Director: Busby Berkeley
By Marilyn Ferdinand
Hey, kids, let’s read a review!
When Greg at Cinema Styles decided to throw a Spirit of Ed Wood blogathon, I had to do a lot of thinking. I tried to distill the essence of Wood in my mind to try to find a kindred spirit out there who displays those characteristics that make Ed Wood Ed Wood, who might even have been an inspiration to the indomitable Eddie. You know what I’m talking about—production values that are so dazzlingly bad they’re good, a script only a mother could love, and a dogged determination to look at the whole sow’s ear and proclaim it the finest, pearl-beaded silk purse ever to have been Made in Japan. And, although I admit that he doesn’t spring immediately to mind, I finally resolved that were Ed Wood alive today, he’d have evolved his movie-making to emulate perhaps the greatest purveyor of fantasmagoria ever to haunt a sound stage, Busby Berkeley.
Berkeley is best known today for his kaleidoscopic dance numbers of gargantuan proportions, true mutants that push the movie musical into the scifi country where Ed Wood hung his hat. When Berkeley worked his impossible-dream magic, his penchant for cheesy-looking floating heads, bubble-blowing mermaids, and deconstructed musical instruments swelled to accommodate a recital by King Kong made for a bit of hair-raising suspense. Was the Big Monkey going to show up and pull a few bananas out of Carmen Miranda’s 40-foot-wide fruit tiara?
The Berkeley film that screams Ed Wood to me is Babes in Arms, a 1939 Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland musical that captures all the enthusiasm of those crazy kids—Berkeley and Wood—who just wanted to make good in show business. I think Henry Hill as a Broadway producer named Maddox and Rooney as Mickey Moran, a young ham suffocating in greasepaint, said it best:
Moran: We’re going to make good for him, too.
Maddox: Yes, and you’re going to make good for a lot of other people.
Maddox: For the millions of kids who never had a chance. For the millions of kids without a wiseacre who’s telling them there’s no such thing as an American dream. Well, those kids have got their eyes on you because you’re being given your chance. And, by the Bones of Bacchus, you’d better make good.
Moran: Gee, it’s bigger than just a show. Say, it’s everybody in the country.
And everybody in the country was looking forward to beating up Hitler and Mussolini for destroying the economy, which “God’s Country,” the closing number of this musical, reveals to be Berkeley’s purpose all along.
At first, the film looks like the usual younger vs. older generation story, pitting established vaudevillians against the swinging new guard who just happen to be their children. Mickey and Patsy Barton (Garland) are sweethearts who are trying to break into show biz to help their parents, whose prosperity in vaudeville has vanished with the defection of their audiences to talking pictures. While the old timers, led by Mickey’s pop Joe Moran (Charles Winninger), try to revive vaudeville with a tour, Mickey decides to write and produce his kind of show. He fires up all the other vaudeville kids who live in his town—a haven for show people thanks to Judge Black (Guy Kibbee), who fends off Elmira Gulch, I mean, Martha Steele (Margaret Hamilton) from placing the kids in a home—and they march around the crummy-looking set to the rocket-launching “Babes in Arms,” gather wood, and build a bonfire.
Rehearsals hit a snag when Don Brice (Douglas McPhail) and Moran’s sister Molly (Betty Jaynes, McPhail’s wife) don’t put enough feeling into their love duet “Where or When.” Brice blames the suspended canoe Mickey’s put them in, but when they get out of it, it’s plain that this operatic duo can’t loosen up. It’s actually painful to watch Jaynes form her tones with a mouth so tight she looks about ready to pop. Berkeley, in his wisdom, sees no reason to do anything but shoot her close-up, full face—no flattering angles for him, no sir. A pint-sized orchestra provides scratchy-toned comedy for this touching scene.
Patsy and Mickey’s love is tested when an angel for the show comes to the rescue—on condition she gets to play the lead reserved for Patsy. Baby Rosalie Essex (June Preisser) is looking for a comeback project and thinks this is it. Preisser is really quite funny as a Shirley Temple knockoff, pampered but not spoiled the way the script seems to suggest she should be. Mickey’s all business, but a stage kiss he gives Baby sends Patsy packing to see her mother on the road; at least, we get to hear Garland sing the beautiful “I Cried for You” in compensation for this lame lover’s quarrel.
Mickey’s show goes on as scheduled (with an adult orchestra; I guess the munchkins had a shooting conflict on The Wizard of Oz set) and a Broadway producer shows up to see what the young turks of entertainment have to offer. He gets a minstrel show. I simply have no comment about that, but then, I don’t need one. The script offers up a hurricane to stop the show. I can see Berkeley putting on his angora sweater and spinning the over-the-top opera La Gioconda in his trailer right about now.
After his reverie, Berkeley remembers he has to tie up the loose ends. Of course, the Broadway producer wants to put the show on, and Patsy gets to play the lead after all. The vaudevillians give up the ghost to the future and everyone feels good about America. The end.
I think Berkeley was watching Oz being filmed while he tinkered with the script. Garland has that same scream of concern (“oOH! oOH!”) when Mickey faints that she has numerous times when her companions on the Yellow Brick Road run into difficulties. She picks flowers just like Dorothy Gale picked poppies. There are munchkins, a wicked “witch” played by Margaret Hamilton, and a hurricane in place of a twister. And all the money that was poured into Oz meant there was nothing left for Berkeley. This is the cheapest-looking MGM musical I’ve ever seen, making it impossible for Berkeley to fully realize his dreams, which I’m sure included making the bonfire outshine the burning of Atlanta and a minstrel show that would have had 1,000 pickaninnies in a vast field of cotton and Judy Garland singing atop a cotton gin.
But in the true spirit of Ed Wood, Berkeley works with what he has (including deadly lyrics by Arthur Freed) and creates something so offensively bad, it’s compulsively watchable. Hi dee ho!