The Classic Connoisseur’s Guide to the Best Films and Stars
You could have knocked me over with a feather boa when I learned that Busby Berkeley was not trained as a dancer or choreographer. Nope. He was a drill instructor before he worked in entertainment. But on second thought, it makes perfect sense when you look at those 1930’s and 40’s extravaganzas that he designed. They’re more close-order drill than dance.
By the way, if the name Busby Berkeley doesn’t ring a bell — go get a bunch of his 1930’s musicals and lose yourself in the black and white pyrotechnics that this showman produced on screen. For example:
- 42nd Street
- Gold Diggers of 1933
- Gold Diggers of 1935
- Footlight Parade
After a start in choreographing on Broadway, where his work apparently consisted mostly of moving beautiful girls in beautiful costumes around in various geometric patterns, he moved on to Hollywood, where his mother acted in films.
He began staging numbers in the wildly popular Eddie Cantor movies, and by the early 1930’s, he was experimenting with cinematic performances that would become his trademark.
You can tell instantly when you are seeing a Berkeley-directed number or movie. One tip-off is the camera panning down a long row of chorus girls, focusing momentarily on each individual face. But the big clue comes when the camera moves up and away from the stage where the dance is supposedly taking place, and shows us a perspective that was never possible in a theater production.
Berkeley movies seem a little corny today, when we like things to be either solid fact or totally fantasy. The curtain comes up on a stage production with hundreds of girls in elaborate costumes and headdresses. But the stage dissolves as Berkeley uses the shape of the costumes (after that camera pan down the row of faces, the individuals become merely parts of the machine) and the towering sets to create opening flowers or geometric patterns, particularly the shifting and changing of a kaleidoscope.
Suddenly you realize that you’re not on Broadway any more. And it might as well be Broadway, Kansas that you left behind, because you’re now in a magical kingdom that can only be created by the movies.
And that was Berkeley’s genius. While musicals were part of the movies almost from the beginning, they generally looked just like your cell-phone TV shot of a stage production would look. Static. Berkeley realized the potential of the moving picture camera. Not only the people moved, but the camera moved, and not just left to right and forward and backward. He shot down from the ceiling on a circle of bodies making a pattern on the floor. He shot up through a glass floor at the patterns made by legs. He rolled the camera through the line of legs.
And it is all so mesmerizing that you barely realize that in all his choreography, there is barely any dancing. Parading, strolling, swishing of skirts, bowing of heads, waving of arms, even some twirling — but no fancy footwork.
And heaven knows, no plot. Or the same plot over and over. A writer or a struggling singer or dancer are trying to get on Broadway. It’s all inside baseball — about show people making a show. And what plot there is, just serves to set up a couple of songs by the lead singer and a couple of knock-your-socks-off production numbers toward the end of the show.
In the 1934 movie, Dames, the producers have a debate about what makes a Broadway show. One argument reflects the thinking of the day. “It’s the music. No one cares about the plot.” And then Dick Powell (co-starring with Ruby Keeler and Joan Blondell) sings that all people want is ‘beautiful dames.” (By the way, if you take a look at that movie you’ll see a scene with the stage full of beds that bears a striking resemblance to one of the London Olympics’ musical numbers that featured kids instead of dames.)
One more thing worth mentioning about Berkeley. His early movies came in a pre-censorship Hollywood. The scanty costumes leave nothing to the imagination, and the overhead shots frequently outdo Georgia O’Keefe in artfully suggestive sexual references.
Here’s a clip from 42nd Street, Berkely’s first big hit with the beautiful young Dick Powell and some of those barely-there costumes.
The hey-day of Berkeley’s escapist musicals peaked during the Depression, and they went out of style in the late 40’s and early 50’s when realism became more popular and the styles of Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly triumphed over dames, dames, dames. But these innovative drill-sargent routines are still great fun to watch and even get a Wow or two from 21st century audiences.
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