Sunday, April 30, 2023

The Classic Film Collective: Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley

  This was originally published in the former The Classic Film Collective Patreon.

The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley
by Jeffrey Spivak
University Press of Kentucky
Paperback ISBN: 9780813154084
410 pages

“In an era of breadlines, Depression, and wars, I tried to help people get away from all the misery; to turn their minds to something else. I wanted to make people happy, if only for an hour." —Busby Berkeley

Busby Berkeley was the master of motion picture choreography. If you’ve ever watched films like 42nd Street (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade (1933), The Gang’s All Here (1942) or Million Dollar Mermaid (1953), you’ll recognize Berkeley’s signature style. Berkeley's subjects would be transformed into veritable human kaleidoscopes utilizing all the elements he could to put the vision he had in his mind’s eye into reality. Berkeley had no real dancing background yet he had an eye for choreography, movement and composition. Elaborate sets, props, disembodied heads, arms and legs and carefully synched movements helped him create hypnotizing scenes that drew audiences to the cinema again and again. He was best known for his work on Pre-Code musicals but he had continued success throughout the1940s and 1950s. Berkeley would pivot to embrace different styles of work like working with Technicolor, widescreen, water and changing with the times. Personal troubles plagued him and he often made poor decisions. However, one can’t deny the impact Berkeley had on visual history of film.

Originally published in 2010, Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley by Jeffrey Spivak is the definitive biography on the director. Told in chronological order, the biography follows Berkeley’s life from his childhood, time served during WWI and his auspicious start as a stage director. He found his calling in the theater perfecting his techniques by directing actors in confined spaces.

He was personally recruited by Bill Grady of the William Morris agency and, after a background check by Samuel Goldwyn, was hired as a director of musical numbers for the Eddie Cantor film Whoopee (1930). Berkeley had an eye for staging and for beauty. This lent himself to musicals that were all the rave in the early talkie era. Berkeley worked mostly for Warner Bros. and MGM creating lavish numbers for various films. He grew to be more than just a choreographer and took the helm and full-fledged director on films like Comet Over Broadway (1938), Babes in Arms (1939) and For Me and My Gal (1942). He also proved that he could do more than just musicals and directed dramas like They Made Me a Criminal (1939), a boxing story starring John Garfield and featuring cinematography by James Wong Howe. Even when tastes shifted, he still proved relevant working with talents like Doris Day and Esther Williams well into the 1950s.

Spivak’s book primarily focuses on Berkeley’s professional work. The various musical numbers are described in detail. You have to be interested in the history of musicals as well as the particulars of dance, choreography and filming technique to really be engaged with this book. There isn’t a lot of focus on behind-the-scenes information. I’m much more fascinated with the social aspects of film history than technique so I particularly struggled with this. However, many of Berkeley’s dance numbers are available on watch free on YouTube and if you need to familiarize yourself with a number (or refresh your memory) do so with this free resource as it will add to the reading experience.

Interspersed throughout the book are some stories about Berkeley’s personal life. He had a very strong attachment to his mother which led to issues with his first five wives. He found contentment with his sixth wife with whom he was married until his death in 1976.

Then there was the terrible car accident in which Berkeley hit two vehicles injuring several people. One victim died immediately and others perished from their injuries later on. The author details the accident, the three trials, the aftermath and Berkeley’s continued issues with alcohol and depression.

There are many stories about how Berkeley worked with actresses. At one point the author uses a mock voice for Carmen Miranda’s reaction to an accident that happened while making The Lady with the Tutti Frutti Hat. It was a bit insulting and completely unnecessary.

Even with its problems, the book is an invaluable resource and offers much insight into Busby Berkeley’s artistry. If you love musicals and are in awe of those signature Berkeley numbers, this book is a must read.

Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley is now available in paperback from the University Press of Kentucky. Thank you to UPK for sending me a digital copy for review!

Now I leave you with some juicy nuggets from the book to enjoy.

Some interesting facts from the book:

  • His mother Gertrude was friends with actress Nazimova who helped cast her in the film War Brides (1916).
  • I learned that Busby Berkeley got his start as a stage director at a theatre that is directly next door to my old day job!
  • He preferred to use a single camera for his dance sequences because he could easily envision the production with one viewpoint rather than multiple.
  • Mary Pickford saved him from a terrible contract with Paramount.
  • In November of 1935, he received a patent for the rotating platform he invented for his musical numbers. The Patent # is 1979363.
  • In Gold Diggers of 1935, he had to arrange the position of an orchestra and the dancers so that the dancers could hear the music over their own tapping.
  • According to the United States Treasury, Berkeley received on of the highest salaries of 1937. Years later he got in trouble with the IRS for not paying his taxes.
  • Berkeley preferred to work with the same people from film to film. He had his “Berkeley girls” who followed him from project to project. He also gave regular work to soundmen, grips, electricians and cinematographers.
  • Doris Day loved working with Berkeley on Romance on the High Seas (1948) that she asked for him to come out of his retirement for Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962).
  • A 300+ page copy of Busby Berkeley’s memoir went up for auction but never sold. It languished in storage until his widow passed on and it was thankfully salvaged. The author was able to access the memoir which was heavily biased and shared little personal information.

Some quotes from the book:

“Busby Berkeley was the premier dance director of motion pictures. His originality and sharply defined style brought him professional acclaim and financial reward. He saved a studio from bankruptcy and a doomed genre from senescence. Just don’t call him a choreographer.”
“Audiences in Berkeley’s day were treated to immersive, kaleidoscopic effects resulting in a thrill that only image size and collective response elicit. Spontaneous applause and the tossing of hats were by-products of the experience.” 
“For musical pictures he had no stylistic equal, yet the films he directed outside his purview were often middling and anonymous, lacking the imprimatur that defined his finest work.”
“In his most creative period, Berkeley’s tableau featured expansive art deco formations and repetitive set decorations with the occasional use of gigantism for fantasy props. Conversely, when bowing to budget restrictions, Buzz created his most interesting work with minimalist trappings.” 
“Studio records reveal that the Warner Bros. publicity department came up with a neologism to describe the uniqueness, distinctness, and inimitable nature of its star director. A man who combined groundbreaking technique in the artistry of film while seamlessly merging his craft with the classicism of dance was designated by Warner Brothers a cinematerpsichorean”

Thursday, April 20, 2023

2023 TCM Classic Film Festival: Day #4 Recap


The last day of the TCM Classic Film Festival was a tough one for me. I was only able to attend two more events, both in the afternoon and evening and only after spending all morning resting up. I assumed I was suffering from extreme exhaustion so I prioritized the two events most important to me.

After having a quick lunch with a friend, I headed over to the Hollywood Legion for a special 35th anniversary screening of Stand and Deliver (1987). The film is both a modern classic of Latinx cinema but also really important as an inspirational tool for students and teachers. I had never seen it before and I'm glad that I saved my first viewing for this special event.

This screening was part of TCM's theme to celebrate Warner Bros.' 100th anniversary. It began with a Warner Bros. trailer then an introduction by Luis Reyes, film historian and author of the book Viva Hollywood which I reviewed here. Reyes discussed the film and pointed out two of the actors in the audience who played students in the movie. He also spoke briefly about actress and long-time TCM fan Vanessa Marquez who was tragically killed back in 2018. She plays Ana Delgado in the film.

The moment we were all waiting for was for the interview with Reyes and Stand and Deliver stars Edward James Olmos and Lou Diamond Phillips. I really enjoyed listening to them discuss how they came to the project, the impact the film had on their careers and on countless teachers and their mutual respect for each other. 

Despite feeling under the weather, I was completely engrossed in the film and was swept away by the excellent storytelling, the fantastic characters and performances and the opportunity to cheer on some fellow Latinos in their pursuit for intellectual excellency!

I stayed at the Hollywood Legion to get in line for my next and last event of the festival, a screening of the Rin Tin Tin silent film Clash of the Wolves (1925). TCM host Jacqueline Stewart introduced silent film accompanist Ben Model who then introduced the film. I've been to several performances by Ben Model and he's a unique talent with his ability to respond to the actions and emotions on the screen with his music. His scores are never written down so each performance is a unique experience.

The event didn't disappoint! We all had fun with this nail-biting Rin Tin Tin adventure. My friend Annie and I had a good cry when Rin Tin TIn was injured and left to die. But of course, with Rin Tin Tin being the star of the show, he not only survives but he thrives!

The plan for me was to try to go to the Closing Night Party but my body gave up on me and I decided to call it a night. I'm sad that I wasn't able to say a proper goodbye to my friends. But my decision was ultimately the best one I could make for everyone involved.

Some observations on the festival overall:

  • The festival was scaled back quite a lot this year. There was no imprint ceremony, no big announcement at the media event (see more details on Day #1's recap) and fewer big name guests. I imagine a lot had to due with budget cuts given the recent merger. However, TCM still put on a great lineup of movies, panels, and events for all of us to enjoy. Looking at the schedule you wouldn't guess anything was scaled back.
  • Queueing up for films can be tricky and there had been problems in previous years. This year the volunteers did a stand-up job handling the lines. Line drama was kept at a minimum.
  • There were some nice surprises during the festival including the last minute addition of George Clooney at a screening of Ocean's 11 (2001). And not so nice surprises like a shelter-in-place order due to a shooting on Hollywood Boulevard.
  • Quite a few festival goers caught COVID, including yours truly. I suspect that a combination of the colder weather and the rain made for a fertile breeding ground for the virus. I didn't quite realize that I had it until I got tested right after the festival. I just assumed I was really tired.
  • There was a sense of sadness that hung over us primarily in the days right before the festival. I mostly sensed this from the festival regulars. On the flip side, there were so many first-time festival goers this year and many of them were brimming with enthusiasm.
  • The festival has morphed into something a bit different with time. When I started attending the festival in 2013, each year was absolutely magical. It would be a long weekend packed with once-in-a-lifetime experiences, ones that I would be talking about until the next festival rolled around. With the passage of time and the loss of Robert Osborne and many of the classic film stars who were special guests at the festival over the years, it'll be hard to keep that spark going. This was inevitable and if the festival continues TCM will do a great job trying to give festival goers the best experience they can even as things inevitably change.
  • The most special aspect of the festival has been and will always be the people. The TCM hosts, the presenters, the TCM staff, the volunteers and the passholders all make the festival a social event like no other.

A special thank you to all the folks at TCM for this year's festival!

Wednesday, April 19, 2023

2023 TCM Classic Film Festival: Day #3 Recap

 The sun was shining on the third day of the TCM Classic Film Festival. I got up early to attend my number one pick for festival events: a screening of Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954) with Russ Tamblyn in attendance! I was excited not only to see Tamblyn and hear him speak about his experience on set but also to watch one of my favorite musicals of all time on that gigantic TCL Chinese Theater screen! (I heard it's the largest screen in North America!)

On my way to the screening, I rode the elevator down to the lobby of my hotel and it stopped at the third floor. And guess who walked in? RUSS TAMBLYN! I stood right next to the man I was literally going to queue up to see. What a thrill! The lady who was with him asked us in the elevator what we were excited to say and I perked up and said Seven Brides for Seven Brothers and that I recognized Russ Tamblyn right away. What a thrill! 

TCM host Dave Karger sat down with Russ Tamblyn ahead of the screening for an interview. Tamblyn talked about how he was cast for the film, how they coordinated the red hair and the different acting/dancing/singing skills among the seven brothers, his crush on Janie Powell, as he called her, and more. He's the last surviving of the seven brothers and Tamblyn joked that he can now say what he wants and there is no one to contradict him. It was a very memorable interview and I only wish it lasted a bit longer. 

And yes it was absolutely breathtaking to see Seven Brides for Seven Brothers on that big screen. I got emotional and was a "sobbin' woman" during the screening.

Russ Tamblyn and Dave Karger. Photo courtesy of TCM

I took a brief break from the festival to visit with my friends Daniel and Lillian and was back in Hollywood in time to head over to the Hollywood Legion for the next special event.

Donald Bogle and Ben Mankiewicz. Photo courtesy of TCM

I have never been to a Robert Osborne Award Ceremony and there had been three held so far for Martin Scorsese, Kevin Brownlow and Leonard Maltin. I made it a point to go this year especially since film historian Donald Bogle, an author I great admire and whose work I use a lot in my research, was the newest honoree.

The ceremony included an introduction by TCM host Ben Mankiewicz, a tribute video, speeches by Debra Martin Chase and Louis Gossett, Jr. Mankiewicz presented the award to Bogle who followed up with an acceptance speech and an introduction to the movie Carmen Jones (1954) which screened immediately after. Bogle was very moved by the ceremony and it was really great to hear how he got his start, his early days working with Otto Preminger and his intro to the movie.

Louis Gossett Jr. 

I had planned to attend a screening of Unfinished Business (1941), introduced by film historian and author Sloan De Forest, but my body broke down and I slept for 12 hours instead. I didn't fare much better the next day. Stay tuned for my fourth and final recap!

Tuesday, April 18, 2023

2023 TCM Classic Film Festival: Day #2 Recap


My festival experience this year was scaled back immensely due to unforeseen circumstances, both good and bad. For the rest of the festival I was able to attend two events each day while also building in some time with friends.

On the first full day of the festival, I sat down with documentarian Daniel Raim whose films Harold and Lillian: A Hollywood Love Story, Image Makers: The Adventures of America's Pioneer Cinematographers and Fiddler's Journey to the Big Screen I have reviewed on here. He has some exciting projects coming up and I look forward to checking them out!

Then I got in line for Blood on the Moon (1948), Robert Wise's noir western starring Robert Mitchum. I'm a huge Robert Mitchum fan and have been disappointed to attend every year and not see a Mitchum film on the line-up. A few were shown the first year I went and I attended River of No Return (1954) which was life-changing. I looked at the schedule every year I attended and couldn't find another Mitchum film (unless I missed one!). So I was particularly thrilled for this opportunity.

Blood on the Moon was a hot ticket at TCMFF and it quickly sold out. Introducing the film was Alan K. Rode who recently wrote and published a book exclusive about the film with the University of New Mexico Press.

I had a new appreciation for this film seeing it up on the big screen with a crowd. The noir elements, Wise's direction and Mitchum's charisma really enhance what might have been just a standard Western.

After Blood on the Moon, I headed over the pool at the Hollywood Roosevelt hotel for a special screening of Beach Party (1963). A lot of us got there early. In fact I was there two hours in advance to get a good spot to see the screen and to catch a glimpse of special guest Frankie Avalon.

Photo courtesy of TCM

TCM host Dave Karger introduced Frankie Avalon before the screening and Frankie still has that youthful spirit you see in the movies. He talked about working with Annette Funicello, how he only had to take one pie in the face, how he thinks the dancing hasn't aged well and more. There was a shooting (!!!) that happened nearby so a news helicopter was hovering over us which made it a little difficult to listen to. But we were all safely tucked away and thrilled to see Frankie Avalon and Beach Party. The true fans stayed afterwards to watch the whole movie.

During the introduction, a photographer was literally in the pool getting shots of the main stage. He got some cool ones like this photo which makes it look like Dave Karger and Frankie Avalon are hovering over an abyss!

Photo courtesy of TCM

Friday, April 14, 2023

2023 TCM Classic Film Festival: Day #1 Recap


Greetings from rainy Los Angeles! The 2023 TCM Classic Film Festival kicked off on Thursday April 13th but the festivities have been going on all week.

On Tuesday I met up with some classic film friends for dinner at Smoke House, a Burbank steak house that's been operating since 1946.

Before dinner, I met up with my friends Aurora, Laura and Doug at the Forest Lawn Cemetery: Hollywood Hills. Many of our beloved classic movie stars and directors are laid to rest there. It's a huge cemetery so you have to come with a game plan and ready access to Find a Grave. We had limited time but we were able to pay our respects to some of my favorite people including Bette Davis, Telly Savalas, Sandra Dee, Ernest Borgnine, Buster Keaton, Stan Laurel and Charles Laughton. I'm a huge fan of The Mills Brothers and I found Donald Mills in the Columbarium of Radiant Dawn. 

On Wednesday I picked up my media badge and received a book themed tote bag (But Have You Read the Book by Kristen Lopez) as well as a copy of Mark Vieira's new book Warner Bros. 100 Years of Storytelling.

 Later in the afternoon I attended the Media Welcome Event in the Blossom Room at the historic Hollywood Roosevelt hotel. TCM transforms the Blossom Room into Club TCM for the festival. The space includes a mini museum of props as well as a bar. There are events happening at Club TCM throughout the festival and it becomes the central hub for the long weekend. This year they had a really cool display of Warner Bros. memorabilia for the 100th anniversary. I was particularly taken with the three remaining intact violins from one of Busby Berkeley's numbers in the Gold Diggers of 1933. They also had Berkeley's large leather scrapbook on display too! Both were very cool to see.

There wasn't a big announcement this year at the Media Welcome Event. Last year it was announced that Pam Grier was the special guest for The Plot Thickens podcast. No such announcement this year. But we did get to mingle with the hosts. I got this Oscars-style selfie with some friends and TCM host Alicia Malone. She's as kind and gracious in person as you'd expect her to be!

The festival kicked off in earnest on Thursday afternoon. Every year I conduct interviews on the red carpet but this year I decided to scale back a bit. This allowed me the opportunity to attend So You Think You Know the Movies, Bruce Goldstein's trivia event that has opened pretty much every festival to date. The event started with a musical number from Good News (1930) which is by far my favorite musical rarity. It's based on a Broadway musical and was remade in 1947 with June Allyson and Peter Lawford. I love both versions but the 1930 has a special place in my heart especially when I get to see Dorothy McNulty's crazy dance moves (she later became known as Penny Singleton). The first question in the contest was about her and of course I had to help my team out with that one. 

I'm not terribly good at trivia but I was able to help with another question about the Nicholas Brothers. The question was about the youngest brother and which silent film star he was named after. I knew it was Harold Lloyd from having read Donald Bogle's biography on Dorothy Dandridge who was briefly married to Harold Nicholas. It's funny because Donald Bogle was standing right behind me during the trivia game. What a delight! Things like this only happen at the TCM Classic Film Festival.

Later that evening I met up with my friend Jessica and my editor at DVD Netflix Annie for dinner at Musso and Frank's Grill. I've always wanted to go especially because of the restaurants history of famous classic movie stars and writers dining there over decades. Orson Welles, Charlie Chaplin. Marilyn Monroe, the Rat Pack, were all regulars there. 

After dinner we headed over to the Chinese Multiplex to line-up for the Doris Day and Cary Grant sex comedy That Touch of Mink (1962). Alicia Malone gave a great introduction before the film and it was so much fun to see this film with an audience. I've seen this film several times before but have a new appreciation for the film including the supporting players Audrey Meadows and John Astin. 

Stay tuned for more updates from the TCM Classic Film Festival!

Sunday, April 2, 2023

The Classic Film Collective: The Lady from the Black Lagoon

 This was originally published in the former The Classic Film Collective Patreon.

The Lady from the Black Lagoon
Hollywood Monsters and the Lost Legacy of Milicent Patrick
by Mallory O'Meara
Paperback ISBN: 9781335010131
Hanover Square Press
336 pages

If you're looking for a good read for October, look no further than Mallory O'Meara's book on Milicent Patrick, the artist who designed the creature in the Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954). For many years Bud Westmore, one of the famous Westmore brothers who dominated the makeup scene in Hollywood, took credit for designing the creature. However, movie monsters were often the work of several artists including makeup designers, makeup artists, sculptors, etc. With Creature from the Black Lagoon, Universal was dipping a toe into the world of science fiction and the creature had to be just right. Westmore, impressed with Patrick's artistic eye, hired her as part of his team. And when it came time to promote the final film, Universal sent Milicent Patrick on a nationwide tour. Westmore was furious that she was getting all of the attention. Wielding the power he had in Hollywood thanks to his name and the deeply entrenched patriarchy, he fired Milicent Patrick upon her return, essentially ending her special effects career. O'Meara takes the charge to undo this terrible wrong with her excellent book, revealing Westmore's pettiness and Milicent Patrick's genius while shedding light on an industry that has thrived on suppressing female talent behind the scenes.

“What matters is that Milicent was bringing art and monsters to life on-screen and that she was one of the first women to do so. She was blazing trails in a male-dominated industry, an industry that is still dominated by men.” — Mallory O'Meara

O'Meara's book is part biography, part memoir and part feminist manifesto. Not only are we taken on a journey through Milicent Patrick's life and career but we also see the lengths O'Meara had to go to uncover information about this little known artist from Hollywood history and what her research revealed about what women have to deal with while working in genre film. Patrick, who was born Mildred Rossi, was the daughter of an architect who helped design Hearst Castle and the surrounding estate. In fact, she later changed her name to Milicent as a nod to one of her earliest inspirations, Milicent Hearst. Patrick inherited her father's artistic eye and attended art school to hone her craft. She was one of the first female animators working at Disney. There she animated sequences in Dumbo and Fantasia, specializing in color techniques, before moving on to a long but relatively unsuccessful career as an actress. As a proud card carrying SAG member, Milicent Patrick was a background actress in many B-movies. She would often draw on set, catching the eye of fellow actors and of Bud Westmore. When Westmore hired her as a makeup designer (different from a makeup artists), she created looks for the pirate film Against All Flags (1952) and the barbarian makeup for Sign of the Pagan (1954). Working in genre film, she helped design the Xenomorph from It Came from Outer Space (1953), the Metaluna Mutant in This Island Earth (1955), and masks for Abbott and Costello spoofs. Her greatest and best known work would be the design for the Creature from the Black Lagoon which is still considered one of the best monster movies of all time.

As the reader learns about Milicent Patrick's extraordinary yet short lived career as a makeup designer and monster creator, O'Meara offers a rightfully scathing look at an industry that continues to mistreat women. The narrative shifts back and forth between Milicent Patrick's story, the author's own journey as a producer in the horror film industry and her work researching for the book. O'Meara's a fantastic storyteller but sometimes great moments are revealed a bit too early before they can really pack a punch. Yet O'Meara's voice is still strong. She's not afraid to tell you what she thinks, to question the research and to really dig for the truth. It's a powerful read.

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