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Busby Berkeley Collection, The (DVD) (6-Pack)
The Busby Berkeley Collection celebrates the work of one of the most visually inventive director-choreographers in the history of film. The centerpiece is of course 42nd Street (1933) . This is the quintessential backstage musical in which young Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) goes from wide-eyed chorus girl to leading lady, urged by Warner Baxter, "You're going out there a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!" A cast that also includes Dick Powell and Ginger Rogers (when she was an RKO contract player and before she teamed up with Fred Astaire) performs "Shuffle Off to Buffalo, " "You're Getting to Be a Habit with Me," and the title tune, in which Keeler tap-dances on a black surface that turns out to be the roof of a car. Berkeley's numbers are known for their kaleidoscopic patterns, their stark black-and-white contrast, and their sheer sense of spectacle. But more than anything, they're known for their celebration of women. By the dozens, they dance, play pianos, frolic in waterfalls, and, in some of the most overtly sexual numbers, stand spread-eagled in a line as the camera passes through their legs. In many ways, the title song from Dames sums it up best: "What do you go for / to see a show for? / Tell the truth, you go to see those beautiful dames."
While Berkeley choreographed and directed the musical sequences in these films, the plot sections were generally directed by others such as Lloyd Bacon. Keeler and Powell were the most frequent headliners, supported by character players such as Joan Blondell, Guy Kibbee, and Ned Sparks, and most of the songs were contributed by Harry Warren and Al Dubin. The stories aren't much, usually revolving around the putting-together of a musical show as well as the lives and loves of chorus girls. The term "gold diggers," which is the source of the title of two of the films included in this set, refers unflatteringly to chorus girls in search of wealthy husbands.
Gold Diggers of 1933 opens with a justly famous shot of Ginger Rogers wearing an outfit of coins and singing "We're in the Money" first in English then in pig Latin. Gold Diggers of 1935 is capped by "The Lullaby of Broadway," a 14-minute story-within-a-story that seems one of the inspirations for Singin' in the Rain's "Broadway Melody." Dames (1934) has the aforementioned title tune as well as "I Only Have Eyes for You" (with Powell singing to dozens of Keeler faces). Footlight Parade changes things up a bit by starring James Cagney as a producer desperately cranking out musical numbers. Keeler and Powell emerge from their bit-character roles to headline two of the big productions stacked together at the end, while Cagney replaces Powell in the third, showing off the vaudeville hoofing skills he would use later in 1942's Yankee Doodle Dandy.
DVD supplements are generous. The sixth disc is the 163-minute Busby Berkely Disc, a former laserdisc program that collects just the musical numbers from nine films without the plot filler. Most of the numbers are already included in the films in this collection, but there are also one number each from Fashions of 1934, Wonder Bar, In Caliente, and Gold Diggers of 1937. Also on the discs are new and old featurettes (one tracks the development of 42nd Street from book to screen to stage), and vintage cartoons and shorts (one promotional short has Berkeley on-screen talking up Dames). Picture quality is about the same as on the Astaire and Rogers Collection, Vol. 1: good for the age of the material, but with noticeable fuzz and print damage. --David Horiuchi