About Busby Berkeley
Busby Berkeley (November 29, 1895 – March 14, 1976) 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. Among Gertrude's friends were actress Amy Busby and actor William Gillette, then only four years away from playing Sherlock Holmes. Gertrude apparently named her son after both Busby and Gillette after they agreed to be the boy's godparents. The boy was named Busby Berkeley William Enos.
In addition to her stage work, Gertrude played mother roles in silent films while Berkley was still a child. 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. His musical numbers were among the largest and best-regimented on Broadway.
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. 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 choreographed 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. 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.[specify] 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.
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.
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. 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 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 was inducted into the National Museum of Dance C.V. Whitney Hall of Fame in 1988.
Berkeley was married six times and was survived by his wife Etta Dunn. He was also involved in an alienation of affections lawsuit in 1938 involving Carole Landis. 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. Berkeley, brought to court on a stretcher, heard testimony that Time magazine said made him wince:
'Witnesses testified that motorist Berkeley sped down Roosevelt Highway in Los Angeles County one night, changed lanes, crashing headlong into one car, sideswiped another. Some witnesses said they smelled liquor on him'.
After the first two trials for second degree murder ended with hung juries, he was acquitted in a third trial.
Berkeley died on March 14, 1976 in Palm Springs, California at the age of 80 from natural causes. He is buried in the Desert Memorial Park in Cathedral City, California.