In the End, She Dies

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Warning: this post has spoilers.

I’m putting that right up front for readers. The whole point of my post is to discuss the ending, because without revealing the ending, the reaction doesn’t make sense, and without noting the reaction, the post doesn’t make sense. So I’m beginning with the warning on spoilers, making it clear that I’ll be spoiling it for you, so no one gets mad and leaves the room because they’ve been spoiled. Or shocked by the ending.

Maybe you think that doesn’t make sense, but let me proceed.

I know many bloggers and Twitterers and Facebookers out there are hooked on ‘stats’—those daily numbers that tell you how many fans you’ve acquired or lost on social media. Like a nervous debutante toting up the names on her dance card, we hope to keep more fans than we lose. I’m no expert on what affects stats and their rise and fall, but my own most dramatic stat dip came because of an ending. It was on Grand Old Movies’ Facebook page some time back, when I posted a video of “The Lullaby of Broadway” number from Gold Diggers of 1935. I posted it for innocent reasons: it was Busby Berkeley’s birthday (can you say that 10 times fast?) and I thought fans would enjoy it. Instead, what followed was outrage; indignant comments; and, by the next day, the loss of 15 fans. If this had been a dance card, I’d have been left at the wall, gnawing on a gold-tipped pencil while my pearly tears washed out the erasures.

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One helluva block party.

And all because the dame dies at the end.

That’s the spoiler I mentioned above. The gist of the FB complaints was that Wini Shaw falls off a building at routine’s end and OMG SHE DIES! I never imagined there would be such a reaction. I think “Lullaby of Broadway” is Berkeley’s greatest musical routine—a dark, complex, 14-minute Art-Deco fever dream, that plays like an ultra-glam block party accented by a Freudian death wish. But apparently not a well-known one.  Gold Diggers of 1935 is probably not one of the more popular entries in the Warner Bros. 1930s musical series anyway. There’s the Big Three: 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Footlight Parade. They’re the classics, the gold standards of the backstage musical. Right after is 1934’s Dames, which should be better known. It’s not only good but hilarious, a send-up of Hollywood’s just-clamped-down Production Code; and it also has one of Berkeley’s most entrancing routines, “I Only Have Eyes For You.”

With Gold Diggers of 1935, though, the cracks begin to show. Few of the WB-musical regulars are on hand. No Ruby Keeler or Joan Blondell; no Ginger Rogers, Ned Sparks, or Guy Kibbee. There is Dick Powell, whose perpetual Howdy-Doody grin is fraying a bit at the edges, as if he’s thinking that maybe it’s time to switch gears and start looking tough. His romantic partner in this outing is doe-eyed Gloria Stuart, neither a singer nor a dancer nor a performer noted for comic repartee (at least one of these skills is necessary for a Warner Bros. musical). And I hate the part given to wonderful Glenda Farrell. She plays a genuinely nasty character, a blackmailing stenographer (why couldn’t she have been the romantic lead? If anyone could zing one-liners, it was she). Her scene when she inveigles harmlessly silly Hugh Herbert in a breach-of-promise suit is unfunny and sours the film for me.

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Cleaning ladies staged à la Berkeley.

I find the film’s funniest bit to be Adolphe Menjou’s frazzled Russian impresario rehearsing a line of knife-waving choristers in something called “The Dagger Dance,” shouting the counts to his performers while wielding a meat cleaver. (How disappointing that Berkeley didn’t stage it as a full-out routine!) I have a feeling that Menjou is a Berkeley stand-in, showing us just what it takes to put on one of his creations. GD35 was Berkeley’s first solo directorial effort of an entire film, and he does some inventive things, such as the film’s opening, set at a summer hotel getting ready for the season. Berkeley stages it like a musical number, with a line of sweepers rhythmically pushing brooms and an overhead shot of cleaning ladies spanned out on a star. But he was slapped with a poor script that lacked interest or humor or those great lines we treasure from the earlier films (Production Code prudery probably didn’t help). And he didn’t yet know how to manage timing in scenes that depend heavily on cross-talk. Frequently we watch unpleasant characters screaming at each other in huge close-ups, which is a drag.

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Menjou cleaves the way.

But I can forgive everything once when we get to the final musical number, “The Lullaby of Broadway.” Which happens to end with the heroine falling off the roof. Which is why I lost 15 fans.

Well, why shouldn’t she fall? I’m reminded of Lermontov’s statement in The Red Shoes, summarizing the film’s title ballet. “In the end, she dies,” he says—casually, as if the heroine’s death is just a gimmick needed to bring down the curtain. Lermontov (meaning the scriptwriter) was probably thinking of such classic ballets as Swan Lake or La Sylphide, both of which end with the heroine’s death; or Giselle, which doesn’t even wait for the finish, but dispatches the unfortunate title character in Act One. The surrounding plot of The Red Shoes also ends with the heroine’s death, as life copies art and she flings herself off a balcony like a solitary lemming. Berkeley wasn’t alone in coming up with a throat-clutching finalé.

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Wini Shaw about to meet destiny.

Maybe audiences have different expectations for musical routines. It’s ok for the ladies to expire at the end of ballets or operas. As Bugs Bunny says in “What’s Opera, Doc,” what else did we expect? Hey, that’s Art. But musicals are happy, tuneful, upbeat, ending with the guy getting the girl, the tyro becoming a star, the show going on. It’s Ginger swooning over Fred’s arm, or Eleanor Powell pounding the floor as if hammering rivets, or Gene and Donald tapping up enough energy to power Con Ed through a New York summer. Our eyes can brim whenever Judy sings, her vibrato throbbing with heartbreak, because we know that this isn’t the end, the cut-off, the absolute finish, but that a happily-ever-after is peeking just round the next plot twist. A little laugh, a little tear, and everyone stays firmly on the ground. No dives into the wild blue yonder, please.

Berkeley himself challenged these expectations in his own routines. Yes, many of his numbers are cheesecake for the tired businessman. It’s all those Girls—rows and rows of ‘em, slim, svelte, blonde, brunette, smiling (and smiling, and smiling), overflowing with beauty, sex appeal, and exposed skin. Berkeley throws them at us, sometimes literally: in the title number from Dames, the ladies zoom right up to the camera, as if fired from cannons (he actually uses a cannon in the “All is Fair in Love and War” number from Gold Diggers of 1937). There are girls massed into objects—a multi-tiered fountain in “By a Waterfall,” a giant violin in “Shadow Waltz”—or into abstract patterns, especially in his famous overhead shots, where girls flow and bend and swirl into circles, squares, spirals, stars, wheels, and snakes; they unfurl like a peony in the sun or crunch together into the NRA eagle. And then there’s the mad, undefinable, unforgettable imagery—girls sprouting from harps, girls dancing behind giant Ruby Keeler faces, girls playing 56 grand pianos that wave and undulate in two lines like a split spinal column. You don’t think about the meaning of any of it because Berkeley keeps it all moving, never lingering on one image or face. The camera swoops down onto vast white sets or sweeps past ranks of gauzily draped lovelies, leaving a retinal impression of a world abloom with bare knees, saucy eyes, and perfectly capped teeth.

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Fifty-six, count ’em, fifty-six pianos.

But there’s also the tough, hard-nosed, melancholy Berkeley, the one who tosses out the glitz and the girls and instead shows us the dirty streets and hophead energy of urban life. And it’s pretty grim. In the “42nd Street” number, a tart is mauled by her pimp and jumps out a window; caught by a street tough, she dances with him until her attacker sticks a knife in her back. No time is allowed to absorb this; the camera pans up to Dick Powell in a speakeasy, saluting with raised drink the “naughty, bawdy, gawdy, sporty” splendor of 42nd Street. In Berkeley’s most famous number, the wrenching “Forgotten Man,” Blondell is a tattered hooker surveying a slideshow of urban Depression horrors, the men on soup lines or lying drunk in doorways, their women left broke and broken. And there are plenty of hookers in one of my favorites, “Shanghai Lil” (covered for the Cagney Blogathon), with its flotsam of whores, johns, and boozed-up sailors eddied all together into the diviest of all possible end-of-the-world dives.

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But knees are still necessary.

“Lullaby of Broadway” is part of this harder, darker Berkeley style; and for me, it’s the first among equals. It’s bigger, stranger, more nightmarish than anything Berkeley had done before. And it’s as self-contained as a short story. The other culminating numbers in his earlier movies sprang out of motifs within the films themselves: “42nd Street” links to its movie’s show biz/Times Square milieu; “Forgotten Man” continues the theme of Depression despair that runs through Gold Diggers of 1933 like those strings of coins dangling from Ginger Rogers’ torso; “Shanghai Lil” is a showcase for James Cagney, the driving force of Footlight Parade; and the spicy title number of Dames sums up the Berkeley ethos, while cocking a snoot at any killjoy censors out there.

But “Lullaby of Broadway” comes out of nowhere. There’s no diegetic link; its subject has no connection with the bland little movie preceding it. It also starts differently from any other Berkeley number. There’s no pretense of opening on a busy stage set and then stretching out into the great cinematic beyond. Instead, Berkeley begins in darkness, with a long tracking shot toward a small spot of light that turns into Wini Shaw’s face. If you’ve never seen it, you just might hold your breath while watching, wondering if the camera will take the easy way out and cut to a close-up. But no, onward it inexorably tracks, while Shaw’s throaty contralto belts out the namesake song, until we’re right up against her voluptuous, full-lipped visage and looking straight into her cool, sly eyes. It’s as if Berkeley, out of all those rows of beautiful, smiling females, has now fixed on this one girl’s face and is going to give you her story—a tawdry narrative about a party girl who lives for the soiled glamour of Manhattan between dusk and dawn. The title’s irony is laid out for us: the lullaby that rocks this Broadway baby to sleep has no relation to the soothing strains of Brahms.

Shaw’s singled-out face isn’t a typical, brightly lit, smiling Berkeley dame. Its contours are shaded in shadow, like a noir fatale’s—“Lullaby of Broadway” could be the first noir musical routine, and it’s about a noir subject, the menace of city life after dark. The lyrics themselves, combining 30s slang, topical references, and an ice-cold cynicism, are noir to the core. There’s no sentiment or starry-eyed romance here. The words hit you like a punch to the gut, solid and hard, yet they evoke fantastic images of a life lived on the edge—the endless, restless rumble of cars and trains both on and under the streets; the rush to stay ahead of the latest ballyhoo; the sugar daddies who soothe fractious babes with new toys (and just what is the entertainment at Angelo’s and Maxie’s?)—that build up to a febrile, drug-addled dream, of dancing and drinking till daybreak, when “everything gets hazy,” and nothing else matters but the urge to keep going, keep moving, keep rocking, until the lights and music fade, and the cold morning smacks you in the kisser like a sponge soaked in vinegar.

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Berkeley implies that the whole routine may actually be Shaw’s own dream, just before the bitter awakening. Bringing a cigarette to her lips, she turns her face around and up, as if in sleep, and a cityscape is imposed on her features. In effect, she ‘becomes’ the city of the song. Maybe it represents her fantasy of desire, maybe it’s her premonition of her frenzied life to come. Or maybe it’s the memory of a ghost. Berkeley leaves it up to us, as he sinks his camera into this city, onto its buildings, and then onto a man’s giant shadow cast on a dark, isolated street. Already the unease is there, the sense of something weird and wild looming out of the asphalt. This is a city of excess, that speeds us on before we can sit back and take a breath. Berkeley gives us a montage of the city waking up to daylight: quick cuts of clocks ringing, turnstiles spinning, whistles blowing, and strap handles swinging, a visual synecdoche of the morning rush hour. The camera pans not across a row of chorus girls, but past a line of tired wage slaves, gulping coffee or applying make-up. It’s Vertov’s Movie Camera snatching shards of urban life set to music in double time.

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The counterpoint to this daylight hurly-burly is Shaw woozily returning home from a night on the town. She lives her life in reverse; while everyone is out running the rat race, she’s heading for beddie-bye (rolling off her stockings instead of rolling them on). For her, time is skewed; only when night returns and the rest of the city has gone home and settled in, will she again, vampire-like, rise. One tiny moment here stands out for me: as Shaw climbs the stairs to her flat, a cleaning lady bestows an affectionate pat on her arm. The complicity contained in that little gesture—as if to say that, in an era when people were desperate for any kind of work, Shaw has found an alternative, one that beats mopping floors for a living. Berkeley really captures the lure, during hard times, of reckless living. It’s what you hear in the song’s lyrics, and sense in its relentless rhythm—the drive, the lust for pleasure, for the mere sensation of being frantically alive, before rushing for the exit to oblivion.

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Sisters under the mink and mops.

That demonic rhythm is the core of the great nightclub sequence, the strange, cold heart of this whole routine. I have to hand it to Berkeley; he’s no piker. His club is as big as an Art Deco cathedral, ringed by giant pillars that look like leftovers from Griffith’s Babylon set in Intolerance. And everything in it—the dancers, the orchestra, the food and entertainment (could this be the mysterious Angelo’s and Maxie’s?)—caters  to just one couple, Shaw and Powell, sitting on a raised platform like Roman aristocrats enjoying the Coliseum games. It’s unreal, it’s like something out of an Arabian Nights tale, where a secret entrance leads to a realm slipped out of normal space and time, revealing unimagined delights, just always out of reach.

The sequence begins not with a Berkeley chorus line but with a pair of white-clad ballroom dancers, gleaming like angels sculpted in ice. The two move weightlessly, down unending staircases, the man raising the woman in high lifts, in arrested flight. The first time I saw “Lullaby,” I thought of “The Piccolino” from Top Hat and wondered if there was any cross-fertilization between the two films: RKO borrowing the overhead shots and elaborate maze patterns from Berkeley, while Berkeley borrowed the Astaire-Rogers romantic couple. But the Astaire-Rogers numbers create yearning and romantic tension by focusing space, anchoring the camera to its two dancers. Berkeley, however, pulls his camera back, and further back, dwarfing his own couple in a room that seems as vast as the solar system. The pair look as pure, distant, and passionless as two dead moons.

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ABOVE: Berkeley-styled dance in RKO’s “The Piccolino”; BELOW: “Lullaby”‘s sculpted-ice couple (Ramon & Rosita), watched by Shaw and Powell (in background).

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But then with a brassy fanfare on the trumpets Berkeley gives us a dance that isn’t like anything else in all of film. Enter two large groups of tap dancers from either side of the screen, dressed in black and segregated by sex, performing the most merciless tap routine in movies. The dancers are non-stop, unrelenting; they surge with a dazzling, dangerous energy. Berkeley wants to confound the viewer’s sense of cinematic space and time here. He doesn’t use overhead shots of elaborate, swirling movements, but breaks up space, cutting rapidly between the two groups as they stomp out between them tap’s classic statement-and-response pattern. Or he’ll destabilize the frame, tilting his shots so that dancers look as if they’re about to slide off the screen. And he uses the sound of mass tapping to create a separate, scary rhythm from the music, the ferociously pounding feet taking over, ruthless, machine-like, inhuman. Berkeley also uses the dancers’ actual mass, their solid block of bodies, to jam space and overwhelm it, as in the dance’s finalé, when the tappers join in a feverishly unison trench step, their torsos lunged forward like an oncoming train. Any moment, you feel, this seething throng will launch its attack.

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Trench attack.

You can read in “Lullaby”’s mass groupings and robotic movements intimations of fascism (commentators in the DVD’s featurette even note an influence on Leni Riefensthal). But I think there’s a darkly perverse Romanticism also at work here. The tappers could be a modern, jazzed-up version of the Wilis, luring Shaw into their death dance, the chorus singing out “Come and dance!” as a collective cry of doom. Shaw’s taunting response—“why don’t you come and get me?”—is another of those sharp moments that sticks in my mind, like a splinter. She teases the dancers, beckons them, her fingers flicking like the wings of a newly pinned butterfly. Doesn’t this savvy Broadway babe know what she’s unleashing? There’s something so careless, yet so feeble in her taunt, she’s so unaware of what’s about to happen. It’s like holding a strip of gauze to block an avalanche.

And the avalanche pours in, as the dancers snatch Shaw from her perch and whirl her onto the dance floor, passing her from one man to the next, without rest, without end. It’s a vision of Hell in a luxury high-rise. Then Shaw breaks free and runs out to the balcony—still teasing, still daring the dancers to come and get her. And they do, pushing open the balcony doors, till the pressure of their massed bodies sends her over the railing and hurtling to her death. Like a heedless voyeur, Berkeley’s camera dives right after, the scene spinning and spiraling until it slows and focuses on another face—that of a giant clock, its hands marking the end time of a life.

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Hell in a high-rise: Shaw, center, caught in the whirl.

I ask you: how else could this routine have ended? With Powell and Shaw running off to the registrar’s to get married? Not likely. Or maybe Shaw returning to her flat for another day’s sleep and another night’s frenzied partying? But I think ’30s audiences by then knew better. They knew that no party lasts forever, not even for party girls. They probably would have known of such real-life examples as Starr Faithful, a Fitzgeraldian society beauty whose life ended even more disastrously than that of Shaw’s character; or of her literary avatar, Gloria Wandrous, the louche, lost soul of John O’Hara’s novel BUtterfield 8 (which came out the same year as GD35). I think such associations are part of “Lullaby”’s manic, the-dam-has-burst aura. The 1930s was essentially a decade-long fall after the giddy surfeit of the Roaring Twenties, and Berkeley understood that. When the piper has to be paid, sometimes there’s nothing else but for dame to die at the end.

And if anyone reading this ever runs into one of my 15 ex-fans, please tell them I said so.

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The full “Lullaby of Broadway” routine can be seen right here. Just remember, you’ve been warned.

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