Busby Berkeley Dreams
What glorious posthumous revenge: After a career spent playing second fiddle to directors whose films he brightened (or rescued) with his cinematic dance extravaganzas, Busby Berkeley finally gets his name on the top line. The Busby Berkeley Collection gathers five of the peerless dance director's Warner Brothers projects onto deluxe DVDs, providing a lovely introduction for Berkeley neophytes and a long-awaited blessing to fans tired of renting that same scrappy VHS copy of Gold Diggers of 1933 from Broadway Video.
Each of the movies in the set—42nd Street, Dames, Footlight Parade, and two Gold Diggers films (1933 and 1935)—showcases the vast and extravagant dance pageants that are synonymous with Berkeley's name. But only Gold Diggers of 1933 places Berkeley's magical musical numbers in a film that lives up to their promise. Set during the Depression's darkest year, GD o'33 is one of the greatest comedies ever made, a true cinematic classic. Depression comedies are often remembered as pure escapism, lighthearted tonics for a nation that desperately needed the diversion. In Gold Diggers of 1933, the facts of the Depression are front and center, informing and contextualizing everything from the featherweight plot (tracking a phalanx of stage actresses as they wreak romantic revenge on the moneyed snoots who dismiss them as chiselers) to the snappy, vaguely Muppet-y acting style (when times are dire, friends help friends by behaving hilariously). The whole confection remains plenty frothy, but the desperation of the age cuts through the comic proceedings in rich and shocking ways, from tiny moments like Joan Blondell's phone call after the girls land work (she shares the good news through ragged sobs) to Berkeley's show-closing "Parade of the Forgotten Man," a dark musical tribute to the Great War's discarded veterans, where Berkeley's typical parade of gorgeous ladies is replaced by hordes of broken and bloodied soldiers.
Both 42nd Street and Footlight Parade boast a similarly honest relationship to the facts of the age, making use of the stark Depression backdrops, albeit with iffier results than the miraculous Gold Diggers of 1933 (though Footlight's tap dancing James Cagney is definitely something to see). But the two Gold Diggers follow-ups—Dames and Gold Diggers of 1935—completely reject reality in favor of brain-dead escapism. Consisting largely of uninspired comedy and extended shopping montages, these films have little to offer beyond the requisite magnificent Busby Berkeley dance numbers, which, in the lesser films, pop up like a symphony crashing an open mic night.
So thank God for the box set's final component—The Busby Berkeley Disc, which compiles all of Berkeley's cinematic dance creations onto one DVD, instantly creating the greatest stoner film of all time. (If there's anything more hilariously disturbing than Ginger Rogers singing "We're in the Money" in pig Latin while dressed as a penny, I haven't seen it.) Fuck CGI; Berkeley's works are triumphs of planning and execution and remain as astonishing today as they did upon their release.