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Book Review: Machine Dancer

A picture of the man who envisioned movie musicals.

Dec 6, 2010, Vol. 16, No. 12 • By RICHARD STRINER
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Many of these dances overlapped with the avant-garde movement Ballet Mécanique, whose title was borrowed from the musical composition of George Antheil and the related avant-garde film of Fernand Léger. Such dances depicted the fervent—and oversimplified—debate among writers and artists between the world wars regarding The Machine and its effects upon Western civilization. This theme, stretching back at least as far as the polemics of Thomas Carlyle, was represented during Berkeley’s heyday by novels like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). The “mechanical ballet” to which Spivak refers in his coverage of Berkeley’s dances for George White’s Scandals of 1928 must be understood in this context. On film, Berkeley used this imagery as early as 1931: “We’ll Dance Until the Dawn” in Flying High contains an overhead shot in which dancers (and their props) create concentric patterns suggestive of interlocked gears and ball bearings.

A comprehensive account of Berkeley’s creations could make a number of these cultural—and in some cases political—connections. Spivak calls due attention to the elements within the dances (especially given the political sympathies of the brothers Warner) that salute Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. He also points out the very interesting fact that the Berkeley technique had some influential admirers in Germany: Josef Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl. And this suggests yet another comparison that goes unexplored.

The nightmarish “Lullaby of Broadway” production number bears an interesting (and, upon reflection, obvious) relationship to Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1934), released just a year before “Lullaby.” The macabre spectacle of “Lullaby” features a dance within a “nightclub” that is vast and surreal: a set containing broad terraces, pendant vanes, and a rostrum-like platform where Dick Powell and Wini Shaw behold dozens of uniformed dancers—women garbed in jet black and young men in black shirts and gray jackets—performing a palms-down salute to the cadence of a massed tap that is suggestive of jackboots. These elements relate to the imagery of Riefenstahl’s spectacle: the terraces of the vast Nazi party amphitheater, the swastika banners (pendant), the black-clad men of the SS, who go goose-stepping down the terraces.

Richard Striner, professor of history at Washington College, is the author, most recently, of Lincoln’s Way: How Six Great Presidents Created American Power.

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