I’m digging further into the mass of Busby Berkeleys I accumulated last week, and I’ve run into another odd, very un-“Berkeley”-like picture: I Live for Love. It’s very interesting to look at these smaller films as a kind of career in and of itself, moving parallel to his more well-known musical spectacles. Here we see another highly melodramatic piece with little evidence of the signatures and trademarks he developed in his musical works. I selected this one based mostly on time considerations (its run time is a hair over 60 minutes), and as I was hovering over the title on the DVR, I noticed that the official TV guide description was unexpectedly snarky:

I Live for Love (1935). Everett Marshall, Dolores Del Rio. Nonsense about a feud between a prima donna and a radio star, redeemed by the singing of Everett Marshall. (64 min)

Sooo that tempered my expectations somewhat drastically, but I continued on in the interest of science.

Dolores Del Rio plays Donna Alvarez, a “South American” (that’s as specific as they get) theatrical actress preparing for a new play with her producers. She wants her boyfriend, Rico, to play the male lead in the play; the producers don’t want him, but, for some reason, see it as a preferable alternative to hire the first random schmo that walks in the door–luckily for them, this happens to be Everett Marshall. They tell Donna that they’ve already this Owen Jones fellow (his real name is Roger Kerry), so they can’t possibly hire Rico. Unhappy, Donna pesters Owen/Roger until he departs the production, which is probably in the producers’ interest, since, as we see, he’s also a truly awful actor. He lands on his feet though, as a radio producer tracks him down while singing on the street, and gives him a role on a national radio show, which is an immediate hit.

Donna and Roger trade barbs and try to outwit each other for a little while longer, until suddenly they are in love. This is partly a result of the producers’ meddling, as they initially invent the romance for the tabloids to better sell their show. However, once they realize that the two stars are actually in love–and have plans to get married–they fear the drama and resulting publicity will fade, and conspire to break them up. This is fairly successful, and Donna and Roger don’t reunite until the very last scene–actually leaving Rico at the alter as they speed off in the back of a taxi, à la The Graduate.

Beyond the baffling character shifts, the humor didn’t quite work for me–the trio of musicians acting as chorus come off as an irritating kind of Three Stooges knock-off–and a bit too much of the plot’s exposition relies on newspaper stories displayed onscreen. (That’s a common motif of this era of filmmaking for sure, but at a certain point it’s too much to believe that gossip rags are reporting on what an unknown actor is up to after walking off from a play that hadn’t even opened yet.)

There are a few moments that do stand out as essentially Berkeley: despite most of the movie looking like it was shot in a couple days for a couple hundred bucks (and perhaps it was), there are some great crane shots over the small crowds. Nothing kaleidoscopic, but still nice. Del Rio is costumed impeccably (jodhpurs!), and of course, she looks gorgeous, and Mitchell’s voice is lovely.

I continue to be fascinated by this “alternate” reality of Berkeley’s career, that was, in fact, reality. It’s interesting looking at the dates of these films, because one might expect that perhaps these relatively flavorless dramas would have been his early works, before he had developed his visual style. But no, this movie came out the same year as Gold Diggers of 1935, yet I think most viewers would be hard-pressed to identify that both films were directed by the same person. There’s just not the same level of confidence that he has in his more spectacular works, and whether that’s the result of a studio not supporting his alternative interests, or Berkeley just not feeling comfortable working in this general arena, I can’t quite say. I do know Berkeley himself was quite adamant about doing these small dramas though, so perhaps he just needed to get these impulses out–stockpiling flair for his bigger musicals.

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