|Date of birth:||November 29, 1895|
|Date of death:||March 14, 1976 (aged 80)|
|Death location:||Palm Springs, California|
Berkeley was famous for his elaborate musical production numbers that often involved complex geometric patterns. Berkeley's quintessential works used legions of showgirls and props as fantastic elements in kaleidoscopic on-screen performances. He did not prepare scripts in advance for his musical extravaganzas—in fact, he was unable to work with them. Instead, he brought his props and actors onto the stage, and then worked out how to use them to create something that would fulfill his vision and interests. His films are like those of no one else.
Berkeley started as a theatrical director, just as many other movie directors. Unlike many at the time, he felt that a camera should be allowed mobility, and he framed shots carefully from unusual angles to allow movie audiences to see things from perspectives that the theatrical stage never could provide. This technical innovation played an enormous role in establishing the movie musical as a category in its own right.
Berkeley made his stage debut at five, acting in the company of his performing family. During World War I, Berkeley served as a field artillery lieutenant, where he learned the intricacies of drilling and disciplining large groups of people. During the 1920s, he was a dance director for nearly two dozen Broadway musicals, including such hits as A Connecticut Yankee. As a choreographer, Berkeley was less concerned with the terpsichorean skill of his chorus girls as he was with their ability to form themselves into attractive geometric patterns. His musical numbers were among the largest and best-regimented on Broadway. The only way to make them larger was for Berkeley to move to films, which he did when "talkies" arrived.
Berkeley's earliest movie jobs were on Samuel Goldwyn's Eddie Cantor musicals, where he began developing such techniques as a "parade of faces" (individualizing each chorus girl with a loving close-up), and moving his dancers all over the stage (and often beyond) in as many kaleidoscopic patterns as possible. Berkeley's legendary top shot technique (the kaleidoscope again, this time shot from overhead) appeared seminally in the Cantor films, and also the 1932 Universal programmer Night World. His numbers were known for starting out in the realm of the stage, but quickly exceeding this space by moving into a time and place that could only be cinematic, only to return to shots of an applauding audience and the fall of a curtain.
As choreographer, Berkeley was allowed a certain degree of independence in his direction of musical numbers, and they were often markedly distinct from (and sometimes in contrast to) the narrative sections of the films. The numbers he choreographed were mostly upbeat and focused on decoration as opposed to substance; one exception to this is the number "Remember My Forgotten Man" from Gold Diggers of 1933, which dealt with the treatment of soldiers in a post-World War I Depression.
Berkeley's popularity with an entertainment-hungry Great Depression audience was secured when he choreographed four musicals back-to-back for Warner Bros.: 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, the aforementioned Gold Diggers of 1933, and Fashions of 1934.
Berkeley's innovative and often sexually-charged dance numbers have been analyzed at length by cinema scholars. In particular, the numbers have been critiqued for their display (and some say exploitation) of the female form as seen through the "male gaze," and for their depiction of collectivism (as opposed to traditionally American rugged individualism) in the spirit of Roosevelt's New Deal. Berkeley always denied any deeper significance to his work, arguing that his main professional goals were to constantly top himself and to never repeat his past accomplishments.
As the outsized musicals in which Berkeley specialized became passé, he turned to straight directing, begging Warners to give him a chance at drama. The result was 1939's They Made Me a Criminal, one of John Garfield's best films. Berkeley's drive for perfection led to a number of well-publicized run-ins with MGM stars such as Judy Garland. In 1943, he was removed as director of Girl Crazy because of disagreements with Garland, although the lavish musical number "I Got Rhythm," which he directed, remained in the picture.
His next stop was at 20th Century-Fox for 1943's The Gang's All Here, in which Berkeley choreographed Carmen Miranda's outrageous "Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat" number. The film made money, but Berkeley and the Fox brass disagreed over budget matters. Berkeley returned to MGM in the late 1940s, where among many other accomplishments he conceived the Technicolor finales for the studio's Esther Williams films. Berkeley's final film as choreographer was MGM's Billy Rose's Jumbo (1962).
In private life, Berkeley was as flamboyant as his work. He went through six wives, an alienation of affections lawsuit involving a prominent movie queen, and a fatal car accident which resulted in his being tried and acquitted of second degree murder. In the late 1960s, the camp craze brought the Berkeley musicals back to the forefront. He toured the college and lecture circuit, and even directed a 1930s-style cold medication commercial, complete with a top shot of a dancing clock. In his 75th year, Busby Berkeley returned to Broadway to direct a successful revival of No No Nanette, starring his old Warner Brothers colleague and 42nd Street star Ruby Keeler.
Berkeley died in Palm Springs, California at the age of 80 from natural causes.
Busby Berkeley's films are like those of no one else, so much so that to this day his films are still viewed and admired by many people and a term such as Busby Berkeley-like has a special meaning—it suggests a film or other presentation featuring many people, especially chorus girls, in an elaborate choreographed geometric pattern, but moving and interacting in a kind of inspired and breathtaking way.
There have been many references to Busby Berkeley in subsequent works. The Magnetic Fields references Busby Berkeley in the album 69 Love Songs in the song "Busby Berkeley Dreams" and "The Way You Say Goodnight." In the film Blazing Saddles, Dom DeLuise plays a cameo role as a director similar to Busby Berkeley.
The "Miss Piggy's Fantasy" music number from The Great Muppet Caper (1981) involving Miss Piggy and a number of chorus girls are directly influenced by the aesthetic. "The Wonderful Tundra" is a song by The Whiskers about millions of polar bears dancing in unison, and contains the line "Busby Berkeley would be so proud of them I bet he'd like to personally pat each and every one of them on their backs."
In "Hollywood Babble On II," an issue of Shade, The Changing Man, the opening sequence is "just like a Busby Berkeley movie" except all of the performers are plucked from their "ordinary folk" activities and thus unsynchronized until they are all devoured by a shark they fail to jump.
In the film The Big Lebowski, actor Jeff Bridges has a psychedelic dream sequence that mimics the style of Berkeley's choreography.
All links retrieved March 21, 2013.
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