endless numbers of extras moving in unison).

That is, although in some ways the products seem almost eerily similar, they're actually coming at each other from entirely different universes. One gilds a vacuous evil, giving it a frozen, gimcrack glamor; the other adds a backbone of steel to the June-Moon-Spoon of a thousand nights in Vaudeville, turning it into true cinema that's still, by virtue of its inherent absurdity, gloriously entertaining and oddly human in scale. Surely there can be few less Fascist concepts than 350 dancing Ruby Keelers, let alone having all of them serenaded by the keening croon of the eternal juvenile Dick Powell.

If only he could have done more with poor ZaSu...


  1. This blog is gold. You are a genius.

  2. Oh, Pablo, caro - de nada! And thanks ever so much back at you. Don't be strangers...

    And Felix - "Wow" is pretty much what you think through all but the (few, short) talkiest scenes in this one.

  3. Beautiful post . . . and beautiful blog.

    I would only point out that Busby Berkeley couldn't have done more with (or done anything) ZaSu Pitts even if he'd wanted to. He was only responsible for the musical numbers in 'Dames' and most of the landmarks he worked on in the 1930s. The non-Musical portions were directed by either Ray Enright or Lloyd Bacon. Berkeley had no involvement in those.

    Berkeley didn't direct a Musical in its entirety until 'Gold Diggers of 1935'; and even there, most of the time the movies still looked like someone else was handling the dialogue scenes.

  4. Praise from you, sir, is praise indeed, and you're quite right of course about the schizophrenic quality imparted by the director/dance director chasm.

    I suppose I was thinking metaphorically about La Pitts - somebody, certainly, should have done something - she just seemed so lost!