Thursday, January 10, 2019

Angels of Death IX: GOLD DIGGERS of 1935 ("Lullaby of Broadway")

It's a fairly ubiquitous tune today, but when GOLD DIGGERS OF 1935 came out "The Lullaby of Broadway" was brand new, written for the film and, if you see it, as I recently did, shorn of the preceding hour of scheming social climber bellboys, greedy managers, white Russian impresarios wheedling money from a miserly matron whose seducible offspring are off on misadventures with--that's right--gold-diggers, the two climactic Busby Berkeley-directed numbers that close the film bend reality all the better. The first song is forgettable musically but eventually erupts in some dazzlingly precise trippy fractal choreography.

The second number, however, "Lullaby of Broadway" transcends even its Berkeley foundation to become something startling, wry, knowing and the best portrayal of the "walk of shame" in all of cinema.

First, it's the blackness that grabs you, the empty field of nothing. Coming hot on the heels of the preceding number with its geometric infinity the blackness is profound. Then... the single white light illuminating a far-off face staring right at the camera. Like a distant single star, a shadowed young female face moves towards us like a slow rolling flying saucer or moon in a starless sky. As she becomes clearer and larger, a cold chill comes down our spine. That cold look in her eyes as she sings to us is startling. Compassionate and ambivalent, witty but not vulgar, brazen but not haughty, bold but not loud her glare right into the camera bespeaks a dazzling familiarity with strangers; her shadowed teeth give her a cadaverous lupine edge; coiled hair curves up the sides of her face, vaguely evoking a skull before assuming the contours of the island Manhattan. With the brazenness of the city she represents, this singer looks into the camera like it's the leader of a rival gang. She knows that NYC has her back, that she is the city. She is what it's proudest of, its hard-partying beautiful people on their early morning walk of shame, saying hello to their neighbors as they head downstairs to work and she heads upstairs to sleep.

The song (by Harry Warren and Al Dubin) about "the center of it all" becomes, in this strange Busby vignette, no longer a hotel jingle but a dirge. Suddenly shorn of its decades-long association with TV commercials for Times Square hotels, Macy's floats, and revues (all of which make it seem less like a lullaby and more like a wake-up revelry to pep grandma into finding her purse), the lyrics suddenly make an eerie sense. It's meant as a real lullaby for the Broadway "baby" for as she goes to sleep the rest of the city is waking up. The overlap of her and the milkman represents closure of the 24-hour loop, validating the "city that never sleeps" mantra that makes NYC the coolest place in the world
When a Broadway baby says good nightIt's early in the morningManhattan babies don't sleep tightUntil the dawn
As much a symbol as the Statue of Liberty, The Empire State Building or Grant's Tomb, the all-night party girl crooning this ballad (and walking the walk) is a metonym for the Capitol of the World during its dark climb out of the Depression; Roosevelt's lifting of prohibition carries her aloft! Suddenly booze's affordability allows the high-rollers to give her bigger tips at the night clubs. What she does in the hours between four and dawn is all up to her, but she climbs those stairs to sleep, alone but flush with cash, aching feet, and a waning buzz.

NYC never sleeps - and for the all-night girls, the jackhammer and traffic jam bleeping is the sound of the comforting arms of blissful unconsciousness. I've been there, many times from 1993-1998, and it was magic: the exhilaration of dancing and drinking all night, then coming home and slinking into cold sheets, alone, and falling asleep as the traffic outside your window gradually increases until it's a barrage of honking, engines, voices, trains, jackhammers, it is like a lullaby. There is no better way to come down or city to do it in. Underwriting the melody's jubilance, the giddy ecstasy that comes from hearing the clang and bustle of the 9-5 crowd grind the gearshift of the giant NYC business world back into life, but not you, man - you're safe and warm in bed, and pleasantly exhausted.

If you're going to be out dancing and drinking til the dawn every night of the week, there's only one city that can accommodate you without effort. This closing number for an otherwise pretty shrill Gold Diggers movie lets the rest of America know something of this thrill: even as the lead character staggers out into ever wilder parties with ever more regimented lines of dancers, and rich faceless chumps in tuxedoes brandishing jewelry and top hats, we thrill to it.

But what of this goddess? Whose face, laying down in bed (?) with cigarette in mouth, becomes the lower half of the island Manhattan? Played by Wini Shaw, a nearly-star in the Warners musical pantheon, she's already halfway to being a psychopomp, halfway to being some killer from a film noir or horror film. With her beguiling, chilling stare right into camera we are forced to consider death in a whole new light - and to see the frivolous professional reveler who is the subject of the vignette as Orpheus and Persephone rolled into one. Hades as both the NYC gangster underworld and its smitten ruler. Shaw is almost like the dead version of the dancer, re-absorbed into the collective Manhattan pulse.

Hers is a stare with its own inexorable tractor beam pull. From the initial distance, her white face is like the end of a long tunnel at the end of the road in reverse; she is the city as the 'next step' that lurks beyond the illusory split between dreaming and waking. Shaw's sultry shadowed stare lingers long after the movie fades; it bores right into me every time I see it. No matter how long ago it was made or old I've become between viewings, it is immediate and startling.

Maybe it's a dream, a warning, real or a metaphor - one look in her deep ambivalent eyes and you know the score. Life and death are the same; alpha and omega; the sleepy dancer and the sleepy milkman passing each other in the hall; one wakes, the other crashes, but the city that houses them never sleeps. Here the grim reaper and baby new year share the same stairwell. She pours some milk (!) for a kitten out there in the common hallway, looking up expectantly.  Like this errant kitty, she coasts along like a leaf in the wind, trusting that there's always a generous soul somewhere.

Even in the film itself she is separate from the rest of the characters. There's no curtain raising or fourth wall jump-off point for this number like there are in so many others. The film doesn't find her - she just appears out of the darkness, a star in the distance coming closer with a steady, relentless momentum, staring us dead in the eye, the way a beautiful woman giving you a haughty beckoning stare across a room can muffle the party around you to a dry school dance blur, beguile, excite and terrify you where you stand.

After the dancer subject's tragic fall from the skyview balcony of the rooftop club, we see the poor kitten has no one to pour it some milk and the bed is unslept in - no one is maybe there to miss her.  She dissilved back into the skyline - it's a very eerie ending to the number but with that eerie opening we're not surprised. This is a real Broadway Angel of Death, hardly fazed by her own demise. She becomes Ms. Death in a way that's unique to the city, which is the reason we all fall in love with it and her. She and NYC strip death of all the skull and bones posturing.

I certainly relate to this girl's odyssey. No NYC youth is complete without a period of walks of shame, NYC being so clearly where the phrase was invented. Where else can you even walk home from some new lover's bed on a regular basis but NYC? You get out at dawn, the smell of your lover or the dance club still all over you, with cigarettes fresh and warmly beguiling in the air, newsstands and awnings groaning open like the maws of giant friendly dragons; trucks, garbage men who should have finished up hours ago now rushing against the onslaught of rush hour. You dance home--or it feels like it though it comes off more as staggering, in torn stockings or borrowed sweatshirts. Maybe you hope your roommate is still there since you lost your keys. Well-laid or just well-danced and content, still high, the music throbbing in your blood still, you pass the showered-and-shaved people going to work around you either still groggy or freshly perked from their early AM jogs or coffees. Either way, it's nice to see them, as you're headed off to bed, and you remember being one of them and remember how badly you wanted to turn around and go back to bed, so you are kind of living that dream for them. Your destination is their fantasy. But there's no animosity; you and the commuters share a conspiratorial smile, for the gap in consciousness between the danced/laid reveler staggering or sauntering home to bed and the freshly woke commuter off to work, is so vast that there is no uncanny valley - no resentment is possible.

Good night, baby / Good night / The milkman's on his way /Sleep tight, baby / Sleep tight / Let's call it a day
1935 marked a Hollywood's total submission to the draconian code, but--perhaps it's because there's no dialogue--the "Lullaby" vignette is  remarkably risque. Maybe they got to keep it intact as there's almost a moral: wanton harlots weren't yet barricaded from ye olde folks at home by steel shudders, as long as they suffered. See a good insight on this via the Grand Old Movie blog ("In the End, she Dies")

The code may be in effect, but the "walk of shame" carries no stigma for this Broadway baby, anymore than any of us slumping home from our day job. The men she meets on her way upstairs glare not, neither do they scold, neither do they leer. This isn't Hicksville. This is NYC and everyone knows she works as hard for the money as they do.

But the working man's and the milkman's familiarity with the sight of this jazz baby coming home every day/night at dawn bodes ill. One can't keep this lifestyle up forever. The dancing and the partying whirl and whirl until one is accidentally thrown off a 30th floor balcony (2) or winds up in Bellevue, loaded with digitalis, screaming one's head off.

On the other hand, when everyone around you is screaming too, you begin to realize at last just what 'hitting bottom' really means. It's so terrible it's kind of grand. Even after the splat, you can keep dancing, or at least singing. Sleep tight, baby. The Milkman Cometh...

1. There's no brief of small town morality to guide our understanding of what's going on here - what the original purpose of an 'engagement ring' was for, or promissory notes of marriage being valid tools to sue for breach of promise, as in taking of virginity = $$. If you want to have sex before marriage, an engagement ring says at least you'll have something to pawn when it's time to pay the midwife. The ideal state was divorced or a widow and with the Great War slaughters, widowhood was not uncommon. 
2. For me, the balcony itself crashed (from 1997-9/11 our Thurs. haunt was Windows on the World on the top floor of Tower A.) 

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