“Sex and the Single Girl: The Escapades of Busby Berkeley” is a mini-retrospective currently being presented by the UCLA Film & Television Archive at the Billy Wilder Theater in Westwood.
Busby Berkeley went from directing stiff military parades to directing spiffy civilian babes in numerous musicals of the 1930s and 1940s, most notably at the (almost) no-holds-barred early ’30s Warner Bros. Much of Berkeley’s eye-popping choreography was inspired by his work for stage impresario Florenz Ziegfeld, but with the film camera adding intimacy, scope, and magic – gigantic sets changed in a nanosecond – to numbers that would have been impossible to create onstage.
What’s possibly the best musical of the 1930s, Gold Diggers of 1933, is screening tonight. The film boasts fast-paced direction (by Mervyn LeRoy), cackling dialogue, spot-on acting courtesy of a series of Warners regulars (Warren William, Ned Sparks, Guy Kibbee, Aline MacMahon, Ginger Rogers, etc.), and Joan Blondell remembering her Forgotten Man. A must.
The Gang’s All Here, which screens on Friday, also should be watched on the big screen. There’s plenty of dazzling color (the film was shot by the undeservedly forgotten master Edward Cronjager), velvety-voiced Alice Faye at her loveliest, and a tutti-frutti-hatted Carmen Miranda doing the show-stopping number to stop all shows.
Ziegfeld Girl (above right), starring three of MGM’s up-and-coming stars of the early ’40s – Hedy Lamarr, Judy Garland, and Lana Turner – is a stunning-looking remake of the studio’s silent melo Sally, Irene and Mary. The drama leaves quite a bit to be desired, but the trio of stars and the film’s production values were worth every penny.
For those wanting to escape the Great Depression – even if only for a couple of hours – the Berkeley musicals’ glittering sets, melodious tunes, and the presence of Ruby Keeler, Joan Blondell, James Cagney, and Glenda Farrell, among others, were an irresistible lure. Considering the way things are around the world as I write this post, those old Berkeley flicks may once again serve as a welcome respite from reality.
The Billy Wilder Theater is located in the Hammer Museum, 10899 Wilshire Boulevard (intersection of Wilshire and Westwood boulevards). Parking is available in the lot under the theater.
Schedule and film information from the UCLA Film & Television Archive website:
Friday August 1 2008, 7:30PM
(1931) Directed by Edward Sutherland
The second Eddie Cantor musical for Goldwyn after the extremely popular Whoopee! (1930), features the Ziegfeld star as an assistant to an unscrupulous psychic, with George Raft in a bit part as a gangster, a year before his breakout role in Scarface. The bakery is stocked full of scantily clad “Goldwyn Girls,” who sing and dance to Busby Berkeley’s overhead camera in the hilarious “Bend Down, Sister” and “My Honey Said Yes,” both titles which would have hardly passed the censor two years later, while “There’s Nothing Too Good for My Baby” features Cantor in his trademark “blackface” routine.
Prod.: Samuel Goldwyn. Screenplay: Eddie Cantor, Morrie Ryskind, David Freedman. Cinematographer: Gregg Toland. Cast: Eddie Cantor, Charlotte Greenwood, Barbara Weeks, Spencer Charters. 16mm, 80 min.
40 LITTLE MOTHERS
(1940) Directed by Busby Berkeley
This remake of a French film comedy, Le Mioche (1936), itself based on a stage play by Jean Guitton, features Eddie Cantor (in his only MGM film) as an unemployed professor who first picks up an abandoned baby and then a job at an exclusive girl’s school, i.e. if he can keep the baby a secret. Cantor’s “banjo eyes” are as large as those of the baby, who is given plenty of screen time to be cute, and in some ways Cantor is just as innocent. Cantor does sing several songs, but it is unclear why Berkeley got this assignment, other than his ability to keep young female bodies in motion during the school’s athletic activities. Bonita Granville co-stars as one of the riley students, while Dame Judith Anderson shines as the buttoned-up headmistress.
Prod.: Harry Rapf. Story: Jean Guitton. Screenplay: Dorothy Yost, Ernest Pagano. Cinematographer: Charles Lawton. Editor: Ben Lewis. Cast: Eddie Cantor, Judith Anderson, Rita Johnson, Bonita Granville, Ralph Morgan. 35mm, 88 min.
Sunday August 3 2008, 7:00PM
(1931) Directed by Sam Taylor
Although this comedy was a total box office flop, and Mary Pickford’s second to last film, the film actually reveals many charms, including some great slapstick. Pickord plays the Parisian waif, Kiki, a cleaned up version of the infamous Kiki of Montparnasse, trying to sex-up her little girl image. The public wouldn’t buy it. Nevertheless, the Busby Berkeley dance number with the “Goldwyn Girls” that Kiki throws into total disarray is inspired and for Pickford fans it is a revelation to see that her voice could sustain a sound film, even if her French accent is less than perfect.
Based on on a play by David Belasco. Prod.: Joseph M. Schenck. Screenwriter: Sam Taylor. Cinematographer: Karl Struss. Editor: Allen McNeil. Cast: Mary Pickford, Reginald Denny, Joseph Cawthorn, Margaret Livingston, Phil Tead, Fred Walton. 16mm, 89 min.
Restored print from 20th Century Fox!
BIRD OF PARADISE
(1932) Directed by King Vidor
Based on a play by Richard Walton Tully, this South Seas adventure sees hunk Joel McCrea go native, lured by the innocence and carnal magnificence of island beauty Dolores Del Rio. Busby Berkeley remains uncredited for the faux Polynesian dances, seemingly shot in firelight with dark moving bodies glistening. Vidor was a great stylist from the silent era, so despite the “potboiler” story, to quote Vidor, the film’s imagery is gorgeous. Like any Hollywood narrative of miscegenation from this period, the fantasy ends tragically, at least for the woman of color.
Based on a play by Richard Walton Tully. Prod.: David O. Selznick. Screenplay: Wells Root, Wanda Tuchock, Leonard Praskins. Cinematographer: Clyde DeVinna. Editor: Archie F. Marshek. Cast: Dolores del Rio, Joel McCrea, John Halliday, Richard Skeets Gallagher, Bert Roach. 35mm, 80 min.
* Please note the early start time.
Tuesday August 5 2008, 7:30PM
(1933) Directed by Lloyd Bacon
Realizing the presence of a spy in their midst, the Chester Kent Prologue Company is locked down, confining all of its performers within the studio until the onset of production. The result is the Berkeley showgirl collective taken to its eroticized extreme as typically intimate acts are grouped together with conventional voyeuristic settings to produce scores of shapely young women, presented en masse, rehearsing, sleeping, eating and rehearsing, yet again. This gradual buildup of sexual intensity finds ultimate release in the performance of numbers such as “Honeymoon Hotel” and, more notably, “By a Waterfall,” which features a flock of lovely nude bathers frolicking in serpentine synchrony. James Cagney, as the frantic prologue impresario, Chester Kent, displays his considerable dancing prowess in the film’s finale, “Shanghai Lil,” as he scours through an illicit opium den seeking out his beloved Chinese vamp.
Prod.: Robert Lord. Story: Robert Lord. Screenplay: Manuel Seff, James Seymour. Cinematographer: George Barnes. Editor: George Amy. Cast: James Cagney, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Frank McHugh. 35mm, 102 min.
GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933
(1933) Directed by Mervyn LeRoy
Featuring a standard backstage musical plot, Gold Diggers of 1933 was one of the top grossing films of the year, thanks in no small measure to Busby Berkeley’s staging of the musical numbers. Beginning with “We’re in the Money,” a paean to American capitalism in the midst of the Depression and ending with “Remember My Forgotten Man,” a deliriously expressionistic phantasmagoria, which directly references the infamous Veteran’s “Bonus” March of 1932, Berkeley created truly cinematic musical numbers. In between Berkeley throws in neon-lit violins, his signature overhead shots and a perverse baby, played by dwarf actor Billy Barty. Over the next few years, the troika of Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler and Joan Blondell would do it again and again in Warner’s musicals.
Preceded by a special in-person performance by Janet Klein, the enchanting and effervescent chanteuse of obscure, naughty and lovely tunes from the 1910s, 20s and 30s. Klein will perform before the screenings with her LA-based band, The Parlor Boys.
Prod.: Robert Lord. Screenplay: Erwin Gelsey, James Seymour. Cinematographer: Sol Polito. Editor: George Amy. Cast: Warren William, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell. 35mm, 96 min.
Friday August 8 2008, 7:30PM
THE GANG’S ALL HERE
(1943) Directed by Busby Berkeley
Perhaps the most Berkeley-esque of all Busby Berkeley musicals, The Gang’s All Here is sure to strike a chord amongst camp aficionados for its gloriously saturated Technicolor spectacle. Carmen Miranda sings and sashays beneath her iconic “tutti-frutti hat” while the usual phalanx of chorus line beauties brandish massive phallic bananas and red-ripe strawberries. Charlotte Greenwood jives, Benny Goodman croons and Alice Faye warbles a sultry rendition of “No Love, No Nothing,” evoking the loneliness and heartache felt by women with their men
overseas during wartime. Produced in 1943, the film is legendary for its extravagant expense, innovative sets, outrageous costumes and hallucinatory imagery – an example of Hollywood wartime escapism at its most potent.
Prod.: William LeBaron. Screenplay: Walter Bullock. Cinematographer: Edward Cronjager. Editor: Ray Curtiss. Cast: Alice Faye, Carmen Miranda, Phil Baker, Benny Goodman. 35mm, 103 min.
MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID
(1952) Directed by Mervyn LeRoy
Esther Williams lends her considerable aquatic talents to her role as Annette Kellerman – the real-life champion swimmer, inventor of the water ballet, movie star and early advocate of the once scandalous single-piece women’s bathing suit – in this fanciful biopic/aquacade. Despite her humble beginnings in Australia – a crippled child who, forced to wear painful steel leg braces, teaches herself to swim to overcome her disability – Kellerman rises in notoriety in Europe and the United States. Staging long-distance swims and novelty shows, she ultimately becomes a swimming sensation headlining New York’s Hippodrome Theater, all the while struggling between love and a career. Victor Mature co-stars as James Sullivan, a carnival concession proprietor who, quick to recognize a “colorful and exploitable package” partners with Kellerman to produce her first “tank act.”
Prod.: Arthur Hornblow Jr.. Screenplay: Everett Freeman. Cinematographer: George J. Folsey. Editor: John McSweeney Jr.. Cast: Esther Williams, Victor Mature, Walter Pidgeon, David Brian, Donna Corcoran. 35mm, 115 min.
Tuesday August 12 2008, 7:30PM
(1933) Directed by Lloyd Bacon
Berkeley’s first major work was also the first in a series he produced for Warner Brothers in 1933 to revitalize the, then sagging, musical genre. Set against a frank backdrop of Depression-era struggles, this quintessential “backstage” musical chronicles the making of a Broadway production rife with crude banter and casting-couch innuendo. Dorothy Brock (Daniels) – a seasoned diva whose sexuality secures a leading role for her and financial backing for the show – is a perfect counterpoint to wholesome, gee-golly ingénue, Peggy Sawyer (Keeler), while routines set to Harry Warren – Al Dubin standards, including the “naughty, bawdy and gaudy” title-tune, are charming and devilish delights.
Prod.: Darryl Zanuck. Screenplay: Rian James, James Seymour. Cinematographer: Sol Polito. Editor: Thomas Pratt. Cast: Warner Baxter, Bebe Daniels, George Brent, Ruby Keeler, Guy Kibbee. 35mm, 89 min.
(1941) Directed by Robert Z. Leonard
Given their mutual affinity for the female form divine, Berkeley was an obvious choice to choreograph a film showcasing legendary theater impresario Florenz Ziegfeld Jr.’s fabled panoply of “Follies” chorus girls. Performing alongside Judy Garland and Hedy Lamarr, Lana Turner takes center stage as Sheila Regan, a small town girl with grandiose ambitions and a taste for luxury. Scaling the dizzying heights of fame as a titular Ziegfeld Girl, just watch her “count her blessings” as she falls headlong (in faithful accordance with the Hays Code) towards a punishment befitting the hedonistic vices afforded to a successful working girl.
Prod.: Pandro S. Berman. Screenplay: Marguerite Roberts, Sonya Levien. Cinematographer: Ray June. Editor: Blanche Sewell. Cast: James Stewart, Judy Garland, Hedy Lamarr, Lana Turner, Tony Martin. 35mm, 131 min.