Nationality: American. Born: Busby Berkeley William Enos in Los Angeles, 29 November 1895. Education: Mohegan Military Academy, Peekshill, New York, 1907–14. Military Service: Organized marching drills and touring stage shows for U.S. and French armies, and served as aerial observer in U.S. Air Corps, 1917–19. Family: Married six times. Career: Actor, stage manager, and choreographer, 1919–27; director of A Night in Venice on Broadway, 1928; director of dance numbers in Whoopee for Samuel Goldwyn, 1930; worked for Warner Bros., 1933–39; hired as dance advisor and director by MGM, 1939; returned to Warner Bros., 1943; released from Warner Bros. contract, returned to Broadway, 1944; directed last film, Take Me out to the Ball Game, 1949. Died: 14 March 1976.
Films as Director:
She Had to Say Yes (co-d, ch)
Gold Diggers of 1935 (+ ch); Bright Lights (+ ch); I Live for Love (+ ch)
Stage Struck (+ ch)
The Go-Getter (+ ch); Hollywood Hotel (+ ch)
Men Are Such Fools (+ ch); Garden of the Moon (+ ch); Comet Over Broadway (+ ch)
They Made Me a Criminal (+ ch); Babes in Arms (+ ch); Fast and Furious (+ ch)
Strike up the Band (+ ch); Forty Little Mothers (+ ch)
Blonde Inspiration (+ ch); Babes on Broadway (+ ch)
For Me and My Gal (+ ch)
The Gang's All Here (+ ch)
Cinderella Jones (+ ch)
Take Me out to the Ball Game (+ ch)
Palmy Days (ch); Flying High (ch)
Night World (ch); Bird of Paradise (ch); The Kid from Spain (ch)
42nd Street (ch); Gold Diggers of 1933 (ch); Footlight Parade (ch); Roman Scandals (ch)
Wonder Bar (ch); Fashions of 1934 (ch); Dames (ch)
Go into Your Dance (ch); In Caliente (ch); Stars over Broad-way (ch)
Gold Diggers of 1937 (ch); The Singing Marine (ch); Varsity Show (ch)
Gold Diggers in Paris (ch)
Broadway Serenade (ch)
Ziegfield Girl (ch); Lady Be Good (ch); Born to Sing (ch)
Girl Crazy (ch)
Two Weeks with Love (ch)
Call Me Mister (ch); Two Tickets to Broadway (ch)
Million Dollar Mermaid (ch)
Small Town Girl (ch); Easy to Love (ch)
Rose Marie (ch)
The Phynx (role in cameo appearance)
By BERKELEY: book—
By BERKELEY: articles—
Interview with John Gruen, in Close-Up (New York), 1968.
Interview with P. Brion and R. Gilson, in Contracampo (Madrid), September 1981.
On BERKELEY: books—
Dunn, Bob, The Making of "No, No, Nanette," New York, 1972.
Pike, Bob, and Dave Martin, The Genius of Busby Berkeley, Reseda, California, 1973.
Meyer, William, Warner Brothers Directors, New York, 1978.
Hirschhorn, Clive, The Warner Bros. Story, New York, 1979.
Delamater, Jerome, Dance in the Hollywood Musical, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1981.
Feuer, Jane, The Hollywood Musical, London, 1982.
Morsiani, Alberto, Il Grande Busby: Il Cinema di Busby Berkeley, Modena, 1983.
Roddick, Nick, A New Deal in Entertainment: Warner Brothers in the1930s, London, 1983.
Altman, Rick, The American Film Musical, Bloomington, Indiana, and London, 1989.
Rubin, Martin, Showstoppers: Busby Berkeley and the Tradition ofSpectacle, New York, 1993.
On BERKELEY: articles—
Sarris, Andrew, "Likable but Elusive," in Film Culture (New York), Spring 1963.
Comolli, Jean-Louis, "Dancing Images," and Patrick Brion and René Gilson, "A Style of Spectacle," in Cahiers du Cinema inEnglish (New York), no. 2, 1966.
Jenkinson, Philip, "The Great Busby," in Film (London), Spring 1966.
Thomas, John, "The Machineries of Joy," in Film Society Review (New York), February 1967.
Bevis, D.L., "A Berkeley Evening," in Films in Review (New York), June/July 1967.
Roman, R.C., "Busby Berkeley," in Dance (New York), February 1968.
Sidney, George, "The Three Ages of the Musical," in Films andFilming (London), June 1968.
"What Directors are Saying," in Action (Los Angeles), May/June 1970.
Gorton, D., "Busby and Ruby," in Newsweek (New York), 3 August 1970.
Knight, Arthur, "Busby Berkeley," in Action (Los Angeles), May/June 1974.
Roth, M., "Some Warners Musicals and the Spirit of the New Deal," in Velvet Light Trap (Madison), Winter 1977.
Tessier, Max, "Busby Berkeley 1895–1976," in Avant-Scène duCinéma (Paris), 15 April 1978.
Delamater, Jerome, "Busby Berkeley: an American Surrealist," in Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio), vol. 1, no. 1, 1979.
Telotte, J.P., "A Gold Digger Aesthetic: The Depression Musical and its Audience," in Post Script (Jacksonville, Florida), Fall 1981.
Durgnat, Raymond, "Busby Berkeley: Filmed Theatre and Pure Theatre," in Films (London), January 1982.
Franck, S., "Busby Berkeley's Dames," in Andere Sinema (Antwerp), no. 102, March-April 1991.
"A Full Dance Card," in New York Times, 7 July 1991.
Van Gelder, L., "At the Movies," in New York Times, 12 July 1991.
Cohn, E., "Berkeley in the Nineties," in Village Voice (New York), vol. 36, 16 July 1991.
Fischer, L., and G. Vincendeau, "L'image de la femme comme image: la politique optique de Dames et autres numeros musicaux de Busby Berkeley," in Cinémaction (Conde-sur-Noireau), no. 67, 1993.
Komlodi, F., "Tancolj, Hollywood!" in Filmvilag (Budapest), vol. 36, no. 7, 1993.
Seville, J., "The Laser's Edge: Hear the Beat of the Dancing Feet," in Classic Images (Muscatine), no. 213, March 1993.
* * *
No American film director explored the possibilities of the mobile camera more fully or ingeniously than Busby Berkeley. He was the Méliès of the musical, the corollary of Vertov in the exploration of the possibilities of cinematic movement. His influence has since been felt in a wide array of filmmaking sectors, from movie musicals to television commercials.
Certain aspects of Berkeley's personal history are obvious in their importance to a discussion of his cinematic work, most specifically his World War I service and his work in the theatre. Born to a theatrical family, Berkeley learned early of the demands of the theatrical profession: when his father died, his mother refused to take the night off, instilling in Busby the work ethic of "the show must go on." Throughout most of his career, Gertrude Berkeley and her ethic reigned, no wife successfully displacing her as spiritual guide and confidante until after her death in 1948. Even then, Berkeley drove himself at the expense of his many marriages.
Berkeley's World War I service was significant for the images he created in his musical sequences. He designed parade drills for both the French and U.S. armies, and his later service as an aerial observer with the Air Corps formed the basis of an aesthetic which incorporated images of order and symmetry often seen from the peculiar vantage of an overhead position. In addition, that training developed his approach to economical direction. Berkeley often used storyboarding to effect his editing-in-the-camera approach, and provided instruction to chorus girls on a blackboard, which he used to illustrate the formations they were to achieve.
Returning from war, Berkeley found work as a stage actor. His first role was directed by John Cromwell, with Gertrude serving as his dramatic coach. He soon graduated to direction and choreography, and in 1929 he became the first man on Broadway to direct a musical for which he also staged the dance numbers, setting a precedent for such talents as Jerome Robbins, Gower Champion, Bob Fosse, and Tommy Tune. When Samuel Goldwyn invited him to Hollywood in 1930 as a dance director, however, that Broadway division of labor remained in effect. Berkeley had to wait until Gold Diggers of 1935 before being allowed to do both jobs on the same film.
From 1933 through 1939 Berkeley worked for Warner Bros., where he created a series of dance numbers which individually and collectively represent much of the best Hollywood product of the period. An examination of his work in this period in relation to the Production Code and the developing conventions of the musical genre illustrates his unique contribution to cinema.
Boy/girl romance and the success story were standard narrative ingredients of 1930s musicals, and Berkeley's work contributed significantly to the formulation of these conventions. Where he was unique was in his visualization of the onstage as opposed to the backstage segments of these dramas. Relying on his war service, he began to fashion onstage spectacles which had been impossible to perform on the Broadway stage. In his films he was able to explode any notion of the limitations of a proscenium and the relationship of the theatre spectator to it: the fixed perspective of that audience was abandoned for one which lacked defined spatial or temporal coordinates. His camera was regularly mounted on a crane (or on the monorail he invented) and swooped over and around or toward and away from performers in a style of choreography for camera which was more elaborate than that mapped out for the dancers. Amusingly, he generally reversed this procedure in his direction of non-musical scenes; he typically made the backstage dramas appear confined within a stage space and bound to the traditions of theatrical staging and dialogue.
As Berkeley created the illusion of theatre in his musical numbers, so too he created the illusion of dance. Having never studied dance, he rarely relied on trained dancers. Instead, he preferred to create movement through cinematic rather than choreographic means. Occasionally, when he included sophisticated dance routines, such as in the Lullaby of Broadway number from Gold Diggers of 1935, he highlighted the dancers' virtuosity in a series of shots which preserved the integrity of their movement without infringing on the stylistic nuances of his camerawork.
The virtuosity of Berkeley's camera movement remains important not only for a discussion of aesthetics, but also for understanding the meaning he brought to the depiction of sexual fantasy and spectacle in a period of Hollywood history when the Production Code Administration was keeping close watch over screen morality. Throughout the 1930s, Berkeley's camera caressed as if involved in foreplay, penetrated space as if seeking sexual gratification, and soared in an approximation of sexual ecstasy. Whether tracking through the legs of a line of chorus girls in 42nd Street, swooping over an undulating vagina-shaped construction of pianos in Gold Diggers of 1935, or caressing gigantic bananas manipulated by scantily clad chorines in The Gang's All Here, his sexual innuendos were titillating in both their obviousness and seeming naiveté. Berkeley's ability to inject such visual excitement meant that he was often called upon to rescue a troubled picture by adding one or more extravagantly staged musical numbers.
After leaving Warner Bros. in 1939, Berkeley returned to MGM where, although generally less innovative, his work set precedents for the genre: he directed the first Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney musical, the first Garland/Gene Kelly film, and with his last effort as a director, introduced the team of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen. Undoubtedly the master director of American musicals in the first decade of sound film and a huge influence on many of the musical talents of succeeding decades, Berkeley worked only occasionally through the 1950s, staging musical numbers for various studios. The last of these was the 1962 MGM film Jumbo. With the nostalgia craze of the late 1960s, Berkeley's aesthetic was resurrected. In 1971 he triumphantly returned to the Broadway stage, where he directed a revival of the 1920s hit No, No, Nanette, starring his leading lady of the 1930s, Ruby Keeler, herself in retirement for thirty years. That moment was surely the fulfillment of all the success stories he had directed over his long career.
Cinematic director Busby Berkeley (1895-1976) pioneered the use of dynamic angles in the art of film-making . He is most widely recognized as the man who orchestrated the magnificent dance extravaganzas that characterized Hollywood musicals between 1930 and 1960.
In the 1930s Hollywood director Busby Berkeley brought exciting new perspectives to the budding art of motion picture production. Although he never had a dance lesson he ingeniously choreographed and filmed elaborate dance productions and created outrageous kaleidoscopic effects through the use of dynamic camera angles in filming the dancers. His natural bent for conceiving visual effects and turning those ideas into reality through inventive dance routines, costumes, and filming techniques lay at the heart of his genius. Berkeley was the first director to take advantage of the motion picture camera's ability to rove around the set. In so doing he brought previously untapped visual perspectives to the viewing audience, perspectives beyond the conventional "front row" theater views employed by early motion picture directors. Berkeley routinely engineered and jury-rigged his own equipment in order to obtain innovative camera angles for filming lavish dance productions.
Busby Berkeley was born William Berkeley Enos in Los Angeles, California on November 29, 1895. He was the second child of Wilson Enos, a theatrical director, and Gertrude Berkeley Enos, an actress. The couple moved to New York City shortly after the birth of their second child. William Enos adopted the stage name of Busby Berkeley later in his professional career by combining the surname of a popular actress, Amy Busby, with his mother's maiden name of Berkeley.
Berkeley reportedly made a stage debut when he was five years old, although he was not raised to be a performer. He was only eight when his father died, and his mother sent him to boarding schools and camps in order to accommodate her own touring schedules as an actress. At the age of 12 he transferred to the Mohegan Lake Military Academy outside New York City. At the academy Berkeley was active in sports; he graduated in 1914 and moved to Massachusetts where he apprenticed in a shoe factory in the town of Athol for three years. During that time he played semi-professional baseball, managed a band, and acted in local stage productions. When the United States entered the fray of World War I in April 1917, Berkeley enlisted in the army. Following a brief assignment to the 312th Field Artillery's 79th Division, he was assigned to train troops to perform for military exhibitions and parades in Chaumont, France. When the war ended Berkeley was re-assigned to Coblenz, Germany as a member of the U.S. 3rd Army of Occupation as an assistant entertainment officer. In retrospect, Berkeley regarded his military experience as a form of apprenticeship for his later work as a dance director for film productions.
After the war Berkeley returned to New York City and toured with various companies as an actor. He also worked behind the scenes as a director and stage manager. He toured the country in a production called, The Man Who Came Back, and later, on November 18, 1919, he opened in the New York production of Irene. By 1921, Berkeley's career was in full swing. He traveled throughout New England and the mid-Atlantic states, wherever an opportunity presented itself. He directed, and often performed in, theatrical productions at a profitable pace—as many as one show per week. In October 1925, he staged his first Broadway production, a musical called Holka Polka. He went on to direct other shows, including A Connecticut Yankee in 1927, and Present Arms and Good Boy in 1928. He directed Street Singer in 1929, and The International Review in 1930. He worked in various capacities during that time—as a director, producer, and dance director—frequently assuming more that than one function for a respective production. Berkeley became known as a "show doctor," a man who could turn a failing production into a successful and profitable show.
Called to Hollywood
Berkeley's career as a film choreographer took root when he arrived in Hollywood in 1930, at the request of Samuel Goldwyn. Goldwyn hired Berkeley to direct the dancers in a United Artists' film version of the Ziegfeld production, Whoopee, starring Eddie "Banjo Eyes" Cantor. Berkeley instinctively appreciated the potential of the motion picture camera. He studied camera angles and filming techniques, and adopted a policy of filming entire productions through the eye of a single camera that was constantly in motion around the sound stage. In that manner he gave the viewing audience a new and exciting "whirlwind" perspective of the show. Berkeley's zestful approach to cinematography served as a focal point for his productions and took precedence over the simplistic plots and story lines of the shows that he directed. In his musical productions he used overhead camera angles in particular, combined with colorful costume designs, to create kaleidoscopic views of the dancers as they waved their extremities in outlandish formation to form geometric patterns on the screen. In 1931 he directed the Goldwyn movie, Palmy Days. The Kid from Spain, and Roman Scandals appeared later.
In 1932, Warner Brothers was on the brink of bankruptcy, and the studio hired Berkeley to direct Forty-second Street starring Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler. Berkeley's creative dance settings combined with the outstanding visual effects that he devised for filming resulted in a hit movie that became a film classic and reportedly brought the studio back to financial solvency. Admittedly, Berkeley's ingenious dance routines were produced at considerable expense, but the payoff at the box office outweighed the cost of production. While at Warner Brothers, Berkeley's creative genius evolved further as he experimented with the use of mirrors, water fountains, and other sets and props. The Gold Diggers of 1933 included a fanciful chorus line of dancers with glowing violins that reflected from strategically located overhead mirrors. He used the mirrors that same year in Footlight Parade. The movie featured a scene with a cascaded fountain set into a pool of water that was fitted with mirrors. "Dancers" swam information around the pool, and the camera captured the glittering spectacle from overhead. Berkeley, in describing his own work, emphasized the notion that it was the camera that did the dancing throughout his production numbers. In Wonder Bar, Berkeley positioned mirrors into an octagonal barrier to create reflections that rebounded literally into infinity. His Gold Diggers of 1935 featured a dance number with 56 dancers performing with 56 baby grand pianos for props. Mike Steele in Star Tribune noted the "… wonderful excessiveness of … [Berkeley's] waltzing waterfalls and polkaing pianos."
In addition to the glitzy glitter, many creative military-inspired dance productions were indelibly stamped into the trademark of Berkeley extravaganzas. In Gold Diggers of 1937 the grand finale featured 70 dancers in military helmets bearing flags and playing drums, a classic scene that ranked among the most lavish marching numbers to Berkeley's credit.
Berkeley ended his affiliation with Warner Brothers in 1938. Beginning in 1939, he worked at MGM studios with the greatest musical stars of that era, including Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, and Ann Miller. Berkeley created the Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland movie classic Babes in Arms in 1939, and Babes on Broadway with Carmen Miranda in 1941. Berkeley directed Gene Kelly in Take Me Out to the Ball Game in 1949. The musical numbers in the 1951 Betty Grable classic, Call Me Mister, were also Berkeley accomplishments.
In 1952, Berkeley staged two exotic water ballets in the film, Million Dollar Mermaid, that featured aquatic movie star, Esther Williams. A follow-up movie, Easy to Love, in 1953 made an even bigger splash with its grand finale that involved 100 water skiers, swimming dancers, and a Florida-shaped swimming pool. Esther Williams appeared on a trapeze that hung from a helicopter.
In all, Berkeley staged and directed over 50 Hollywood musicals between 1930 and 1954, including three Gold Diggers films in 1933, 1935, 1937—and a fourth, Gold Diggers in Paris, in 1938. In addition, he directed the non-musical drama, They Made Me a Criminal, in 1939 with John Garfield. During the 1950s and 1960s the demand for surreal Hollywood musicals declined steadily as cinematic realism gained popularity. Berkeley made only one movie, Jumbo, with Doris Day and Jimmy Durante, in the 1960s. A collection of his work comprised the subject of a film retrospective in San Francisco and New York in 1965, and the show eventually crossed the Atlantic Ocean to be viewed in Europe as well. In 1971, at the age of 75, Berkeley reprised an old 1925 musical, No, No, Nanette, with Ruby Keeler as the dancing lead. The live stage show was a major hit on Broadway.
Throughout his career he prided himself on his ability to film spectacular choreography from exotic angles, using only a single camera. His use of the single-camera technique was not only effective, but also efficient. It was rare that he ever re-shot a scene and, given the unusually elaborate preparations involved in so many of his dance numbers, the time and money lost in re-takes might have been unreasonable. Berkeley insisted on complete control of camera angles and often constructed scaffolding, drilled holes in ceilings or floors, or rigged mechanical devices such as trams to transport the camera to the appropriate vantage point for filming. Some critical appraisals of Berkeley's films suggested that an extraordinary amount of sexual innuendo inspired the formations of the dancers and other visual effects of Berkeley's presentations. David Thomson commented that in Berkeley's productions, "Sexual daydream had found its medium." Thomson went on to name Berkeley a "lyricist of eroticism," and repeated Jean Comolli's observation that Berkeley's camera was "shameless." Conversely, in Berkeley's personal estimation, his movies appealed because the audiences truly enjoyed the lavish spectaculars which served as an escape from life's daily problems. It stands as a tribute to Berkeley's art that his name became synonymous with elaborate musical extravaganzas. The term, "busby berkeley," in fact, appeared in the listing of the American Thesaurus of Slang.
A Marrying Man
Berkeley married six times and divorced five times. His first marriage, in 1929, to an actress named Esther Muir, ended in divorce in 1931. He was also married to silent movie star Merna Kennedy, from 1934 until 1935. His sixth and final marriage, on January 23, 1958, to Etta Dunn, lasted until his death in 1976. The two settled in the small town of Palm Desert, California, outside of Palm Springs, and lived quietly away from the "maddening crowds."
Berkeley died on March 14, 1976 in Palm Desert.
A Biographical Dictionary of Film, (third edition), edited by David Thomson, Alfred A. Knopf, 1994.
Star Tribune, January 25, 1998.
"Great Performances: Busby Berkeley-Going Through the Roof," available at http://thirteen.org/gperf/busby/html/ (November 13, 1999). □
Busby Berkeley (November 29, 1895–March 14, 1976), innovative stage and film choreographer and director, was born William Berkeley Enos in Los Angeles into a theatrical family (his father was a director; his mother an actress). After graduating in 1914 from Mohegan Lake Military Academy, Berkeley worked at various jobs, and during World War I he became an "entertainment officer" with the U.S. military in France. During the 1920s he became a successful, well-known stage dance director, working on over twenty musicals.
In 1930 Berkeley went to Hollywood at the behest of independent film producer Sam Goldwyn for whom he successfully choreographed various musicals. He also worked for other producers. Between 1933 and 1939 Berkeley was employed by Warner Brothers, primarily as a dance director whose efforts were strikingly innovative and exciting, and in the main deservedly well received. He also directed various features, some of them not musicals, such as the melodrama They Made Me a Criminal (1938), for which he garnered a mixed reception.
Berkeley, especially in his Warner's musicals, which benefited much from the studio's technical excellence, produced an exciting, intriguing blend of sophistication, precision, and vulgarity. For film critic David Thomson, Berkeley's dance sequences in films such as Footlight Parade (1933), Dames (1934), and Gold Diggers in Paris (1938) demonstrated that he was "a lyricist of eroticism." Bevies of beautiful, scantily clad girls performing in military precision in lavish settings resulted in beguiling almost shameless images. His work must be seen to be appreciated. Berkeley developed exciting new techniques of filming in order to achieve the effects that he wanted: his cameras operated directly above the action. What became known as "the Berkeley top shot" allowed daring angled shots and stunning rhythmic patterns. His films understandably appealed to weary Depression-era audiences. He was also capable of injecting social realism into his dance fantasies as in the biting "Forgotten Men" sequence in Gold Diggers of 1933.
Berkeley moved to MGM in 1939, his initial stay there ending in 1943 with the camp classic The Gang's All Here. Subsequently he picked up occasional feature film directing jobs, the last being MGM's Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949), and continued to stage musical numbers until the mid-1950s. His last significant contributions were spectacular water ballets in two MGM films of Esther Williams, the swimmer/actress. He died in Palm Springs, California, in 1976.
Pike, Bob, and Dave Martin. The Genius of Busby Berkeley. 1973.
Thomas, Tony, and Jim Terry. The Busby Berkeley Book. 1984.
Thompson, David. Biographical Dictionary of Film. 1994.
Daniel J. Leab