Few remember the men who directed the Warner Bros. talkies of the early 1930s, and yet choreographer Busby Berkeley remains a legend some 70 years later. Warner’s new “Busby Berkeley Collection” assembles five classics, from his first assignment at the studio, “42nd Street,” to directorial debut “Dames,” and garnishes it with a bonus disc featuring routines from nine different pics. They are accompanied by five mini-docs with the same half dozen or so talking heads: Historians explain Berkeley’s place in the canon, while camp connoisseurs like John Waters recall how 1960s midnight screenings played a key role in his rediscovery.
Berkeley was the ultimate objectifier. His camera didn’t just worship his dancers’ figures, it abstracted them into geometric formations, animated patterns in which pretty faces became moving pinpoints in a spectacular human kaleidoscope. In “42nd Street,” he lines up 17 women on a rotating platform and sends the camera zipping through a tunnel of legs.
Such a move was both typical and mind-blowing, the kind of dynamic inventiveness Berkeley brought to the screen at a time when camera work rarely took risks. In a Berkeley number, there’s no predicting where he will take the audience next — with God’s-eye overhead shots being his most stunning innovation, while undercranking, reverse motion and mirrors produce other illusions.
“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.
The comedy storylines connecting these performances don’t age nearly as gracefully. Pics were made quickly and cheaply, with a stock cast acting out flimsy scenarios that inevitably build to a big stage show. The water ballet of “Footlight Parade” and the “Lullaby of Broadway” that ends “Gold Diggers of 1935” (an ambitious avant-garde montage that begins with pretty New Yorkers donning their dainties and climaxes when a rooftop reveler plunges to her death) test the limits of even the studio itself.
Little is lost by diving directly into the bonus disc, which isolates the musical numbers, many of them nearly 10 minutes long. Notably absent is the “Goin’ to Heaven on a Mule” finale of “Wonder Bar,” in which Al Jolson guides audiences through blackface heaven. Better to remember Berkeley for his more progressive touches.