Escapism and Busby Berkeley’s Musicals


“In an era of breadlines, depression and wars, I tried to help people get away from all the misery…to turn their minds to something else. I wanted to make people happy, if only for an hour.”1 Busby Berkeley’s quote applies perfectly to the definition of escapism, i.e. “the tendency to seek distraction and relief from unpleasant realities, especially by seeking entertainment or engaging in fantasy.”2 It is a commonplace to label musicals as escapist films, a term which may gloss over the ideological effects and reception of this genre. Watching a film is an act of escapism per se: the viewer is absorbed by what he is seeing, especially in Hollywood films. In this light, we shall not discuss whether the musical is escapist or not, but the relationship between Hollywood, the audience and the ideological and historical context of the film.

This essay focuses Warner musicals produced in 1933 during the Great Depression. Can musicals really escape the realities of their times, in this case, the Great Depression? Is the term escapism too reductive, or should we consider it as both a catharsis made by both the Hollywood apparatus and the audience?

Genre is produced for and by the mass audience, Hollywood trying to meet the expectations of the filmgoers.3 Genre is therefore “an industrial form of aesthetic practice.”4 Because of their obvious artificiality the musical is subject to a negative press. It is considered as “an opiate, (…)a drug which puts the spectator to sleep, thus inducing him to ignore the problems of the real world.”5 Genre functions as a myth and legend in premodern societies. Thus musicals recreate myths with rituals, in order to create a distinctive world separated from reality.6
According to Roth, Warner’s musicals are more political than escapist, either explicitly (My forgotten Man) or implicitly (the musical as a symptom of capitalism.) Indeed, he argues that Berkeley’s synchronised and abstract dances, where individuals are part of a whole, epitomize Roosevelt’s emphasis on collective effort during the crisis. Hence the backstage musicals like 42nd Street or Gold Diggers, showcasing the importance of the director and cooperation in order to succeed.7 In line with this, Roth argues that escapism is improper to qualify the musical; instead “the terms idealistic, political, and ritualistic are far more relevant.”8 I would argue that we can find revenge in escapism, which would be a conscious escapism. The gold diggers represent working class revenge against the rich. The average viewer of 1933 might actively identify to them because they are affected by the Depression. Let us first look at the last number of Gold Diggers of 1933, My Forgotten Man, which refers to WWI veterans, a thematic that did not appear in the rest of the film (or only briefly when the producer Barney Hopkins imagines the song after meeting Brad.) The film is a backstage

1 Busby Berkeley
3 Annette Kuhn and Guy Westwell, Oxford Dictionary of Film Studies, s.v. “genre.”
4 Paul Watson, “Approaches to film genre – taxonomy/genericity/metaphor,” in Introduction to Film Studies, ed. Jill Nelmes, (London and New York: Routledge, 2012), 206.
5 Roth, 41.
6 Roth, 47.
7 Roth, 45.
8 Roth 55.


musical that relates the struggle of four jobless dancers/actresses during the Depression. The comedy alternates between romance, comic quid pro quos and numbers à la Berkeley – that is large numbers of showgirls creating abstract patterns. My forgotten man appears like a collage as it is melodramatic and more substantial than abstract. It refers to WWI veterans. In a 1933 review, a critic wrote about My Forgotten Man: “I want none of them [war films] in musical comedies, where they certainly do not belong.”9 This sentence would imply that the audience of the time (at least, this viewer) were deliberately and consciously seeking a world outside of realities.

Berkeley’s musicals of 1933 are marked by the performances of Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler,10 whose performances are considered ludicrous by contemporary critics and scholars.11 However they were hugely popular, as “Dick and Ruby embodied what it meant to be young and healthy, full of vitamin A, in the zero hours of the Great Depression.”12 In the I’m Young and Healthy number, is about enjoying life and romance. Dick Powell declares his love to a young woman. The number becomes an abstract round. Berkeley often uses abstract rounded forms for his numbers which can be interpreted as an abstract representation of femininity and female sexuality but can also refer to balance and continuity, i.e. the opposite of the crisis. The camera dollying between the wide spread legs of the dancers is typical of Berkeley the aesthetic and sexual place women are attributed in films.

We’re in the money seems ironic retrospectively. The dancers wear coins made of cardboards symbolising the absence of money but also the vanity and virtual nature of capitalism. The coins, covering the dancers’ knickers affirms frankly the female’s status as commodity and sex-object. The female body is an object of trade, the gold diggers know it and use it. Although one might argue that they manage to fool men and pull through, they would not succeed had they not been good-looking.
The self-reflexive musicals, such as backstage musicals, make obvious the flaws of a capitalist and patriarchal society, however, as Jane Feuer argues,13 they also make them reconcilable. This is what Rick Altman calls the dual-focus narrative: two worlds/characters opposed in gender, class, age, ideology becomes united through marriage at the end.
According to Richard Dyer, the utopia presented in musical that of capitalism. The musical “provides alternatives to capitalism which will be provided by capitalism.”14 Gold Diggers epitomizes this statement. The performers are unemployed because of capitalism, but they will be saved by capitalism. Brad (Powell), who is actually a millionaire funds the show – providing therefore employment – and the girls end up marrying rich men. Dick Powell

9 Cy Caldwell, quoted in Mark Roth, 54.
10 John L. Marsh, “Dick Powell and The Landmark Musicals of 1933,” in Studies in Popular Culture 9, no. 1 (1986), 58.
11 Mark Roth, “Some Warners Musicals and the Spirit of the New Deal,” in Genre: The Musical, ed. Rick Altman (London: Routledge, 1981), 41.
12 Marsh, 51.
13 Steve Cohan, Hollywood Musicals: The film Reader, 17.
14 Richard Dyer, “Entertainment and Utopia”, in Only Entertainment (London and New York: Routledge, 2002), 27.


embodied “a hero for the Depression whose all-engrossing concern comes to focus upon helping others to get, and then to keep, the jobs they have set their hearts on.”15

Roth argues that “the musical is patriotic in the sense that it is affirmative and optimistic and tries to create those emotions in its audience.”16 Let us study My Forgotten Man in the light of this statement. I would argue that this song is indeed patriotic and critical as well as pessimistic. Patriotic because it defends veterans and showcase solidarity during hardships; critical because it is a direct attack to the government coldness towards working classes. “Remember my forgotten man/ You put a rifle in his hand/ You sent him far away/ You shouted ‘Hip-hooray!’/ But look at him today”. It represents a capitalist machinery crushing the masses. The blues song refers to the veterans who marched to Washington asking for the payment of their WWI service certificates and who were chased by the army. Joan Blondell plays a prostitute, her skirt is artificially shrouded in rags shows the impossibility to afford new clothes. The sequence is melodramatic and moving as we watch young soldiers coming back from war wounded, and then waiting in breadlines. The gigantic décor seems to represent a gigantic machinery, crushing soldiers who emerges from this gaping hole as ruined civilians, begging to be remembered.
The number also touches upon women’s survival during the crisis – topic which is addressed in the rest of the film. The line “Once he used to love me/ He used to take of me/ I was happy then” implies the necessity of marriage for women in order to benefit protection. The gold digger is sympathetic character because, as the audience of the times, their actions are justified by their endeavour to survive. The craning of the camera over the windows uncovering mourning women as tableaux vivants of the Depression’s dramatic repercussions. However, despite the sorrow of the blues song, we cannot help enjoying the moving music and beautiful mise-en-scène (which, for once, does not showcase denuded women as it is the case in most Berkeley’s numbers.) This number is particularly interesting since it mixes the musical, melodrama and documentary genre. Any films are actually a documentary about the era they are made in.

“There was (…) plenty of escapism, even on the socially critical side. The film critic A. O. Scott said even when you see The Grapes of Wrath, you’re escaping because you’re in somebody else’s story. Moreover, you were doing it communally, in a movie theater with other people.”17


15 Marsh, 54.
16 Roth, 47.
17 “A Conversation with Morris Dickstein: Reading into the Great Depression,” in (2009, Jul). Humanities, 30 (July 2009), 28-31,49-53. Retrieved from

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