Though Busby Berkeley is not listed as director in any of the They Shoot Pictures 1000 Greatest Films, it's safe to say that 42nd Street (TSPDT #437), Golddiggers of 1933 (TSPDT #572) and Dames would have no chance of making the list were it not for the contributions of this most seminal of Hollywood musical choreographers. The last half hour of Dames features some of Berkeley's most dazzling numbers. "I Only Have Eyes For You" ostensibly a cinematic love letter to Warner Brothers stalwart Ruby Keeler, blossoms into a many-splendored meditation in movement: the star image as that well-worn paradox of intimate and accessible, unequivocally singular and infinitely reproducible. Along these lines, Berkeley's compositions oscillate between close-up and wide shot, human figures dissolving into abstract geometries. These themes are pushed to even greater visual extremes in the climactic title number, a celebratory confluence of capitalist desire for abundance, sexual provocation/objectification, avant garde cubism and quasi-fascist pageantry and precision - in other words, it encapsulates the major themes of the 1930s better than any other ten minutes in cinema. These numbers also flirt with titillation as much as could be expected of any movie produced under the then-recently imposed Hays Code, whose hardline measures limiting mature content in Hollywood are openly mocked in the film's flimsy plot lampooning a millionaire's decency campaign. Leads Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell are fun to watch, square as they may come across by today's standards, they beam enough youthful exuberance to have given their contemporary audience a temporary lift from their Depression-era woes.
Want to go deeper? Dames gets four stars in Musicals101.com, John Kenrick's stunning chronological listing of just about every film musical ever made.
"Dames," Warner Brothers' latest musical film, had its première at the Strand last night, and perhaps the best way of dealing with it is to report that most members of the first-night audience left the theatre humming or whistling "I Only Have Eyes for You" and were able to look, with eyes grown accustomed to brilliant spectacle, into a battery of arc lights trained upon the theatre's entrance... Speaking of the spectacles—which, after all, are the essence of "Dames" and its ilk—the black-and-white effects in the "Dames" number certainly are as striking as any ever filmed. It is almost unforgivable to say that the audience gasped. However, "the audience gasped."
- From the New York Times original review of the 1934 New York premiere at the Strand Theater
It takes longer than usual to dispense with the plot (something about a public decency campaign waged against a Broadway show) and get down to the three Busby Berkeley numbers that are every Warner musical's raison d'etre. But the wait is worth it for "I Only Have Eyes for You," a literally hallucinatory number in which Dick Powell imagines every female resident of New York City transformed into Ruby Keeler--a main extension of Berkeley's obsession with multiplication and symmetry. With Joan Blondell, Guy Kibbee, Hugh Herbert, and ZaSu Pitts; Ray Enright directed the nonmusical sequences (1934). 90 min.
- From Dave Kehr's capsule for
"I Only Have Eyes for You":
Dames is a lesser-known entry in the Berkeley canon, but it has its rewards. With its story of sanitizing show business, the film skewered hypocrites who hide their dirty little secrets behind Puritan finger-wagging. Not coincidentally, the plot mirrors changes in Hollywood. Dames was produced the same year that the Code cracked down on movie indecency; the earlier “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” from 42nd Street, “Pettin’ in the Park” from Gold Diggers of 1933, and “Honeymoon Hotel” from Footlight Parade would have been too suggestive for America’s newly disinfected screens. Berkeley was not cowed by the restrictions; he instead found new kaleidoscopic games to play with his camera. If Dames does not satisfy on the level of its predecessors, it celebrates Keeler to campy proportions with an extended version of the lilting “I Only Have Eyes for You.” “The Girl at the Ironing Board” lacks grand scale, but it is as weird as anything Berkeley ever concocted, with Blondell pairing off with various articles of clothing animated by a maze of thin wires.
- Matthew Kennedy for Bright Lights Film Journal
"Girl at the Ironing Board":
Review from The DVD Journal
Notes on Busby Berkeley:
Busby Berkeley's Wikipedia entry
Emily Banneker of Metroblogging Los Angeles ranks Berkeley #20 among the "Greatest Dead Angelenos" (right behind M.F.K. Fisher) and celebrates him with several images and YouTube clips.
As Berkeley created the illusion of theatre in his musical numbers, so too he created the illusion of dance. Having never studied dance, he rarely relied on trained dancers. Instead, he preferred to create movement through cinematic rather than choreographic means. Occasionally, when he included sophisticated dance routines, such as in the Lullaby of Broadway number from Gold Diggers of 1935, he highlighted the dancers' virtuosity in a series of shots which preserved the integrity of their movement without infringing on the stylistic nuances of his camerawork...
Berkeley's World War I service was significant for the images he created in his musical sequences. He designed parade drills for both the French and U.S. armies, and his later service as an aerial observer with the Air Corps formed the basis of an aesthetic which incorporated images of order and symmetry often seen from the peculiar vantage of an overhead position. In addition, that training developed his approach to economical direction. Berkeley often used storyboarding to effect his editing-in-the-camera approach, and provided instruction to chorus girls on a blackboard, which he used to illustrate the formations they were to achieve...
The virtuosity of Berkeley's camera movement remains important not only for a discussion of aesthetics, but also for understanding the meaning he brought to the depiction of sexual fantasy and spectacle in a period of Hollywood history when the Production Code Administration was keeping close watch over screen morality. Throughout the 1930s, Berkeley's camera caressed as if involved in foreplay, penetrated space as if seeking sexual gratification, and soared in an approximation of sexual ecstasy. Whether tracking through the legs of a line of chorus girls in 42nd Street, swooping over an undulating vagina-shaped construction of pianos in Gold Diggers of 1935, or caressing gigantic bananas manipulated by scantily clad chorines in The Gang's All Here, his sexual innuendos were titillating in both their obviousness and seeming naiveté.
- Doug Tomlinson, from the Busby Berkeley entry on Film Reference.com
Nicole Armour, writing in The Images Journal, considers Berkeley alongside Soviet contemporary Dziga Vertov as two modernist filmmakers who embraced the new technologies of their world as inspiration for their artistry:
Both filmmakers were working at a time when societies believed they could perpetuate themselves with the uninterrupted hum of an assembly line. Cubism made people see the shapes and colors of the world with new eyes and the filtered visions of both men identified with that view. Every new building, appliance and gimmicky gadget brought a sense of ease. Inventors and manufacturers created new objects and methods because these were the stuff of dreams. As every fashionable upstart zipped the fly of their pants they knew that this was not their parents’ world. Instead, the world would be re-constructed in proletarian fashion with the spit and shine of a tap shoe.
In contrast, Doran Larson, writing for Boston University's AGNI Online, is more inclined to link Berkeley's art with de-humanizing qualities found in both fascism and capitalism (does this imply that they can't be found in socialism?). He draws his observations from a too-good-to-be-true recounting of a 1927 encounter between Berkeley and seminal German film and culture theorist Siegfried Kracauer at a dance performance by the Tiller Girls, a clear predecessor to Berkeley's precision formations of dancing girls. According to Larson, Kracauer handed Berkeley a brochure containing a picture of the girls in a certain formation that would make its way into "Dames" several years later:
Kracauer believed that in the spectacular drills he’d seen that day, in the plotted machinations of the marchers, he had witnessed a muscle-and-bone reproduction of the thinking into which capitalism dreams of incorporating all human beings. And indeed, in the year before “Dames” was released, with the backing of the nation’s industrialists, and public rejoicing, Adolph Hitler was named Chancellor of Germany, and a murderous empire started to march.
(I conferred with Paolo Cherchi-Usai on the validity of this anecdoate, and from what he could gather among his peers, it is purely fictitious - but in a delightful Pynchon-esque way, sort of like JFK-meets-Malcolm X in the mens room in Gravity's Rainbow)
There's something offensive and anti-humanist about Berkeley's obsessive reduction of large groups of people into shifting patterns in a kaleidoscope. The women are all interchangeable, and when there is someone singled out as distinctive, such as Wini Shaw in the "Lullaby Of Broadway" sequence in Gold Diggers of 1935, she is killed off violently (during this number, the chorus boys seem to be doing the "Heil Hitler!" salute). Only in the ejaculatory "By A Waterfall" from Footlight Parade does Berkeley's work seem sexy and paradisiacal; there's a love for women's bodies in that number that is chillingly absent elsewhere. In their more unguarded moments, these Berkeley routines seem to be about returning to the womb. By and large, though, they are unromantic, coy, and dedicated to an idea of physical multiplication that could only appeal to an unreflective carnal cynic or a serial killer—perhaps Berkeley's interest in floating human heads should be taken at face value. They're essentially joyless and grotesque, like something out of Nathaniel West.
- Dan Callahan, from his review of the Warner Brothers' Busby Berkeley box set for Slant
"I think the filmmaker that Berkeley most resembles is Leni Riefenstahl," Berkeley admirer John Landis quips in one doc. "He does a lot of marching." Sure enough, the maneuvers draw more from Berkeley's military service than any traditional form of dance, and the almost "fascist" (to use Landis' word) precision is their primary appeal.
- From Peter Debruge's review of the Warner Brothers' Busby Berkeley DVD box set for Variety
Mel Brooks weighs in on the matter:
Bryan Pope in his review of the Warners Berkeley box set for DVD Verdict mentions the parody of the "I Only Have Eyes for You" musical number in Joe Dante's Gremlins 2 - unfortunately I could not find a clip online.
Eamonn McCusker offers a film-by-film review of the box set and extra features for DVD Times - in his opinion, "Of the five films here, Dames is probably the least impressive, although amongst the funniest."