TCMsBerkeley: Been There, Done That

Publish date:
Updated on

It seems that Hollywood today is dusting off everything but
movie trailers to be remade. One wonders if anyone's been eyeing the musicals of the
1930s for an update: those costumes, those hundreds of pounding, dancing feet. What would
it be like in digital sound and color?

That's what ran through my mind as I watched Turner
Classic Movies' Busby Berkeley: Going Through the Roof, an hour-long look at
the choreographer who might be best known as the king of the kaleidoscopic overhead shot.
The title refers to the fact that the showman often required that studio roofs be
reconstructed with a pocket so that his camera could be positioned high enough to capture
the dancing stunt that he had created.

The hour is full of extended clips of the famous dance
numbers from 42nd Street and Footlight Parade, and it includes his work from
three major studios: Warner Bros., MGM and 20th Century Fox. But the all-dancing clip show
has already been done by That's Entertainment.

One hoped for clips from the editing floor, or outtakes, or
something new. The hour notes that the Berkeley heyday preceded those ruled by union
dicta: Some production days lasted 36 hours. How did a performer survive? How did the
dancers navigate some of the intricate sets and routines without slipping or crashing like
dominoes? Insight could have made this hour unique.

It does tell you a little more than you might want to know
about Berkeley's private life. I find it hard to wholeheartedly celebrate the work of
those who cause mayhem beyond the studio while intoxicated. Berkeley, you will be
informed, caused the death of three people in the late 1930s while driving home from a
party. Three trials later, the crafty lawyer, who also defended Errol Flynn on rape
charges, got Berkeley an acquittal. To me, his status was diminished after that.

But you can't ignore his contributions. Modern film
historians say that his work was the 'MTV of the '30s' because of the way
that he visualized music.

The documentary debuts tonight (Jan. 26) at 8 p.m. on TCM.
I wish that I could have watched Super Bowl counterprogramming consisting of 24 hours of
Berkeley's best, but alas, my system does not program TCM.