Archive for Busby Berkeley

Death and the Non-Maiden

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , on March 17, 2017 by dcairns

ZIEGFELD GIRL is interesting and diverting alright. It’s in some ways the complete MGM film — it returns to the Follies, a subject of obsession for the studio, it would seem, and it reprises the formula of all those late silent/early soundie Joan Crawford movies (OUR DANCING DAUGHTERS, OUR BLUSHING BRIDES etc), featuring three girls (the title sells it short) with dreams of success. In such stories there’s always a Bad Girl who has sex, we are led to believe, out of wedlock and for reasons of business rather than love, and her success is short-lived with a bitter aftermath. The Good Girl usually achieves what the Bad Girl wanted by holding back on sex until it’s been sanctified by a priest and the Hays Office. There’s also an In-Between Girl who can show a middle path or be comedy relief or, in this case, be Judy Garland, whose storyline has nothing to do with sex or romance at all.

What’s interesting is to see the MGM studio machine trying to digest Busby Berkeley. There’s less black and much, much more white in these numbers than one would get at Warner Bros, and there’s slightly more of an attempt to weave the musical numbers into the plot and to make us believe they might really be happening on a stage, though of course we’re not fooled.

Busby’s earlier work had something to do with death — actual fatalities feature as part of the choreography in ROMAN SCANDALS, GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 and 42ND STREET. Here, there’s what ought to be a great opportunity for him, with Lana Turner (the Bad Girl) passing out drunk during a show and nearly suffering a severe accident while dressed as an exotic tree. But it feels like MGM have subdivided duties on this, with Robert Z Leonard (The Z that stands for Zigler) handling Lana’s swaying and woozy closeups, while Berkeley just stages a big musical number without reference to the turmoil beneath the surface. Although I guess it IS a particularly grotesque, distended and peculiar one, and Judy Garland IS more than usually maniacal. But there’s no welcome sense that this is due to any subjective affect emanating from Lana.

Later, Lana leaves her sickbed to attend one last Follies show as customer, an amazing colossal extravaganza (which, loooong as it is, seems to have been truncated by MGM from some previous, unimaginably huge form) and again we miss the chance to experience a Busby Berkeley number through the eyes of a dying audience member. But I will admit, Leonard pulls out all the stops for Lana’s eventual demise, a kind of glam La Boheme.

It made me a bit angry that Lana has to die — she’s already REFORMED at this point, ffs. What more do you want from the girl? I guess killing her off was an opportunity for more emotion, but of course you could theoretically kill any of the characters off and have that — for Lana to croak, there has to be an offensive underlying sense that this is natural justice or divine justice or something. Sex is as fatal under the Production Code as it is in a slasher movie.

But she does look awfully good expiring. I realize I haven’t seen many of her earlier films or if I have (e.g. THE GREAT GARRICK), I don’t recall paying any attention to her. Seeing her at this age is like seeing young Liz Taylor after being slightly puzzled by her in later films. Suddenly everything makes sense — my God, she IS beautiful. The implausibly large, narrowed eyes, the tiny, stoma-like mouth, with fleshy lips that make is almost as tall as it is wide, the adorable snub nose. All so white — perfect for the whiteness of MGM and Cedric Gibbons sets. A deco cherub. The girl with the ice-cream face.

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The Continental Hop

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , on February 24, 2017 by dcairns

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We had Marvelous Mary round for dinner, and we were all set to watch GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933, which is one of Fiona’s top ten films but which Mary had never seen. But then the butternut squash took a long time to cook, and I put the Busby Berkeley extracts disc on to pass the time, and by the time dinner was ready we were all Busbied out. His version of b&w is particularly intense — obsidian dance floors that wait like inky pools to swallow the milky flesh of luminous chorines, the whole studio-enclosed universe a fractal yin-yang. (Of course, when Busby got his hands on Technicolor ooh boy!)

So we jumped sideways from Warners to RKO and watched THE GAY DIVORCEE instead.

Of course, the film is structured entirely as a vehicle for Fred & Ginger as they disport themselves before the same rear-projection screen that held King Kong (Night and Day!), but it has a good farce plot — Ginger’s marriage to a geologist is on the rocks; she engages a professional co-respondent to produce grounds for divorce; but Fred has already fallen in love with her and an unlikely coincidence (“Chance is the fool’s name for fate”) causes him to be mistaken for the paid philanderer…

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On top of this, the supporting cast, starting with Edward Everett Horton and Alice Brady, and then escalating to Eric Blore and Erik Rhodes, bring a huge amount of subsidiary entertainment. The Erics are fascinating. Blore varied his schtick very little over his career, but he didn’t need to. He was perfection. And Rhodes’ performance as Tonetti the professional co-respondent raises the fatuous to the sublime. (Always note at this point that his performance got the film banned in Mussolini’s Italy.)

“I wonder if he’s wearing co-respondent shoes,” said Mary. It turns out that these are brogues in two colours. But we didn’t get a clear shot of his feet. After all, he’s not Fred.

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And then the Continental started, and never seemed to end. I’m sure this number isn’t the actual longest musical interlude in screen history, but it seems to set out to create the impression that it is. Mary and Fiona kept asking me if it was nearly over. “Not until they get to the Russian montage part,” I said.

“Are they going to chuck a baby down those steps?” asked Mary.

The Continental continued. It may be that it is continuing still, that, like Philip K Dick’s Roman Empire, it never ended.

“It was a different age, I suppose,” mused Mary.

“It was by the time they’d finished doing the Continental,” I said.

But somehow the story resumed, and was wrapped up in a clever way, and then Fred and Ginger danced off to a reprise of — the Continental.

“SHE’S wearing co-respondent shoes!” declared Mary. And she was.

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Davy Jones’ Looker

Posted in Dance, Fashion, FILM, MUSIC, Mythology, Sport with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on January 30, 2017 by dcairns

OK, nobody wanted to wade in (excuse the pun) and guess which of these Esther Williams stories are true, which is probably just as well they’re ALL true. Even the one about Victor Mature eating cardboard.

As she admitted, Esther’s movies were largely made to a formula, which makes them great comfort food if you’re low, and we were pretty damn low over the purportedly festive season. Esther Williams movies we have watched —

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TAKE ME OUT TO THE BALL GAME — not a proper Esther Williams movie — she only swims once, briefly — but a very good musical, though a lesser example of Comden and Green’s scripting and song-writing, Busby Berkeley’s direction, Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen’s musical staging (they essentially got Berkeley fired so they could handle the dancing themselves) and Kelly, Sinatra and Jules Munchin’s team comedy playing. But it does have a great scene of Betty Garrett aggressively pursuing Frankie. A nice limbering-up for ON THE TOWN.

Kelly hated Esther for being taller than him. “The sonofabitch even sits tall!” he complained.

Esther’s singing was dubbed and she struggled to dance but we were so charmed by her acting — she compared notes with her non-actor co-star, Sinatra. “I just talk like I’m talking to one of my friends.” “Yeah, that’s what I do too.” So we wanted to see more of this terrific actress.

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We quickly discovered another part of Esther’s appeal. Her films are sexy, at least as long as the swimming is happening. Actually, her acting is pretty sexy too. (She has a posed, skeptical quality. She always seems like a challenging girl to impress.) In the forties and fifties, an Es film would be one of the few places you could get a realistic idea of the feminine form, shorn of shoulder pads and bullet bras. Though swimming gave her a streamlined form — flat ass, small breasts — it was a form audiences could actually SEE and appreciate. There is absolutely no conflict between her athleticism and her feminine allure.

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BATHING BEAUTY. See here. Esther complained later in life that she overacted in this one — “all that eye-rolling” — but she was too hard on herself. The film is disjointed and overstuffed with random novelty acts, but Esther manages to humanize Red Skelton somewhat and this is the movie that really gave us synchronized swimming. The script calls for Esther to be a little unsympathetic, which in turn requires us to suspend disbelief a little more strenuously than we’d have to during the insane water ballet.

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NEPTUNE’S DAUGHTER uses the title of an earlier film starring the first screen swimming star, Australian champion Annette Kellerman, but has nothing in common with it. Much business is given to Red Skelton, who we’ve actually started finding funny, and to Betty Garrett, who is ALWAYS welcome. Throw in Ricardo Montalban (I explained the Good Neighbor Policy to Fiona) and you have a pretty entertaining bag of bits.

MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID is the famous one, and it does have the sensational and retina-melting Busby Berkeley number near the end, which is Esther’s real claim to immortality. Just as well, since they contrived to break her neck shooting it. The movie is a bio of Annette Kellerman. Even though they made most of it up, they saddled themselves with a disjointed one-thing-after-another non-structure. Most of Esther’s roles have a mildly feminist tone, but his one craps out by crippling her before the fade-out. I *think* they imply she’s going to recover in Victor Mature’s arms, but it could be clearer, especially since it never happened.

The real Kellerman visited the set, looking morose. “It’s such a pity you’re not Australian,” she told Es.

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This is the costume that broke Esther’s neck. The crown acted as a cup, catching the water when she dove in, and thrusting her head back, HARD. Three vertebrae cracked. When she surfaced, everyone had gone to lunch and she had to tread water until she could get help.

THE HOODLUM SAINT. Dull. This was MGM’s experiment to see if audiences would take to Esther out of the water and out of Technicolor, but it wasn’t a fair test as the script is so sluggish. Too much saintliness, hardly any hoodlummery. William Powell is, of course, enjoyable. In Esther’s very first onscreen moment with him she has to slap his face. They told her just to go for it, disregarding her athletic form… She smacked him, and half his face collapsed like he’s had a stroke. “Oh, I’m so sorry, I broke your face!” Make-up rushed in, to re-attach the little bits of tape tightening his skin to make him look younger…

The main reason this one doesn’t seem such a good vehicle for Es is not the lack of sub-aqua dance, it’s that the plot doesn’t allow her to look around her in skeptical amusement. She can direct some of her disbelief at Powell, but a Technicolor musical gives you far more scope to project that aura of “Can you believe this? Me neither. But let’s play along with it.”

DANGEROUS WHEN WET is the other best-known one, and it actually has a story. Es has great chemistry with the self-satisfied Fernando Lamas — the script stops him from ever getting macho. This is the one where she swims with Tom & Jerry (dream sequence), and though the logic of an underwater cat and mouse escapes me, it’s a fun sequence. Preview audiences couldn’t process it and didn’t know how to response until Hanna-Barbera animated in $10,000 of bubbles to PROVE that it was underwater.

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ZIEGFELD FOLLIES. Esther’s bit is beautifully lit and designed — Vincente Minnelli is the man in charge. James Melton sang away but ended up on the cutting room floor. Esther felt his section never made sense because “I was underwater. I couldn’t hear him sing and he couldn’t see me swim.”

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EASY TO LOVE has Berkeley again but he doesn’t get to do much spectacle until the climactic waterskiing scene. Esther, who had never skied, has to do it while avoiding explosive water jets, and she was too short-sighted to actually steer away from the danger spots… Van Johnson and Tony Martin compete insipidly.

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EASY TO WED is a remake of LIBELLED LADY, with Es in the Myrna Loy role, Van Johnson as William Powell and Johnson’s real-life partner Keenan Wynn as Spencer Tracy. Lucille Ball gets some laughs in the Jean Harlow part but can’t actually convince us she’s dumb enough. Buster Keaton seems to have contributed to Johnson’s slapstick duck-hunting scene, which is actually pretty funny (there’s very good canine actor — a veritable Spaniel Day-Lewis). Great mariachi band gag at the end, but not a great end. Johnson appears to come out of it bigamously wed to Esther and Lucille, which is a surprise. Made us want to watch the original.

Mere seconds of swimming in this one.

JUPITER’S DARLING. See here. Has spectacular deep-sea swimming and amazing dream sequence where Greek statues come to life and swim with Esther (rather than sinking to the bottom as you might expect). This one stirred the suspicions of the censor since the scantily-clad marble Adonis seemed a bit too frisky, and had not even been properly introduced to Esther’s character. There’s really no way to read him other than as a sex fantasy by a woman who just isn’t satisfied with what George Sanders is offering…