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Busby Berkeley

Born November 29, 1895(1895-11-29)
Los Angeles, California U.S.
Died March 14, 1976 (aged 80)
Palm Springs, California U.S.
Occupation film director, choreographer
Years active c.1901 – c.1971

Busby Berkeley (November 29, 1895 – March 14, 1976), born William Berkeley Enos in Los Angeles, California, was a highly influential Hollywood movie director and musical choreographer.

Berkeley was famous for his elaborate musical production numbers that often involved complex geometric patterns. Berkeley's works used large numbers of showgirls and props as fantasy elements in kaleidoscopic on-screen performances.



Berkeley was born to stage actress Gertrude Berkeley. In addition to her stage work, Gertrude played mother roles in silent films while Busby was still a youngster. 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. Watching soldiers drill may have inspired his later complex choreography. During the 1920s, Berkeley 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.[citation needed] His musical numbers were among the largest and best-regimented on Broadway.[citation needed]

The “By A Waterfall” production number from Footlight Parade (1933) made use of one of the largest soundstages ever built, constructed especially by Warner Bros. to film Berkeley's creations.

His 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.[citation needed] Berkeley's 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 (where he chorographed the number "Who's Your Little Who-Zis?"). 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.[citation needed] 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, as well as In Caliente and Wonder Bar with Dolores del Río. 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 deep significance to his work, arguing that his main professional goals were to constantly top himself and to never repeat his past accomplishments.[citation needed]

As the outsized musicals in which Berkeley specialized became passé, he turned to straight directing. The result was 1939's They Made Me a Criminal, one of John Garfield's best films. Berkeley had several 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.[1]

His next stop was at 20th Century-Fox for 1943's The Gang's All Here, in which Berkeley choreographed Carmen Miranda's “Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat” number. The film made money, but Berkeley and the Fox brass disagreed over budget matters.[citation needed] 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).

A typical Busby Berkeley geometrical arrangement of dancers, from Dames (1934)

Later career

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.[citation needed] 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.

Personal life

Berkeley was married six times[2] and was survived by his wife Etta Dunn. He was also involved in an alienation of affections lawsuit in 1938 involving Carole Landis.[3] In September 1935, Berkeley was the driver responsible for an automobile accident in which two people were killed, five seriously injured; Berkeley himself was badly cut and bruised.[4] Berkeley, brought to court on a stretcher[5], heard testimony that Time magazine said made him wince:[4]

Witnesses testified that motorist Berkeley whizzed down Roosevelt Highway in Los Angeles County one night, cut out of line, crashed headlong into one car, sideswiped another. Some said they smelled liquor on his breath.

Berkeley died on March 14, 1976 in Palm Springs, California at the age of 80 from natural causes.[6]

Selected works

In popular culture

  • In the movie Brewster's Millions, Marilyn (Brewster's decorator) says, "Shut your eyes, and see....Mesopotamia...meeting...Busby-Berkeley!! "
  • On The Jackie Gleason Show, an hour-long comedy-variety program which ran on the American CBS television network from 1966 to 1970, the June Taylor Dancers often provided dances which created Busby Berkeley-like patterns—shown with an overhead camera—only on a much smaller scale.
  • The "Miss Piggy's Fantasy" musical number from The Great Muppet Caper (1981) involving Miss Piggy and a number of chorus girls is directly influenced by the aesthetic.
  • The music video for the Take That single, "Shine" was inspired by the work of Busby Berkeley.
  • The music video for the Chemical Brothers song "Let Forever Be" features Berkeley-style choreographies.
  • The "Be Our Guest" sequence from Walt Disney's Beauty and the Beast movie was inspired by the work of Busby Berkley
  • The ending sequence of the film Jackass Number Two, in which the actors spoof a highly-stylized dance number, is based largely on Busby Berkeley's work.
  • In the film Blazing Saddles, Dom DeLuise plays a cameo role as effeminate film director/choreographer Buddy Bizarre, who is filming a number similar to those made by Busby Berkeley.
  • The new "Bonds Kaledioscope" clothing advertisement is influenced by Busby Berkeley's style.
  • In the British 2006 film Confetti in which three couples compete to have the most original wedding to win a house, one couple have a Hollywood Musicals themed wedding based on the films of Busby Berkeley.
  • 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 animated short, "Harvie Krumpet," the lead character is mesmerized by a Busby Berkley television show when he first gets to Australia.
  • The nip/tuck Season 5 part 2 promo featuring the song Flashing lights
  • Icelandic singer Björk's infamous swan dress at the 2001 Academy Awards was supposedly inspired by Berkeley's musicals.[7]

See also


  1. ^ Hugh Fordin, The World of Entertainment: The Freed Unit at MGM, 1975
  2. ^ Hanley, Robert (1976). "Busby Berkeley, the Dance Director, Dies", in the New York Times, March 15, 1976, p. 33
  3. ^ Fleming, E.J. (2005). Carole Landis: A Tragic Life in Hollywood. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Co. ISBN 978-0-7864-2200-5, p. 49
  4. ^ a b People, Sep. 30, 1935, from Time magazine
  5. ^ Choreographer and film director Busby Berkeley being carried into his manslaughter trial on a stretcher, a Los Angeles Times photo from the website of the UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library
  6. ^ Johns, Howard, (2004). Palm Springs Confidential: Playground of the Stars. Fort Lee, New Jersey: Barricade Books. ISBN 1569802971
  7. ^ Brockes, Emma. "The Emma Brockes interview: Björk". The Guardian, 13 February 2006.

External links

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