It’s probably clear by now that I have a big fondness for the pre-World War II Modern period. From the most austere avant-garde in painting to the most lurid of radio serials, something was in the air then that speaks to me. And if there’s one area where I think the pre-war efforts were clearly better than the post-, it’s in film. The 1930s are unquestionably my favorite time for movies–a sort of decade mirabilis. You can keep your Citizen Kane, and give me City Lights, King Kong, The Thin Man, The Public Enemy, Grand Hotel, Duck Soup, It Happened One Night, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Stagecoach, and all the great musicals, from 42nd Street to The Wizard of Oz.
The movie musical of the 30s had two great masters: Fred Astaire and Busby Berkeley. Both put dance at the center of things. The plots are uncomplicated. The singing is rarely especially good. Good acting is the exception rather than the rule. Outside the dance sequences, the direction is fairly unexciting. Astaire/Rogers movies like Top Hat are basically so-so romantic comedies, full of cheesy jokes and mugging for the camera, which are periodically transfigured, like the Virgin in a Renaissance painting, into an exquisite vision of heaven. Busby Berkeley movies like Footlight Parade, on the other hand, are unsentimental yarns of the seedy but glamorous backstage world of the theater, which end in monolithic, jaw-dropping art deco extravaganzas.
Astaire’s movies, all soundstage nightclubs, tuxedoes, unconvincing European settings, essentially distracted from the Depression. Berkeley’s astonishing trio from 1933–42nd Street, Golddiggers of ’33, and Footlight Parade–on the other hand confronted it directly. It’s really kind of amazing. Of all depictions of showbiz I’ve ever seen, I think they’re my favorite–they’re the only ones that really make it look like work. Sure, there’s those fairytale moments where Ruby Keeler takes off her glasses and gets cast as the lead, etc., but there’s also the grueling auditions in 42nd Street, the performers locked into the theater until they get the routines right in Footlight Parade, the three out-of-work chorus girls stealing milk and dodging the landlady in Golddiggers of ’33. Considering the unabashedly left-wing politics of these movies–there’s an unbelievable moment in Footlight Parade when the dancers in formation create the face of FDR–I think part of the point was to show that performers were Labor too.
What will last about all these movies is the dancing. I don’t know if I’m romanticizing the time, but it seems like dance was in the air then, a part of life, more than it was after the war. As one of my favorite articles ever points out, from the earliest days, Disney cartoons were saturated with dance–in the early days, even the flowers, trees, and the sun in the sky would be boppin’ back and forth as the scene opened. Whether the virtuosity of Fred Astaire tap-dancing or a hundred dancing girls making simple turns in a spiral pattern, dance was made to be filmed. Patterns and lines. Music and motion.