04 September, 2007


I returned, recently, to one of my favourites: the choreographies of Footlight Parade. When I first watched these, the number that most caught me was 'Shanghai Lil', with its arch stereotypes, opium-den tap and fantastical patriotism. And Jimmy Cagney. This time round it was undoubtedly 'By a Waterfall', with the more classical Busby Berkeley pairing of Dick Powell and the beautiful Ruby Keeler. 'By a Waterfall' is the very epitome of the Berkeley routine, and his most famous image comes at its glorious climax:

I watched the number again and again. There is so much to look at, and it is so strange. Many of us have some idea of what we're going to see when we watch one of his films. And so it comes as little surprise to see massed girls twirling geometrically. But— it should be a surprise. Shouldn't it? Dick Powell opens the scene, as he usually does. His voice does not have right timbre for the material; it is too hard. And he sings with a sort of jolly smugness that we now find uncomfortable to watch, if we do watch. There's a magic melodeee / Mother Nature sings to meee / Beside a waterfall / With you. He completes his part with a knowing nod, almost imperceptible, to Keeler. The nod is an act of perfection: it says, This is the order of things: it is correct. Then he sets his head all snug on her barm, and she starts to sing, before a chorus of bathing demoiselles takes over. Choirs on film had a very distinct sound at that time—it had something to do with recording techniques—a sharp, keening, ghostly coo.

It is at this point that the number becomes really odd. For about ten minutes we watch these slim lovelies—let us pretend they are lovely—cavorting on the side of an artificial cataract, and then in an artificial pool, and then in a stylised Art Deco palace, and then in more pools, of indeterminate size, depth and shape, and finally in the palace again, arranged in that legendary ziggurat, spraying jets of water out on all sides.

The costumes represent, albeit stiffly, a soft and osculatory flow of preraphaelitesque hair from the head to the neck, shoulders, around the breasts, between the legs, against a palette of foamwhite flesh, thinly suited. (Hair as tentacle; how Japanese.) There is a mood of social gaiety and innocent frolics. And this is one of the most bizarre things to us—we who have grown up with a pop culture at once morbidly ironic and hypersexual, paranoid—this conflation of the sweet and jolly with the titillation of (apparent) ladyflesh. It is striking to see a beauty so unencumbered with sexuality.

In this shot Keeler smiles blissfully as she dissolves in the visual noise of the torrent. Keeler, just one of the dozens of seagirls involved in the sequence, is happily fulfilling orders. They all participate in the spectacle, just as when the bugle is blown in 'Shanghai Lil' the sailors all march out to drill their rifles and parade with their flags (and portrait of FDR). This, ladies and gents, is what America is made of. The aesthetic deepens as the natatory movements become mechanical. Here the girls become a human zipper of shapely legs:

And here a rather peristaltic boa-constrictor:

These images are consumptive, digestive. And faces are lost in the patterning; the players might as well be droids. For those who let ethics get in the way of aesthetics, this should be disturbing—a stripping-away of human particulars to create a harmonious whole—a reduction of the human to the functional—and thus an essentially anti-humanist choreography, the opposite of character-centred Astaire routines. For me it's fine. But how far is this from the furniture of faceless nude slavegirls in De Sade's castle? Interlocking limbs and all.

This is what I mean when I insist that that 'By a Waterfall' is extremely strange, and beautiful because strange. It is not just camp or corny; it is irreducibly foreign. Even after the synchronised swimming, it is still strange. Keeler wakes Powell up from his dream by splashing water on his shoes, and the final shot shows us three baby whippoorwills in a nest, chirping one-two-three at the final notes of the music. The camera cuts to the curtain falling and the audience clapping ecstatically, and we remember that this entire fantasie is supposed to have happened onstage before a flock of theatregoers. We look for some acknowledgement of the surrealism—we look because we are accustomed to the ironic wink—but there is none. 'By a Waterfall' is a mesmeric reminder of that enormous gulf that separates our age, wholly subsumed in irony, from that which came before, a past almost lost to us.


Sue said...

Yeah, preraphaelitesque and all that, but isn't it is still what it always was, whether in oil paintings, marble, photos or movies - a bit of titillation for the boys?

Languagehat said...

By "we" I presume you mean "those too young to remember the '60s." Until we old coots die off, the Age of Irony will not reign unopposed.

Mrs. Lily-Plum Roth said...

I disagree that it is devoid of sexuality, although it is certainly a sexuality that is infused with an innocent frivolity almost wholly lacking in today's rather glamorized and (to my mind) somewhat antiseptically aggressive sexuality.
All that flesh...even "fake" flesh, is rather sweetly alluring...the titillation is straightforward and joyful.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Sue: titillation perhaps, but not just titillation. I think we can say more than that.

LH: Well, there is that, but do you find yourself wholly unaffected by the past 40 (or however many) years? A sixty-year old is already participating in the age of irony, and I suspect you too would be watching for the knowing nod.

Andrew W. said...

I would love to see this film. Ilove that wonderful speck of time between the world wars where so much seemed possible. Interesting how one war unleashed that and the other in some sense, supressed it. Or perhaps it was the depression that did that. Or maybe both.

Thanks for this, Conrad.

Conrad H. Roth said...

Well, there's a new Busby Berkeley collection that you can either buy or rent. Glad you enjoyed!

Anonymous said...

Although 'By a waterfall' is an amazing piece of choreography, my favourite parts of Footlight Parade are those showing James Cagney in action. He sings Shanghai Lil interestingly and then dances in his jerky jack style. My biggest query was, 'Why did he not put a grapefruit in the puss of this putative potato faced wife?' Ingenue Ruby Keeler is as usual whimpishly attractive and Slick Dick Powell is his charmingly boyish self. Well, they certainly don't make films like that today - because they can't - ain't it the truth ?

Penvronius Miles Cambrensis