A lot of times when I’m thinking about the Code, I tend to oversimplify it into a distinct “before” and “after;” the befores all exposition scenes in lingerie, the afters all punitive morality fables. The truth is a little more complicated than that, and the changes affected more than just skimpy costumes and suggestive dialogue. Choreography, as Busby Berkeley experienced, was also a target—especially if your pre-Code style relied more heavily on leggy chorus girls than Fred and Ginger gliding across the dance floor in evening wear.
Berkeley had a prolific career as a film choreographer and director both before and after the Code, though his style went through significant shifts throughout the years. Choreography changed not only in response to the Code, but also due to audience preferences shifting away from the showy, exaggerated musical style towards the more naturalistic (and then back again). During this time, Berkeley moved not only into directing full features, in addition to musical numbers, but also worked on non-musical films like Men Are Such Fools and Fast and Furious.
Berkeley’s pre-Code choreography was bawdy and often overtly sexual—maybe not in the same way as a music video is today, but certainly undeniable to viewers even now. He gained immense popularity among the post-Depression audiences through a string of hits that included 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, and lots and lots of legs.
Directed by Lloyd Bacon with dance numbers by Berkeley, 42nd Street follows the familiar tale of a young ingenue trying to make it on Broadway. Unlike some of her peers, who secure their spots by making themselves “available” to the producers, she’s determined to make it through on her talents alone—well, and a lucky run-in with a surprisingly non-lascivious Dick Powell, and generous support from some surprisingly non-competitive fellow chorus girls. But also her talent.
The “I’m Young and Healthy” number is probably the raciest song in the film, starting with the barely-there nude costumes on the girls, as seen above, lovingly commemorated in close up and rotated from multiple angles to allow the audience to memorize every (minimal) fold of fabric. The number also culminates in this delightfully ridiculous shot:
I don’t think you can get much more pre-Code than the not entirely subliminal staging of a camera traveling between the dancers’ spread legs. It’s an intimate angle, to say the least, and emphasizes the closeness we’re granted to the dancers’ bodies. Berkeley’s almost completely removed the distance felt between audience and the figures on screen.
Gold Diggers of 1933 follows a similar tale, with many of the same faces (Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Ginger Rogers, etc.) once again vying for stardom on the Great White Way. It also offers much the same in terms of costuming and imagery—as seen above in the “We’re in the Money” number, the outfits for many of the dancers are little more than already skimpy lingerie, half-covered by coinage. Another number, “Pettin’ in the Park,” features the chorus girls and boys paired up and getting friendly in the park, until a rainstorm interrupts their unions, which causes things to get even more… um, pre-Code, as seen in gif form just to the right. Some scenes of Gold Diggers of 1933 were in fact so racy that they reportedly had to send different cuts to various regions just to avoid local censorship.
There’s also some great repeated imagery of a white rose in another number, “Shadow Waltz,” just in case the outright silhouette nudity wasn’t quite enough. Very, ahem, subliminal stuff—I wonder what it could possibly represent? The rose is so pure, almost… virginal… Hmm……
Oh, well, it’s gone now!
Things changed pretty quickly for the Gold Diggers series after the Code. Gold Diggers of 1935 takes place off-Broadway, during the production of a charity show at a hotel. Loyal viewers may already have been troubled by that suspicious addition of a “plot,” rather than “bits of dialogue between musical numbers.” The big number, “Lullaby of Broadway,” contains some of the Berkeley trademark staging and camera work, but much of the playful sauciness is (necessarily) gone.
“Lullaby of Broadway” opens with a sloowwww, slow, slow zoom (like, literally two minutes long) onto a singing woman’s face floating in otherwise complete darkness, which itself would become a common Berkeley motif. There are a few nods to pre-Code sensuality within the dance, but they’re absorbed into the description of a daily routine; putting stockings on, taking them off, getting into bed. The camera doesn’t linger. The party girl stays out late—but we don’t even see her suitor, and she makes it home to her own bed (alone) by morning. Her ensuing dream involves an intricate ballroom dance, first by a singular, elegant couple, then with a full group of pair dancers. Unlike many of the pre-Code musicals, the costumes here cover more area than a small handkerchief would; the women’s sleeves and hemlines are long. (Luckily, there’s nude fabric on the midriff and the skirts are designed to be pulled up during the tap numbers—they were operating under the Code, not animals.) However, even these little touches are mostly for show, as most of this number is filmed in long shots from afar. The few close-ups still feel distanced—they’re a far cry from the extremely up close and personal camera we saw in Gold Diggers of 1933 just a few years prior.
Although the number isn’t as immediately sexy as Berkeley’s other outputs, it’s also one of the most avant-garde and ambitious pieces Berkeley ever created—necessity is the mother of invention, as it goes. It won for Best Original Song at the Oscars that year, and was also part of Berkeley’s first solo credit as a director on a feature. It’s clear here that, despite the limitations of the Code, he’s able to generate something new and creative.
Gold Diggers of 1937 takes to the stage again, though with the added intrigue of an insurance scandal. Now, just going through these films and comparing them for this post, I find the staging of this number, “All’s Fair in Love and War,” especially hilarious within context. Just four years prior we had the wanton wildness of “Pettin’ in the Park”; now we have fully clothed couples in giant rocking chairs, embracing so chastely they look like they’re awaiting a visit from their grandchildren. Later in the number, a group of girls does a flag dance in military costumes (by God, at least these are pants-less), marching in formations and waving their flags around. I’m sure a compelling argument could be made for the flags as phallic-replacement objects, but even allowing for that, it still feels like it was filmed from about a mile away—especially in comparison to the bawdy proximity of 1933.
Berkeley’s career continued well after the implementation of the Code, and he seemed quite able to adapt more to the changing public tastes that would define the musicals of the 1940s and ’50s. His work ranged from the simplicity of For Me and My Gal, which relied largely on the skills of its leads, Judy Garland and Gene Kelly, to sell their performances; to the unforgettable ostentatiousness of The Gang’s All Here, featuring the over-the-top banana dance and disembodied heads on polka dots. (Come to think of it, maybe the banana dance was actually quite subversive for the time. I’ll allow it.) Berkeley was a remarkably creative figure in Hollywood—never complacent, always innovative, and always moving forward, no matter the restrictions.