Berkeley, Busby (1895-1976)

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Berkeley, Busby (1895-1976)

The premier dance director of 1930s Hollywood musicals, Busby Berkeley created outrageously fantastical production numbers featuring synchronized hordes of beautiful women moving in kaleidoscopic patterns that took audiences on surreal journeys away from the blues of their Depression-era realities. Berkeley took the spectacle traditions of popular American stage entertainments and the pulchritudinous aesthetic of the Ziegfeld Follies and extended them through cinematic techniques. His groundbreaking dance sequences revolutionized the way musicals were filmed by demonstrating how the camera could be used to liberate the directorial imagination from the constraints of theatrical realism. The distinctive look of his dancing screen geometries influenced the visual aesthetic of films, animation, television commercials, and music videos throughout the twentieth century. The term "busby berkeley" appears in the American Thesaurus of Slang, defined as "any elaborate dance number."

Born William Berkeley Enos on November 29, 1895, to a theatrical family in Los Angeles, Berkeley began choreographing while serving in the army. Stationed in France in 1917, Berkeley designed complex parade drills for his battalion, honing his abilities to move multitudes of bodies rhythmically through cunning configu-rations. After the war, Berkeley worked as an actor and, by 1921, had begun directing plays and musicals. Though he had no dance training, Berkeley soon became known for staging innovative, well-ordered movement sequences for Broadway revues and musicals, including the 1927 hit A Connecticut Yankee.

In 1930, Samuel Goldwyn brought Berkeley to Hollywood. Before embarking on his first assignment, directing the dance numbers for the film musical Whoopee!, Berkeley visited neighboring sets to learn how the camera was used. The pre-Berkeley approach to filming musicals was akin to documenting a theatrical production. Four stationary cameras were positioned to capture the performance from a variety of angles. The various shots were creatively combined during the editing process. Berkeley chose, instead, to use only one camera, which he moved around the set, thereby allowing his filming, rather than the editing, to dictate the flow of his numbers. Though a few attempts had been made earlier to film dance sequences from points of view other than that of a proscenium stage, it was Berkeley who fully and most inventively exploited the variety of possible camera placements and movements. Berkeley's work is characterized by plenty of panning and high overhead shots that sometimes necessitated cutting a hole in the studio ceiling and eventually resulted in his building a monorail for his camera's travels.

In 1932 Berkeley began a seven-year affiliation with Warner Bros. where he created the bulk of his most remarkable dance sequences for films such as Gold Diggers of 1933 and Dames (1934). His first film there, 42nd Street (1933), rescued the studio from bankruptcy and rejuvenated the film musical at a time when the genre's popularity had waned.

Berkeley's numbers had little to do with the text or story line of the films. His dances were often voyeuristic and contained undeniable sexual symbolism. Censors were hard-pressed to challenge their naughtiness, however, because the eroticism was in abstract forms—shapes that resembled giant zippers unzipping, long straight bodies diving into circles of women swimming below, or a row of huge rising bananas. No individual dancer ever did anything that could be interpreted as a sexual act.

In Berkeley's dance numbers there is very little actual dancing. It is the camera that executes the most interesting choreography. Berkeley was unconcerned with dance as physical expression and preferred to focus his creative efforts on cinematic tricks. The simple moves and tap dancing in Berkeley's routines were taught to the dancers by his assistants. Berkeley was not interested in the talents of solo dancers, but in how he could use numerous bodies to form magnificent designs.

In 1939, when Warner Bros. lost interest in producing big musicals, Berkeley went to MGM where he continued to create his signature-style dance sequences for films such as Lady Be Good (1941). He was also given the opportunity to both choreograph and direct three Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland vehicles, Babes in Arms (1939), Strike Up the Band (1940), and Babes on Broadway (1941). By the mid-1940s, Berkeley-esque movie musicals—those with flimsy plots interrupted by abstract movement sequences—were on their way out in favor of musicals in which the songs and dances were integrated with the drama. The demand for Berkeley's work gradually diminished. He retired in 1954 but returned to create numbers for the 1962 circus extravaganza, Jumbo.

By 1970, though the public had long tired of gigantic film musicals, there developed a resurgence of interest in Berkeley's work, seen as camp yet appreciated within the period's wave of 1930s nostalgia. Berkeley was interviewed extensively during this period, while his films were shown on late-night television and in numerous retrospectives. The 1971 revival of No, No, Nanette reintroduced Broadway audiences to old-style, large-scale, tap-dance routines reminiscent of Berkeley's heyday. Though he made no artistic contribution to this production, he was hired as an advisor, as it was thought Berkeley's name would boost ticket sales.

While Berkeley's work was light entertainment, his personality had a dark side, evidence of which can be found in aspects of his films as well as in his unsuccessful suicide attempts, his inability to maintain relationships (having been married six times), and his excessive drinking: in 1935 Berkeley was tried for the murders of three victims of his intoxicated driving. Some of Berkeley's dances indicate an obsession with the death of young women, including his favorite sequence—"Lullaby of Broadway" from Gold Diggers of 1935 —which ends with a woman jumping to her death from atop a skyscraper.

On March 14, 1976, Berkeley died at his home in California. Though his oeuvre is an indelible part of the popular entertainment culture of the 1930s—as he so brilliantly satisfied Americans' escapist needs during one of the country's bleakest eras—his bewitching, dream-like realms peopled by abstract forms made of objectified women intrigue and influence each generation of spectators and visual artists that revisits his films.

—Lisa Jo Sagolla

Further Reading:

Delamater, Jerome. Dance in the Hollywood Musical. Ann Arbor, Michigan, UMI Research Press, 1981.

Pike, Bob, and Dave Martin. The Genius of Busby Berkeley. Reseda, California, Creative Film Society, 1973.

Rubin, Martin. Showstoppers: Busby Berkeley and the Tradition of Spectacle. New York, Columbia University Press, 1993.

Thomas, Tony, and Jim Terry with Busby Berkeley. The Busby Berkeley Book. Greenwich, Connecticut, New York Graphic Society, 1973.

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Berkeley, Busby (1895-1976)

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Berkeley, Busby (1895-1976)