Special Theme: Busby Berkeley

April 15, 2022
Special Theme: Busby Berkeley

Mondays | 46 Movies

Busby Berkeley has become synonymous with lavish musical numbers choreographed to precision. As the creator of human kaleidoscopes, he singlehandedly developed his signature style in which movement, props, costumes, an elaborate set, a rotating stage and a single camera would come together to create a visual spectacle. Best known for his pre-code musicals with Warner Bros. including 42nd Street (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) and Footlight Parade (1933), Berkeley was also at the helm of MGM’s wildly popular Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland musicals and made Technicolor showcases with The Gang’s All Here (1943) and Million Dollar Mermaid (1952). He saved major studios from the brink of bankruptcy with his films that drew audiences to the cinema again and again. In doing so, Berkeley helped revive the movie musical at various stages when the genre was losing steam. What’s remarkable about Berkeley’s massive talent is that he had no formal training in dance. Instead, he developed his skills for staging as a theatrical director in the late 1920s and much of his film choreography was learned through practice. In the words of Berkeley biographer Jeffrey Spivak, “he defined dance-directing” with “a discerning eye for beauty.” 

Born in 1895 in Los Angeles, California, Busby Berkeley came from a theatrical family. His mother Gertrude was an actress and good friends with movie star Alla Nazimova. Berkeley’s father died when he was very young, and he developed a strong attachment to his mother that would guide his personal and professional decisions in the future. Berkeley served during World War I and while the experience wasn’t for him, he did oversee close-order drills for both American and French forces. After the war, he took up a job as a general stage director in Somerville, Massachusetts. The theatre group traveled throughout the state, and it was during these pivotal years that he developed an eye for intricacies of staging and spectacle.

His agent, Bill Grady of the William Morris Agency, approached Berkeley about directing a movie musical. According to Spivak, Berkeley had no interest because he felt that the musicals of the time “were often middling and anonymous.” Grady convinced him that all he needed was a big star. After a thorough background check on Berkeley, Samuel Goldwyn hired him to choreograph numbers for Whoopee! (1930), a two-strip Technicolor musical starring Eddie Cantor that was inspired by the hit Broadway show. On set, Berkeley was flabbergasted by the fact that four cameras were rolling at once. Berkeley’s personal method relied on his singular point-of-view. Spivak writes “the single camera was his appendage, an extension of his mind’s eye, and the tool that carved the cornerstone of his art.”

Berkeley continued working with The Samuel Goldwyn Company choreographing a variety of musicals. He was also loaned out to other studios like MGM, RKO and Universal Pictures. His early credits include Kiki (1931) starring Mary Pickford, Flying High (1931) and Bird of Paradise (1932).

Mervyn LeRoy recommended Berkeley to Warner Bros. studio chief Darryl F. Zanuck, and he was hired to direct musical sequences for 42nd Street. Now that talkies had been around for a few years, there was a noticeable fatigue for “all talking, all singing, all dancing” movies. 42nd Street was developed as a drama intercut with musical sequences that could easily be removed if the studio needed to quickly pivot away from the musical genre. But this ended up not being necessary as Berkeley’s intricate musical numbers on his revolving stage added something truly special to the film. Berkeley would later file a patent for his invention which allowed for “two lines of performers [to] pass each other without apparent movement on their part.” 42nd Street was so popular that it saved Warner Bros. from bankruptcy during the volatile era of the Great Depression and Berkeley was soon given a contract to choreograph more musicals.

Shortly after 42nd Street, Berkeley choreographed a string of musicals with such talents as Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Joan Blondell and Ginger Rogers. Gold Diggers of 1933 gave Berkeley an opportunity to make elaborate and provocative musical sequences using all sorts of interesting props including giant coins and neon-tubed violins. The movie was so popular that it spurred the sequels Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935), Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936) and Gold Diggers in Paris (1938), all of which Berkeley choreographed. Individual sequences like the “Forgotten Man,” “We’re in the Money,” “Pettin’ in the Park,” “Lullaby of Broadway” and “The Words Are in My Heart” are memorable in their own right because of how music and movement were combined with intricate visual geometries. By 1934, the Warner Bros. publicity team came up with the term “cinematerpsichorean” to describe and market Busby Berkeley’s unique style of choreography. He went on to be nominated three times by the Academy Awards for Best Dance Direction.

Berkeley continued to thrive at Warner Bros. choreographing musical numbers like the “Human Waterfall” in Footlight Parade and “Beautiful Girls” in Dames (1934). He also made his directorial debut with She Had to Say Yes (1933). It was at Warner Bros. that Berkeley developed some personal quirks. He was superstitious, often wearing the same clothes to a new production. He also leaned on a team of regulars. According to Spivak, “Buzz liked to work with the same people from film to film… he brought his core Berkeley girls to each new project and worked with the same technical staff… dancers, soundmen, grips, electricians, and cameraman.” By 1937, Berkeley was at the top of his game.

Warner Bros. musicals were Berkeley’s bread and butter. Throughout the later part of the 1930s, Berkeley was busy directing numbers like the ones in In Caliente (1935), I Live for Love (1935), Stars Over Broadway (1935), Bright Lights (1935), Stage Struck (1936), The Singing Marine (1937), Hollywood Hotel (1937), Varsity Show (1937) and Men Are Such Fools (1938) all with varying degrees of success. By the time he made Garden of the Moon (1938), it was time for Berkeley to part ways with Warner Bros. Some sources claim that Hal Wallis and Jack Warner were tired of Berkeley’s increasingly controlling and erratic behavior on set and decided to sever his contract. Other sources claim that after the studio refused to give him a raise and instead offered him a one-year extension, Berkeley decided not to renew.

Proving he could do more than choreograph, Berkeley took on three notable non-musical films: Comet Over Broadway (1938) which was taken over by John Farrow when Berkeley was too ill to proceed, the John Garfield boxing movie They Made Me a Criminal (1939), which featured innovative camera work by cinematographer James Wong Howe, and the third in an MGM mystery series Fast and Furious (1939).

After severing ties with Warner Bros., Berkeley came to work with the Arthur Freed unit at MGM. He was assigned as director on Babes in Arms (1939), a wildly popular musical starring Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland. It was so popular that it was the highest grossing film for MGM for 1939, even surpassing The Wizard of Oz (1939), a film which Berkeley directed a single musical sequence that was ultimately left on the cutting room floor. Berkeley directed Rooney and Garland again in Strike Up the Band (1940), known for its stand-out “Do the La Conga” number, Babes on Broadway (1941) and Girl Crazy (1943). Garland and Berkeley were known to not get along on set and their fraught working relationship caused Berkeley to be replaced on Girl Crazy by Norman Taurog. Berkeley’s “I Got Rhythm” musical sequence was the only mark of his work left on the final film.

Berkeley’s time at MGM was quite lucrative. He either directed or contributed to a variety of musicals including Broadway Serenade (1939), Forty Little Mothers (1940), Ziegfeld Girl (1941), Lady Be Good (1941), Born to Sing (1942) as well as the comedy film Blonde Inspiration (1941). He stepped in to help Vincente Minnelli, who was on medical leave, to direct the “Shine” musical number in Cabin in the Sky (1943).

Once again, Berkeley came to part ways with a major studio. At the time, he was plagued with personal problems. Despite his financial success, Berkeley got in trouble with the IRS for unpaid taxes. His first five marriages ended in divorce within mere months of their wedding. He developed a co-dependent relationship with his mother and when she died in 1946, he spiraled into a long bout of depression. His failed suicide attempt even made national news. And to make things worse, Berkeley developed a drinking problem that led to various car accidents, one of which proved to be deadly. He went to trial three times but was ultimately acquitted. 

The next decade saw Berkeley taking a new approach to filmmaking. For 20th Century Fox, he directed The Gang’s All Here starring Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda. After years of working in black-and-white, Berkeley finally got to direct his first three-strip Technicolor film. He was hired by William LeBaron, the head of Fox’s musical unit, to direct the lavish musical numbers. This film is most famous for “The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat” number which makes great use color, props and its magnetic star Carmen Miranda. According to the AFI, a reviewer noted that Berkeley’s number was “opulent in highly effective color combinations and… climaxed by a finale in the cubistic and modernistic tempo which is different from anything that has passed this reviewer's way since some of the abstract treatments employed by Walt Disney's Fantasia."

Berkeley would eventually return to his home studios of Warner Bros. with Cinderella Jones (1946) and MGM with Two Weeks with Love (1950). He also collaborated with RKO on the all-star musical Two Tickets to Broadway (1951). His most important collaborations during his final years in the film industry came with two major movie stars: Esther Williams and Doris Day. For MGM, he directed Esther Williams and Gene Kelly in the historical baseball picture Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949). He was reunited with Arthur Freed who saw this as an opportunity to help Berkeley revive his flailing career. Berkeley came up with a swimming sequence for Esther Williams for the film but one Kelly refused to participate in. Berkeley went on to choreograph swimming sequences for Williams in Million Dollar Mermaid and Easy to Love (1953). For Million Dollar Mermaid, Berkeley’s “Fountain and Smoke” number became a career highlight for Williams. This stunning water ballet demonstrated that Berkeley still had an eye for beauty and spectacle. Williams was quoted as saying “other writers and producers were coming up with only the most contrived excuses to get me into the pool, but Buzz had all kinds of marvelous ideas, not just for this film, but for others as well.”

For MGM, Berkeley also worked on the “I’ve Gotta Hear That Beat” number starring Ann Miller in Small Town Girl (1953) and the Indian totem dance in Rose Marie (1954). Over at Warner Bros., Berkeley choreographed musical numbers in Michael Curtiz’ Romance on the High Seas (1948), Doris Day’s debut film. Day had fond memories of working with Berkeley and coaxed him out of retirement for her musical Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962). Jumbo would be Berkeley’s final film. In his later years he continued working by making appearances on a legacy circuit. He died in 1976 at the age of 80. His sixth wife Etta Dunn Berkeley survived him and continued to oversee his estate until her death in 1997. 

Busby Berkeley was more than just a dance director. He was a visionary. His musicals continue to dazzle viewers of all ages with their unique artistry and pleasing aesthetics.