The Explanation
(for those who require one)

And, of course, that is what all of this is -- all of this: the one song, ever changing, ever reincarnated, that speaks somehow from and to and for that which is ineffable within us and without us, that is both prayer and deliverance, folly and wisdom, that inspires us to dance or smile or simply to go on, senselessly, incomprehensibly, beatifically, in the face of mortality and the truth that our lives are more ill-writ, ill-rhymed and fleeting than any song, except perhaps those songs -- that song, endlesly reincarnated -- born of that truth, be it the moon and June of that truth, or the wordless blue moan, or the rotgut or the elegant poetry of it. That nameless black-hulled ship of Ulysses, that long black train, that Terraplane, that mystery train, that Rocket '88', that Buick 6 -- same journey, same miracle, same end and endlessness."
-- Nick Tosches, Where Dead Voices Gather

Great Madmen of the 20th Century #4


Busby Berkeley

4 comments :

swac said...

I've said it before, and I'll say it again...Goin' to Heaven on a Mule is the most insane thing I've ever seen in a classic Hollywood film.

And I'm well-versed in the work of Olsen and Johnson.

Tom Sutpen said...

My take on "Goin' to Heaven On a Mule" is that, while it's stuffed to the ceiling with debased imagery, I can't say it's consciously, deliberately racist in the sense a film like "The Birth of a Nation" is. Busby Berkeley's modus operandi had always been to take a basic idea to its visual extreme (think what "Pettin' in the Park" from "Gold Diggers of 1933" would have been like had he been able to carry that all the way) so once he was confronted with a Jolson blackface number (which was inevitable given the studio he worked at, he did what he always did.

It's an extraordinary piece of filmmaking, apart from its content which couldn't be more wanton. But I think it underscores a lot of contradictions we don't like to confront in art. Sometimes great art can be toweringly offensive morally.

swac said...

It's true, you can't say that the sequence (from the film Wonder Bar, if anyone was wondering) is meant to be hateful because it is so full of joy, but cramming it so full of stereotypes just makes you wonder what kind of world its creators were living in.

It's much the same with Bob Clampett's Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs, which taken at face value could be deemed incredibly offensive. Yet, the cartoon was not meant to offend (or incite hatred), and I've heard from a couple of different sources that black audiences in the '40s enjoyed the toon immensely. But Warner Bros. have clamped the lid down on this one pretty tightly, while the truly offensive Scrub Me Mama With A Boogie Beat (by Walter Lantz's studio) continues to circulate in public domain cartoon compilations (and I even saw it once on a Canadian digital cable channel called Movieola in a block of program meant for children!).

I guess it comes down to Berkley working in a fantasy realm, and fantasies are almost always extreme, so when you add Jolson's plantation routine to the mix, it's bound to be way, way out there.

What I want to know is, why isn't The Gang's All Here available in any format?

Tom Sutpen said...

Stephen wrote:

It's true, you can't say that the sequence (from the film Wonder Bar, if anyone was wondering) is meant to be hateful because it is so full of joy, but cramming it so full of stereotypes just makes you wonder what kind of world its creators were living in.*****
It would be flippant to say the same world everyone else was living in then, but it would also be true. These stereotypes were absolutely endemic to American Popular Culture from before the Civil War. They grew out of Minstrelsey and bled into everything. Cinema was no more immune to the sway of Popular imagination than any other medium of the time was. "Goin' to Heaven On a Mule" was merely the most extravagant expression of images from this collective sub-conscious to date. Again, I maintain this is a result of Busby Berkeley's approach to filmmaking and not because he was moved by a rotted cerebral cortext to villify an entire race (though he did, in his relative innocence, grossly and vividly insult an entire race).

It's much the same with Bob Clampett's Coal Black and De Sebben Dwarfs, which taken at face value could be deemed incredibly offensive. Yet, the cartoon was not meant to offend (or incite hatred), and I've heard from a couple of different sources that black audiences in the '40s enjoyed the toon immensely. But Warner Bros. have clamped the lid down on this one pretty tightly*****
So tightly that I've yet to see it, sad to say. I wish this stuff wasn't suppressed. I know some African Americans today would find it upsetting, and I'm mindful of that, but it just seems to me that the more we turn our backs from this stuff and try to pretend it never happened; that this wasn't the popular entertainment of its day, the more we're robbing future generations ofan honest appreciation and knowledge of what this country's culture is capable of at its worst. We're covering up a moral failing that should not be forgotten.

while the truly offensive Scrub Me Mama With A Boogie Beat (by Walter Lantz's studio) continues to circulate in public domain cartoon compilations (and I even saw it once on a Canadian digital cable channel called Movieola in a block of program meant for children!).*****
Oh, that's great. I'm sure they presented it in its proper context for the little monsters out in TV land. Yeesh.

The Walter Lantz is another one I've heard about but haven't seen. Is it really as bad as its reputation would have it, Stephen?

I guess it comes down to Berkley working in a fantasy realm, and fantasies are almost always extreme, so when you add Jolson's plantation routine to the mix, it's bound to be way, way out there.*****
That was my point. It was a combination as inevitable, given the studio, as it was potent. Obviously Warner's was going to turn to Berkeley to revive the fortunes of Jolson's fading stardom, and nothing about it was there to prevent Berkeley from doing it to the same scale he did everything. He was one of the very very few filmmakers of that time who was able to transfer his vision onto film with few encumbrances . . . only after he went to MGM was he strait-jacketed to a significant degree. Both his immense skill as a filmmaker (remember, he was at best a mediocre choreographer) and the great popularity his Musical Numbers had achieved from the beginning made this state of affairs possible.

What I want to know is, why isn't The Gang's All Here available in any format?

*****
Y'got me. If any film was a prime candidate for a digital refurbishment, this one is.

I could be wrong, but I don't think there are many Fox Musicals from that period which have ever seen a second life on Video, regardless of the format.