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Busby Berkeley Set Dancing to DVD

1 Dec, 2005 By: Holly J. Wagner



It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Struggling in the clutches of the Great Depression, anyone who could afford to flocked to movie theaters to forget their troubles and look for a glimmer of hope.

Busby Berkeley gave it to them in the form of spectacular production musicals that were often short on plot but long on pageantry.

Now, Warner Home Video will release The Busby Berkeley Collection, a first-ever DVD boxed set of Busby Berkeley musicals, only one of which (42nd Street) has ever been committed to disc before.

“These films came at the peak of the Depression; 42nd Street was released just after Franklin Roosevelt was elected president,” said George Feltenstein, Warner's SVP of theatrical catalog marketing. Warner billed the film as “a new deal in entertainment” and conducted a whistlestop tour across the country to promote it.

Berkeley was famous for reviving the movie musical genre with lavish costumes, high-kicking dance numbers and geometrical camera shots that have never quite been duplicated.

“Busby Berkeley wasn't as much of a choreographer, he was more of a dance director. He used the camera as a kaleidoscope,” Feltenstein said. “Esther Williams told me he used to sit in the bathtub and drink martinis at night and dream up what he was going to do the next day.”

Poor quality musicals from the dawn of talkies had given the genre a bad rap, but Berkeley was determined to give audiences something new and exciting.

“When he got here, he decided he would just blow off the roof, and that's just what he did,” Feltenstein said — literally. Berkeley took the roof off of one of the soundstages to raise the camera.

Warner is honoring that dedication to quality with painstaking restorations of Gold Diggers of 1933, 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1935, Footlight Parade and Dames, Feltenstein can take personal pride in one of the bonus features: a bonus sixth disc featuring three hours of highlights of Berkeley's production numbers from the films featured in the set and others, which was originally compiled for laserdisc. The newly restored films will also air on Turner Classic Movies around the release date.

“We've found that airing them on TV creates demand for the discs. We provide them with an upgraded master,” Feltenstein said. “I don't want the consumer to see it on TCM and say, ‘That doesn't look very good, I'm not going to buy that on DVD.’

The March 21 release ($59.92, prebook Feb. 14) is timed for Easter and Mother's Day gift-giving, Feltenstein said, but the films have a much broader audience.

“They are among the top items we get the requests for, the Busby Berkeley films which really, along with the gangster films, were our identity for a long time,” Feltenstein said. “I love these films and they really have a timeless quality. No one will ever be able to do what he did again because I don't think the studios could afford the insurance.”

Other than 42nd Street, the films will be available only in the boxed set.

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