All About Busby: ‘Fashions of 1934’

Fashions of 1934 is not a musical. Mind you, that doesn’t stop it from pulling off a spectacularly feathery, leggy number from Busby Berkley’s high period, complete with overhead geometries and women dressed up as harps. Without being as long and elaborate as his work in 42nd Street or the Gold Digger series or the great Footlight Parade, it’s still one of his signature offspring of the soundstage, the editing room and the fever dream that pretends to be somehow performed live in a theatre. There it is, bursting from the movie and Berkley’s camera like several dozen Dianas from the head of Jupiter while the viewer stares. Berkley also seems to have staged the climactic fashion show, which looks as if it’s about to burst into song any minute. Despite all this, the movie’s not a musical; it’s one of Warner Brothers’ snappy, fast-talking pre-Code comedies.

The plot is tailor-made for William Powell as a charming, conniving near-grifter who exploits the fashion industry by landing a gig in Paris to steal the latest designs for New York companies. For what perfunctory romance is required, blonde Bette Davis stands around simmering in the kind of role that drove her crazy for wasting her time when she wanted to star in meaty parts. She has nothing to do, but at least she’s as sharp and modern and brainy as Powell, and they’re surrounded by stalwart character comics like Hugh Herbert and Frank McHugh. But it’s that Berkley bauble, dropped into the middle of this bubble bath like Cleopatra’s sinuously overfurnished yacht, that’s all anyone is likely to remember.

The onscreen title is Fashions, from when the print was later retitled to avoid being out-of-date. This is the kind of minor title you’d ordinarily have to wait to see when it’s aired on Turner Classic Movies, yet now it’s a recent release in Warner Archives’ made-on-demand series of DVD-R’s.

RATING 5 / 10