42nd Street was on TV this morning, and I watched it while I worked. I'm familiar with Busby Berkeley movies through random clips, which I sometimes put on just to marvel at the madness and the beauty of old Broadway choreography. But I realized, as 42nd Street tapped on, that I'd never seen one of his pictures straight through. It was a hell of a lot better than I'd expected.
For one thing, it was funny—sexy and crude in the way that only pre-Code movies can be. The endless scenes of hoofers hoofing outdid All That Jazz. The party sequences made me want a highball, which is all you can ask of a roomful of fictional drunks. And the dance numbers shone, in context, much better than they do in the sad little prison of a YouTube window. Berkeley is famous for his hallucinogenic dance sequences, but I'd never considered how liberating they could be after an hour and fifteen minutes of semi-realistic Broadway toil.
What I'd never noticed about the title dance sequence before is how gradually it moves past what is actually possible on a Broadway stage. Rather than leaping straight into fantasyland—the way that SIngin' in the Rain and An American In Paris do, say—it happens gradually. We start with a woman in front of a curtain, and then pull out to reveal a couple dozen dancers. From there, the scope gets bigger and bigger, until it becomes clear the reality of the film has broken down. Along the way, your brain argues with itself, trying to rationalize the increasingly impossible space. By the time the woman jumps out the window, chased by her homicidal husband, your brain simply gives up and explodes.
Busby Berkeley—the original psychedelic.