Scenes from the Lost New York Conference (I)

FROM SESSION V: MARSHALL BERMAN AND DAVID FREELAND IN DIALOGUE

Our final session featured a conversation between Marshall Berman, the author (most recently) of On the Town: One Hundred Years of Spectacle in Times Square, and David Freeland, author of the recently published Automats, Taxi Dances, and Vaudeville: Excavating Manhattan’s Lost Places of Leisure.

It began in unexpected fashion — with a screening of the closing scene from Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1935 — the fabulous “Lullaby of Broadway” number. Take a look below (the clip is split into two parts on You Tube):

When the lights came up, Berman began to dicsuss the genesis of his book On the Town, holding up a photocopy of an illustration from the book’s preface (shown below) and describing it to the audience:

times_girl.jpg“I discovered this in the Museum of the City of New York. It was a souvenir postcard made in 1903. It’s a photo of the Times Building in 1903, when the exterior was completed, but the inside wasn’t. The hardest thing to build was the printing press, because it went in the basement, and it was very close to the IRT subway, which was also in the basement level. They both opened in the winter of 1904-1905 with tremendous fanfare. Some people were worried about accidents and catastrophes below, but it never happened.

“This [card] shows Times Square when there is only one big building in it, and the rest of it is nineteenth-century tenements. Eugene O’Neill was born in one of these tenements, which were then called ‘theatrical boarding houses,’ [because] actors, and actresses and theatrical people tended to live in them. This building creates a new scale for Times Square — something like the scale we know today. For many years, this was the tallest building in the world. This was when skyscrapers were just being invented.

“So the building was a new scale — and the girl was a new scale too. It’s a montage: a photo of a building and a cartoon of a girl. And the girl is like a showgirl — if any of you are fans of Degas or Manet or Lautrec, you’ve seen plenty of representations of her in nineteenth-century Paris in what’s now called ‘La Belle Epoque.’ But in American popular culture, you won’t see her at all. No doubt there were women like this, but they weren’t in public: they were in the shadows, and they certainly weren’t usually sent through the mail as souvenir postcards. And she’s in a very insouciant pose, she’s in deshabille, you know this kind of unbuttoned —  everything is falling out — and basically it’s like she’s in her dressing room or in someplace private into which she’s letting us come.

“It’s about the interaction of this kind of sexuality and this kind of public space, and that’s what makes the card so special. And I called her — since this is the Times Building — as soon as I saw the card, the “Times Girl,” and that made me think I had to write this book.”

What followed was a reading from the fourth chapter of the book — “Times Girl and Her Daughters” — in which Berman analyzes the dynamics of “Lullaby of Broadway.” Click the continuation link below to read the excerpt, which served as the basis for Berman’s conversation with Freeland. (We’ll offer Freeland’s introductory remarks tomorrow.)
 








“Hollywood has taken over. … ” During the
Depression, while Hollywood movies flourished as Broadway theater collapsed,
some people wondered why there should be any continuing need for Broadway to
exist at all. However, one of the outstanding things that Hollywood did all
through the Depression was to produce brilliant representations of Broadway:
42nd Street, Stage Door, the Busby Berkeley Gold Diggers series, and, at the
very end of the 1930s, Dorothy Arzner’s Dance, Girl, Dance. Why should this be?
One reason may be that, at a time when the movies were on a roll of spectacular
prosperity, many people benefiting from it had begun their careers on the stage,
and still believed that the theater, so much more precarious and vulnerable, was
infinitely more “real,” more “authentic!” Another reason is that
these films are all about the backstage world, the world behind the world of illusion;
they are about how theatrical illusions are created by real people, members of
real hierarchies of power, men and women who are willing to sell themselves in
exchange for real money-but who usually can’t find buyers. The deuce in the
Depression is a street full of people who desperately need work; if the star
doesn’t shine, they can’t pay the rent.

Since the year 2000, a theatrical revival of 42nd Street has
been playing on the deuce, in the newly reconstructed American Airlines
Theater. The current revival reproduces 1930s Broadway decoration very well.
But although the play is set in 1933, this production is totally insensitive to
the meaning of 1933, the worst year in the Depression, and the year that both
Roosevelt and Hitler came to power. It occludes the economic pressure, shared
by actors, directors, stagehands, and audiences-and even by the backers-that
gave the plot its human urgency, and gave the show’s triumph its big thrill.
The revival never even uses the word “Depression,” or any number of
other words it could have used instead, to convey that the whole country was in
trouble. But it was this trouble, so damaging to Depression Broadway, that made
Broadway qualified, maybe for the first time in its history, to represent a
real world. To get a bead on today’s vision of 42nd Street, try to imagine
South Pacific without World War Two.

One of the most poignant 1930s meditations on individuality
and collectivity is Busby Berkeley’s “Lullaby of Broadway” number
from Gold Diggers of 1935. The star of this number, playing Times Girl in the
1930s, is the actress and singer Wini Shaw. She is its star, not only in the
sense that she does more acting and singing and gets more screen time than
anybody else. She is the star in the sense that the whole number, with its cast
of hundreds, is about her, her Bildung, her inner life, her fantasies about
herself, her quest for identity. Everything is dramatized as if it is her
dream. So far as I know, this is the one place in Berkeley’s oeuvre where he
focuses on an individual and her inner life. Of course, he brings us his usual
Piranesian vistas and gargantuan choruses; but now they mean more than usual,
because, instead of just dropping these tropes on our heads from some Olympian
sky, he shows us how they can spring organically from a woman’s life, from her
desires and her dreams and “her yearning capacity.” People who don’t
like Berkeley’s work have always called his landscapes “Fascist,” but
Fascism is never at home with human inwardness, or with anyone’s struggle for
identity, certainly not a working girl’s. (Indeed, the seductiveness of Fascism
has always been its promise to deliver modern men and women from the struggle for
identity.)”

The most famous shot in this number comes at its dramatic
climax, when, pressed by a great crowd, to our horror, the heroine plunges over
a balcony-or does she fall, or is she pushed? (The uncertainty is as disturbing
today as it was to its first generation of viewers.) But the image that is richest
and most profound comes at the very start of her dream. First she sings the
“Lullaby” slowly, with only a faint accompaniment; her face is
luminous against a background of total blackness. She puts special stress on one
of the last lines: “Your baby goes home to her flat I to sleep all
day.” Then the camera zooms in, and settles on her face at close-up range.
She smiles up at us, her black hair curls over her face. Then she lights up,
and suddenly, magically, her face becomes the city: Her eyes, nose, mouth
metamorphose into a landscape of midtown New York. Now she sings the same song
again, but at a jazzy tempo, backed by an inner big band. Gradually her dream
unfolds; a metropolitan crowd surrounds and envelops her; she alternates between
merging with this crowd and emerging from it. She imagines herself in an
immense ballroom: Sometimes she is part of a huge chorus; then she is a
soloist, whirled through the air by a man whose moves suggest Fred Astaire;
then she is on a balcony having drinks and watching the action with a movie
star, who turns out to be Dick Powell. Powell plays a distinctive role in her
dream life, in fact the role he created in 42nd Street: an empathetic and
unselfish mentor who is happy to teach a woman all he knows and work to help
her become a star without making sexual or romantic demands of his own. In
American culture, this is a new form of “Mr. Right.” When Powell
urges her to join the crowd that is gathering just below them, his word carries
weight. She agrees, sings alluringly, “Why don’t you come and get
me?” and then instantly (remember this is a dream) becomes not just a face
in the crowd but its leader. She leads a mass dance up and up a grand spiral
staircase, till she reaches the roof of a penthouse with a spectacular view of
Times Square. She and Powell have a passionate kiss that somehow goes through
the terrace’s glass door. As they kiss, a great wave of people pours through
all around her. These are the people she led up the stairs, doesn’t she
remember? It looks as if she has forgotten, she looks confused and tries to tom
away, even if only for just a second. But as she turns, in the midst of this
crowd, their sheer momentum plunges her off the roof. Then comes the classic
horrific “plunge” shot, in which we see the roofs and streets getting
bigger and bigger, closer and closer. Just before the crash, we fade to black.
The narrative reverses itself, and the city becomes her face. Home again, she
climbs the stairs to her room. Her neighbors are all smiles. “Your baby
goes home to her flat I to sleep all day.” We know she will wake in time
for another night on the town.

This is one of the most memorable scenes in American cinema.
But its star, Winifred “Wini” Shaw, was dropped almost as
dramatically as the girl she plays. She appeared in twenty-six films from 1934
to 1937, then nothing at all until her death in 1982.

[From On the Town, pp. 136-39.]