Thanks to The Prytania’s Classic Movies series that we regularly attend on Sunday mornings, I recently got to see my very first Busby Berkeley musical . . . on the big screen! Berkeley’s elaborate, geometrically patterned choreography style is something I’ve known about since I was a child, as it’s often featured in highlight reels as the typifying example of Old Hollywood extravagance. The choreographer’s style involved onscreen audiences watching a stage play where a Rockettes-type chorus line kicks & twists rhythmically in an increasingly elaborate pattern that would be impossible to stage outside the dreamlike ream of cinema, only for the audience to applaud at the end as if they had collectively hallucinated the act. The common interpretation of this choreography’s popularity is that it offered a fantastic escape for real-life audiences during the lean times of The Great Depression. The geometric patterns of torsos & limbs twisting in unison like an organic kaleidoscope would be beautiful in any context, but its extravagance is said to have been especially alluring for Depression Era audiences who would have been forcibly acclimated to finding only minor, stripped-down joys outside the cinema. What I didn’t know until I saw one of these spectacles for myself is that Berkeley & his major studio collaborators were likely popular for an entirely different reason than their era’s dire economic circumstances; they, along with their audience, were horny as fuck.
Busby Berkeley is a fetishist and his obsession is stockinged gams. It’s a sexual fixation apparently shared by the director & studio heads that helped bring the first of Berkeley’s classic musicals to the screen, but the wag of their own tongues does little to match the way lady’s legs are lustfully presented in Berkeley’s choreography. There isn’t much to 42nd Street plot-wise that you wouldn’t see in any other backstage musical. This is the story of an emotionally and professionally exhausted Broadway producer who wants to put on One Last Show to secure his legacy as an entertainer. We watch as the mad perfectionist pushes his theatre company to the brink of physical & emotional destruction as the opening night of the show nears. Then, at the last minute, his star is injured and must be replaced by a naïve chorus girl who’s just getting started in the biz. The show (or at least the Berkeley-choregraphed hallucination) goes great and the new star is a hit, but the producer is still bummed & unfulfilled. None of this really matters, of course, at least not nearly as much as the film’s true obsession: Dem Gams. Casting directors command young actors to lift their dresses so they can get a better peak at the walking sticks beneath. Conversations are frequently staged under staircases so the audience can watch gams climb their way upscreen instead of focusing on dialogue. Berkeley’s big musical-number climax is a twisty, kaleidoscopic orgy of gams! gams! gams!, all wrapped in sheer dancers’ stockings. The film is shamelessly fetishistic, as is all the greatest art.
This overt, shameless horniness for women’s barely covered legs was no subconscious mistake, either. 42nd Street arrived in a pre-Code era when shameless tongue-wagging was a Hollywood norm. Sexuality is an explicit, purposeful presence in nearly all the film’s dialogue. Women boast names like Anytime Annie, openly discuss landing Broadway jobs through casting-couch politics, encourage total-pervert producers to invest in their art, and sport the same Power-Top tuxes that Blake Lively wore in A Simple Favor. The film is a little coy in directly depicting onscreen sexual contact (and in explicitly acknowledging the homosexual desire that’s barely concealed by its heteronormative surface), but for the most part it proudly wears its horniness on its sleeve as a badge of Dishonor. As a lifelong lover of Pretentious Smut, I found all this fetishistic fervor to be a most pleasant surprise. I entered 42nd Street expecting a respectable, traditional backstage musical with some early glimpses at the extravagant choreography that made Busby Berkeley a legend. What I found was a technically gorgeous porno about women’s stockinged legs, a film that was much more interested in the infinite potential ways those body parts could be displayed & arranged than it was in the inner lives of the women attached to them. It’s shameless smut hiding behind an artistic pretense and has been historically lauded due to its Depression Era context; in other words, it’s a gem.