Busby Berkeley

Active - 1930 - 1970  |   Born - Nov 29, 1895 in Los Angeles, California, United States  |   Died - Mar 14, 1976 in Palm Desert, CA  |   Genres - Musical, Comedy, Romance

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American director/choreographer Busby 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, 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. His musical numbers were among the largest and best-regimented on Broadway. The only way they'd get any larger was if Berkeley moved to films, which he did the moment films learned to talk. His earliest movie gigs were on Sam Goldwyn's Eddie Cantor musicals, where he began developing such techniques as "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) first appeared seminally in the Cantor films, and also the 1932 Universal programmer Night World. Berkeley's popularity with an entertainment-hungry Depression audience was secured in 1933, when he choreographed three musicals back-to-back for Warner Bros.: 42nd Street, Footlight Parade and The Gold Diggers of 1933. Berkeley's innovative and often times splendidly vulgar dance numbers have been analyzed at length by cinema scholars who insist upon reading "meaning" and "subtext" in each dancer's movement. Berkeley always pooh-poohed any deep 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 moved to MGM in 1940, where his Field Marshal tactics sparked a great deal of resentment with the studio's pampered personnel. He was fired in the middle of Girl Crazy (1941), reportedly at the insistence of Judy Garland. His next stop was at 20th Century-Fox for 1943's The Gang's All Here. Berkeley entered the Valhalla of Kitsch with Carmen Miranda's outrageous "Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat" number. The film made money, but Berkeley and the Fox brass didn't see eye to eye over budget matters. Berkeley returned to MGM in the late 1940s, where among many other accomplishments he conceived the gloriously garish 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 suit involving a prominent movie queen, and a fatal car accident which resulted in his being tried (and acquitted) for second degree murder. In the late 1960s, the "camp" craze brought the Berkeley musicals back into the forefront. He hit the college and lecture circuit, and even directed a 1930s-style cold tablet commercial, complete with a top shot of a "dancing clock". In his 75th year, Busby Berkeley returned to Broadway to direct a success revival of No, No Nanette, starring his old Warner Bros. colleague and 42nd Street star Ruby Keeler.

Movie Highlights

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Factsheet

  • Born into a family of actors; got his nickname from turn-of-the-century Broadway star Amy Busby.
  • Enlisted in the Army during World War I and was assigned to direct precision drill parades and camp shows.
  • After the war, discovered his talent for performing in theater and eventually began choreographing Broadway shows.
  • Stage success led him to Hollywood during the advent of sound pictures and the movie musical.
  • Used inventive camera angles; symmetrical and kaleidoscopic filming of dancers---many of which were overhead shots---became his trademark.
  • His drinking habit was presumed to have caused a tragic car accident in 1935, resulting in the death of two and injury to three others. Was tried for second-degree murder but was acquitted almost a year later.
  • Distraught over the death of his mother, attempted suicide in the late 1940s.