Cleansing the lens of cinematic perception until the screen is infinite... or at least 16:9

Thursday, January 10, 2019

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


It's a fairly ubiquitous tune today, but when this movie came out, it was brand new, written for this very film, GOLD DIGGERS OF 1935, and if you see it, as I recently did, shorn of the preceding hour of shrill comedy (scheming social climber bellboys and their manager, greedy for a percentage of their tips; White Russian impresarios wheedling money from a miserly matron; her seducible offspring finding love and scam artists), the two climactic Busby Berkeley-directed numbers bend reality all the better. The first is forgettable musically but eventually erupts in some dazzlingly precise trippy fractal choreography. The second, however, "Lullaby" transcends even that.

First, it's the blackness that grabs you, coming hot on the heels of the preceding number with its geometric infinity; the single white light illuminating a far-off face, like a distant single star; a shadowed young female face that seems to be slowly moving towards us like a 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 is both compassionate and ambivalent, remorseless, witty, brazen but never tacky, haughty but not loud or shrewish; her glare right into the camera bespeaks a dazzling familiarity with strangers; her shadowed teeth give her a cadaverous lupine edge; her cheeks shadowed by coiled hair give her the vague association of a skull, or the contours of Manhattan. She calmly looks the world dead in the eye while singing, like she's tough talking a rival gang, the city itself standing behind her, ready. She knows that NYC has her back, that she is the city, what it's proudest of.
The song, presented in this island of death and dance in the center of it all, is no longer a jingle, but a dirge, suddenly shorn of its decades-long association with TV commercials for Times Square hotels, Thanksgiving's day parades, floats, shows, and tourist stops 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: this tune is meant as a real lullaby for the Broadway baby--soothing the still-giddy but pleasantly danced (and whatever else)-out party girl to sleep even if it's also a wake-up call for the rest of the city.
When a Broadway baby says good night
It's early in the morning
Manhattan babies don't sleep tight
Until the dawn
As much a symbol as the Statue of Liberty, The Empire State building or Grant's tomb, this all-night party girl is a metonym for the Capitol of the World during its dark climb out of the Depression, Roosevelt's lifting of prohibition carrying her aloft as suddenly booze's affordability allows the high-rollers to give bigger tips at the night clubs.


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, the pleasure of a body that's gone through the exhilaration of dancing and drinking all night, now slinking into cold sheets, alone, free of pawing, there to stash whatever cash or jewelry one's acquired and admire the sparkle in the morning sun. Underwriting the melody's jubilance is this 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, and letting the rush of trains, honking horns, and murmur of crowds and hawking paperboys lull you to sleep.

This is no fantasy though, you can tell the songwriters know of what they speak. I know it well myself --I lived the dance all-night walk of shame life in the city from 1991-1998, vividly. If you're going to be out dancing and drinking til the dawn every night of the week (except Sunday), there's only one city that can accommodate you without effort. This number lets the rest of America know that same thrill, even as it staggers out into ever wilder parties with ever more regimented lines of dancers, and rich faceless chumps in tuxedoes brandishing jewelry and top hats.

But what of this goddess? Whose face, laying down in bed (?) with cigarette in mouth, becomes the lower half of the island Manhattan? She's neither alive nor dead but many and none. 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 frivlous professional reveler as Orpheus and Persephone rolled into one. Hades as both the Underworld and its smitten ruler.

 This is not a death to run from, or towards. It's a stare with its own inexorable tractor beam pull - from the distance, like a tunnel at the end of the road in reverse; her face is the void, the city is the 'next step' that lurks beyond the illusory split between dreaming and waking. Her sultry but cold stare lingers long after the movie fades, the look that bores right into me every time I see it, no matter how long ago it was made or old I've become between viewings.


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 - the city never sleeps. Here the grim reaper and baby new year share the same stairwell. She greets the milkman on his way out, pours some milk (!) for a kitten, just out there in the common hallway, looking up expectantly.  Like this errant kitty, she coasts along like a leaf in the wind, trusting that--in the city that never sleeps--there's always a mug 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 West Side Story school dance blur, beguile, excite and terrify you where you stand.




After her tragic fall, 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 resumes her star status, 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 - she's 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. She and NYC put death put on the spot, they make it stand up and stop slouching.

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 and content, still high, the music you were dancing to throbbing in your blood still, the commuters going to work are still sleepy or freshly perked from their early AM jogs or coffees. Either way, it's nice to see them without being one yourself -  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 doing just that for them. Your destination is their fantasy. But there's no animosity between you - in face you and the commuters share a conspiratorial smile - each's presence takes the other out of themselves, 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 any more than a dog might resent a goat.


Good night, babyGood night, the milkman's on his waySleep tight, babySleep tight, let's call it a day

1935 marked a Hollywood well into the code, but Perhaps it's because there's no dialogue, but it's also remarkably risque. Maybe they got to keep it as there's almost a moral (she dies), the way wanton harlots weren't yet barricaded from ye olde folks at home by steel shudders.
Thanks to the Grand Old Movie blog ("In the End, she Dies")

Still - 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 and the milkman's familiarity with her coming in at the crack of dawn bodes ill. One can't keep this up forever. All of us who've tried have fallen. The dancing and the partying whirl and whirl until she's accidentally thrown off a 30th floor balcony (2) or winds up in Bellevue, loaded with digitalis, screaming her 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're still dancing. Sleep tight, baby. The Milkman Cometh...


NOTES:
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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