Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Triumph of the Will: as seen by Busby Berkeley

Come out, come out, come out and get your lovin'
Now don't you keep me in suspense
Come on, come on, we'll do our turtledovin'
Sittin' on a backyard fence

Come on, come on,
The little stars are peekin'
They're waiting for you to commence
Uh-huh, uh-huh, I kind of thought I'd weaken
Sittin' on a backyard fence

It may be just another little backyard alley
Off the avenue
But I can see a willow tree, a moonlit valley
In the dreams I share with you

Meow, meow, the kitty cat is cooin'
He shows a lot of common sense
He knows, he knows, there's always something doin'
Sittin' on a backyard fence!

This is only one of my favorite numbers from Footlight Parade, a classic Busby Berkeley musical from 1933. Pre-code, obviously, though this number is extremely mild compared to the hilariously charming Honeymoon Hotel, in which almost every line is full of double-entendres. But the tune is so lighthearted and the players so delightfully comedic that they get away with it. I can't find a whole version of HH, so can't post it here, and lyrics alone don't begin to get it. This little cat number, much simpler than the other three Berkeley blockbusters in this film, is a sort of warmup for the orgasmic bliss of the movie's last half-hour. And believe me, it IS orgasmic, even though I've had a few revelations about Berkeley lately that have opened my eyes.

I've seen his choreography, of course - anyone who likes old movies has, and my impression of it was always "classy kitsch". But then I couldn't help but notice the grace and precision of his dancers as they played phony violins or pianos in exact unison, or performed water ballet so perfectly synchronized it was a little bit frightening.

It IS a little bit frightening to see all this intentional, mass uniformity, and it fascinated me to find out a bit about Berkeley's background. He wasn't a dancer or a choreographer at all, wasn't even in show business. He was a drill sergeant in the army during World War I, an expert at forming precise military patterns with human bodies. This was some sort of mad genius drill sergeant, of course, and some of his visions are much darker than I realized.

I've just sent away to Amazon for a boxed set with some of his best-known stuff in it, but the one I'm looking forward to the most is Gold Diggers of 1935. His version of Lullaby of Broadway is so spooky that it's hard to see it as part of a musical at all. It's almost like a horror movie, with the singer's face starting as a tiny white dot in the middle of total blackness. Then like some toxic death-lily it gradually blooms and blooms until it dominates the screen in a way that is nothing short of macabre.

The dancing in this number is not like normal dancing, believe me. This isn't tap. I don't know what it is, but it includes aggressive arm-thrusting movements that at first look weird, then violent, then - like something out of the Third Reich. I am not exaggerating.

Hitler was well on his way by 1935, as was Leni Riefenstahl, chronichler of Hitler's rise in the infamous propoganda film, Triumph of the Will. But I was astonished to learn that, fascist as his choreography looked, it was not Berkeley who was influenced by Riefenstahl.

It was the other way around. Riefenstahl idolized American film, and American musicals in particular. She could not have failed to be dazzled by a choreographer who could get a couple hundred identical human beings to move around a stage in exact unison.

Berkeley didn't have a happy life. He married and divorced six times, killed three people in a drunken car accident, and at least once tried to commit suicide. For all that, he lived to be 80 years old. Such longevity is not always a great blessing in a person like that.

But he left these weird artifacts with their disturbing overtones. This little backyard fence number is nothing - except for a dwarf running around in a bizarre rat costume, and the inexplicably weird "thing" that Ruby Keeler rises out of and  dances around, a leering, winking, open-mouthed something that might be the moon, or something else.

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