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.
Further Reading on Busby Berkeley
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).