The formula seems pretty steady: there's going to be a big show. A horde of hopeful performers line up to audition, sometimes cruelly judged, each one holding out hope for a big break. Pressures mount backstage, with creators trying to stay focused and producers scrambling frantically for cash. The conflict escalates right into opening night. The show everyone's been waiting for finally starts, and, fueled by the frantic energies of the hour that preceded it, takes on a life of its own, exploding into an organism that grows beyond the boundaries of the stage, of the screen, of reality itself.
Choreographer/director Busby Berkeley is best known for the spectacular dance numbers conceived for several Depression-era Hollywood musicals. Though he was quick to deny any high art intentions, Berkeley's numbers remain some of the most mind-bending and surreal sequences ever created for Hollywood's blockbuster entertainments. His kaleidoscopic choreographies of an impossible number of dancers are so intricate and expansive that one almost expects to come to the end of a tunnel of chorus girls' legs to see the Starchild staring back.
Toward the beginning of Dames, recently screened at the Castro Theatre (the final in a four film BB series), noticing themes of choreographed group labor, mechanized sexuality, and class tension, I mused to my companion that Berkeley and cohorts seemed to be remaking/sequelizing Fritz Lang's Metropolis with each film. (Five seconds after I said this a bodyguard played by Arthur Vinton, a dead ringer for The Tall Man from Lang's film, appeared on screen.) But Berkeley's the only creator involved in these films that works to match Lang in scope and vision. One can't discount the work of the directors and creative teams on these films, but they're all best known for Berkeley's sequences, which absorb even a powerhouse, name talent like James Cagney into their design. In Footlight Parade, Cagney moves heaven and earth to stage his latest spectacle, but in the end he falls down a staircase and winds up accidentally cast in his own number. Just like the audience he's carried headlong into the mind and worlds of Busby Berkeley. And just like us, he gives in completely.