November 29, 1895– Busby Berkeley William Enos:
“I wanted to make people happy, if only for an hour.”
Busby Berkeley was devoted to his mother. He lived with her until her passing in 1946. After she was gone, he attempted suicide twice. There are plenty of rumors that he was gay, it seems only natural to assume, but he did marry six times to a series of female actors and showgirls. He was also briefly engaged to the actor Carole Landis in 1939, but broke off the engagement at the insistence of the mother.
He had a rather stormy personal life. He was quite the drinker. In 1935, he was involved in an automobile accident in which three people were killed. Berkeley was driving while drunk and a witness saw him change lanes and crash head-on into another car. He was tried for second degree murder and after two hung juries he was finally cleared of all charges following a third trial. The case caused a sensation in Hollywood and the publicity ruined Berkeley’s career. The whole dubious incident cost him some Academy Awards, but after a year of trials he was eventually acquitted, and the studios worked to sweep the affair under the red carpet.
Born in Los Angeles, Berkeley’s parents were both actors. He also became an actor, but he also found work as a stage manager. During his stint in the Army, he created large-scale parade drills for troops while stationed in Europe during World War I. Working in the aerial unit for a while, he was assigned to producing entertainment for the soldiers in postwar France and, even on his trip back to the USA, he put on a different musical revue each night for the ship’s passengers.
After the war, he spent years touring the country, directing and performing, sometimes doing a new show a week. With almost no dance experience, in 1925 he was hired to choreograph a Broadway musical titled Holka Polka.
He turned out to be a natural at staging dance numbers and he became one of the top choreographers on Broadway. His first major success was as the dance director for Richard Rodgers and Lorenz Hart‘s A Connecticut Yankee (1927) and after that he was the dance director for 17 Broadway musicals. Like James Cagney‘s frantic, ingenious character in Footlight Parade (1933), Berkeley became known as “Doctor Buzz, The Show Fixer”, working steadily on Broadway while still taking the occasional acting role. With 1929’s The Street Singer, he was the first to direct and produce an entire show while designing the dance numbers, which were splashy, intricate and risqué.
His reputation as a top Broadway dance guy brought him to the attention of Hollywood where sound films were just being developed. The studios realized that they needed someone to stage the dances for their new art form: Movie Musicals.
Berkeley was brought back to Hollywood in 1930 by Sam Goldwyn, and urged by Eddie Cantor to direct the dances in the film version of his stage show Whoopee!. Once presented with the basic tools of the trade, Berkeley used just one camera with multiple angles rather than several shooting simultaneously and, in this early work, he also introduced the big close-ups of beautiful girls. Whoopee! also features a satisfying flourish that would reappear several times: the tracking shot between a row of dancers’ parted legs.
He landed at Warner Bros. where he was able to take advantage of that studio’s daring and immense resources. Despite Depression era losses sinking in at the studios, Darryl Zanuck and Warner Bros. were big on the idea of a new kind of musical that would draw crowds needing to escape bleak reality. Berkeley was trusted with a virtually unlimited budget, and during this ambitious, audacious phase he even applied for patents for two inventions: his system of tiered, rotating platforms and his “monorail”, a rigging that smoothed and simplified camera movement.
Amazingly, 42nd Street, Gold Diggers Of 1933 and Footlight Parade, were all made in the same year, with Berkeley as choreographer.
He enjoyed the freedoms of Pre-Code Hollywood, plus Berkeley benefited from the popular device of the “backstage structure”, which let the musical numbers exist entirely outside of the film’s narrative, allowing Berkeley to create his own worlds, liberated from the constraints of plot or even physical reality. The plots often revolved around Broadway actors trying to make ends meet, yet the staged musical sequences featured unbelievably ornate, erotic, dreamy, luxurious scenes that veered into pure design for design’s sake.
His Warner Bros. films used a lovable cast of regular studio contract players including Dick Powell, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler and Ginger Rogers. Usually topped with a feel-good patriotic message, his pictures provided a satisfying release and the ultimate escape for film fans during the Great Depression.
He was lured over to MGM with the chance to be a director. At MGM, the musical had a more naturalistic format, with songs being incorporated into the narrative. He was originally hired to handle all the dance numbers in Wizard Of Oz (1939), yet he only directed the If I Only Had A Brain number and even that was edited down. Finally, MGM producer Arthur Freed teamed up Berkeley with the studio’s top box-office stars, Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, returning him to his beloved backstage format, updated a just a bit. After directing a handful of delightful dance numbers in films like Ziegfeld Girl (1941) and Lady, Be Good (1941), he was fired from Girl Crazy (1943) due to his clashes with Garland.
Berkeley wasn’t the first to shoot musical numbers from above, but his agile camera work changed the way dance in musicals were filmed. In his movies the individual dance is not really served as much as the majestic force of the group musical number. For all their symmetry and rigorous construction, Berkeley’s dances are not cinematic artifacts frozen in the past. When you watch today they remain alive, delightful and surprising.
He made his masterpiece, the demented, surrealistic The Gang’s All Here (1943), while on loan to 20th Century Fox. The kaleidoscopic patterns he weaved for the film have the intensity of an LSD trip: chorus girls dissolving into artichokes and snowflakes, exploding into stars, expanding into water lilies. This would be his last fully Berkleyesque spectacular.
In The Lady In The Tutti-Frutti Hat from The Gang’s All Here, the great Brazilian star Carmen Miranda is joined by a long line of barefoot chorus girls who wave giant bananas aloft before lowering them to the ground in what now we call a stadium-wave. As the overhead camera passes them, a dozen dancers, linked at the feet and holding jumbo strawberries, form a star while others surround them, raising and lowering their bananas like petals on a flower. Berkeley was always up for a bit of phallic fun.
When Miranda sings her final verse, the camera pulls back to reveal two rows of strawberries and her stupendous hat: a tower of ripe bananas.
My favorite Berkeley sequence, The Polka Dot Polka, uses an arrangement of pink neon hoops. The result is one of his most opulent psychedelic kaleidoscopes. Vibrant colors singe the screen until only rows of legs remain, spinning like a disc on a record player. Similarly, he used white neon violins for his spellbinding The Shadow Waltz in Gold Diggers Of 1933.
As problems with alcoholism, illness, temperament and the unpredictable whims of Hollywood mounted, Berkeley faced diminishing offers and mounting debt. He directed Take Me Out To The Ball Game (1949) with Frank Sinatra and Gene Kelly, and directed wet star Esther Williams in a series of aquatic films. He continued to worked in films, usually un-credited, until Billy Rose’s Jumbo in 1962.
He retired to his place in Palm Springs where he left this world in 1976 at 80 years old. Near the end of his life, he enjoyed a return to the limelight at many ceremonies and tributes during the rediscovery and appreciation of 1930s musicals.
An unpleasant aspect of Berkeley’s movies and other musicals during the 20th century is the recurrent reliance on blackface numbers and other racial stereotyping. Expressions of appreciation, but also prejudice and guilt, these demeaning songs and dances jolt today’s audiences out of dreamland. They are hard for me to watch, but they can serve as historical reminders of an America out of balance with troubling racist or sexist depictions in films.
From everything I have read, Berkeley wasn’t just a drunk, but also a real son of a bitch. Yet, I have come to think of him as the Patron Saint of Camp. But, he was more talented than that. He was a true artist of the absurd. The film musical is a particularly capricious genre. But, Berkeley was at his height during a time when American audiences wanted to be delighted, astonished and thrilled. Transcending period and place, Berkeley’s classic musical sequences are epic, empty-headed, erotic, elevating; sort of like being in love. Nobody does what he did anymore, unless it is in homage to him.