Busby Berkeley - Director

Nationality: American. Born: Busby Berkeley William Enos in Los Angeles, 29 November 1895. Education: Mohegan Military Academy, Peekshill, New York, 1907–14. Military Service: Organized marching drills and touring stage shows for U.S. and French armies, and served as aerial observer in U.S. Air Corps, 1917–19. Family: Married six times. Career: Actor, stage manager, and choreographer, 1919–27; director of A Night in Venice on Broadway, 1928; director of dance numbers in Whoopee for Samuel Goldwyn, 1930; worked for Warner Bros., 1933–39; hired as dance advisor and director by MGM, 1939; returned to Warner Bros., 1943; released from Warner Bros. contract, returned to Broadway, 1944; directed last film, Take Me out to the Ball Game , 1949. Died: 14 March 1976.

Films as Director:


She Had to Say Yes (co-d, ch)


Gold Diggers of 1935 (+ ch); Bright Lights (+ ch); I Live for Love (+ ch)


Stage Struck (+ ch)


The Go-Getter (+ ch); Hollywood Hotel (+ ch)


Men Are Such Fools (+ ch); Garden of the Moon (+ ch); Comet Over Broadway (+ ch)


They Made Me a Criminal (+ ch); Babes in Arms (+ ch); Fast and Furious (+ ch)


Strike up the Band (+ ch); Forty Little Mothers (+ ch)


Blonde Inspiration (+ ch); Babes on Broadway (+ ch)


For Me and My Gal (+ ch)


The Gang's All Here (+ ch)

Busby Berkeley
Busby Berkeley


Cinderella Jones (+ ch)


Take Me out to the Ball Game (+ ch)

Other Films:


Whoopee (ch)


Palmy Days (ch); Flying High (ch)


Night World (ch); Bird of Paradise (ch); The Kid from Spain (ch)


42nd Street (ch); Gold Diggers of 1933 (ch); Footlight Parade (ch); Roman Scandals (ch)


Wonder Bar (ch); Fashions of 1934 (ch); Dames (ch)


Go into Your Dance (ch); In Caliente (ch); Stars over Broad-way (ch)


Gold Diggers of 1937 (ch); The Singing Marine (ch); Varsity Show (ch)


Gold Diggers in Paris (ch)


Broadway Serenade (ch)


Ziegfield Girl (ch); Lady Be Good (ch); Born to Sing (ch)


Girl Crazy (ch)


Two Weeks with Love (ch)


Call Me Mister (ch); Two Tickets to Broadway (ch)


Million Dollar Mermaid (ch)


Small Town Girl (ch); Easy to Love (ch)


Rose Marie (ch)


Jumbo (ch)


The Phynx (role in cameo appearance)


By BERKELEY: book—

The Busby Berkeley Book , with Tony Thomas and Jim Terry, New York, 1973.

By BERKELEY: articles—

Interview with John Gruen, in Close-Up (New York), 1968.

Interview with P. Brion and R. Gilson, in Contracampo (Madrid), September 1981.

On BERKELEY: books—

Dunn, Bob, The Making of "No, No, Nanette, " New York, 1972.

Pike, Bob, and Dave Martin, The Genius of Busby Berkeley , Reseda, California, 1973.

Meyer, William, Warner Brothers Directors , New York, 1978.

Hirschhorn, Clive, The Warner Bros. Story , New York, 1979.

Delamater, Jerome, Dance in the Hollywood Musical , Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1981.

Feuer, Jane, The Hollywood Musical , London, 1982.

Morsiani, Alberto, Il Grande Busby: Il Cinema di Busby Berkeley , Modena, 1983.

Roddick, Nick, A New Deal in Entertainment: Warner Brothers in the 1930s , London, 1983.

Altman, Rick, The American Film Musical , Bloomington, Indiana, and London, 1989.

Rubin, Martin, Showstoppers: Busby Berkeley and the Tradition of Spectacle , New York, 1993.

On BERKELEY: articles—

Sarris, Andrew, "Likable but Elusive," in Film Culture (New York), Spring 1963.

Comolli, Jean-Louis, "Dancing Images," and Patrick Brion and René Gilson, "A Style of Spectacle," in Cahiers du Cinema in English (New York), no. 2, 1966.

Jenkinson, Philip, "The Great Busby," in Film (London), Spring 1966.

Thomas, John, "The Machineries of Joy," in Film Society Review (New York), February 1967.

Bevis, D.L., "A Berkeley Evening," in Films in Review (New York), June/July 1967.

Roman, R.C., "Busby Berkeley," in Dance (New York), February 1968.

Sidney, George, "The Three Ages of the Musical," in Films and Filming (London), June 1968.

"What Directors are Saying," in Action (Los Angeles), May/June 1970.

Gorton, D., "Busby and Ruby," in Newsweek (New York), 3 August 1970.

Knight, Arthur, "Busby Berkeley," in Action (Los Angeles), May/June 1974.

Roth, M., "Some Warners Musicals and the Spirit of the New Deal," in Velvet Light Trap (Madison), Winter 1977.

Tessier, Max, "Busby Berkeley 1895–1976," in Avant-Scène du Cinéma (Paris), 15 April 1978.

Delamater, Jerome, "Busby Berkeley: an American Surrealist," in Wide Angle (Athens, Ohio), vol. 1, no. 1, 1979.

Telotte, J.P., "A Gold Digger Aesthetic: The Depression Musical and its Audience," in Post Script (Jacksonville, Florida), Fall 1981.

Durgnat, Raymond, "Busby Berkeley: Filmed Theatre and Pure Theatre," in Films (London), January 1982.

Franck, S., "Busby Berkeley's Dames," in Andere Sinema (Antwerp), no. 102, March-April 1991.

"A Full Dance Card," in New York Times , 7 July 1991.

Van Gelder, L., "At the Movies," in New York Times , 12 July 1991.

Cohn, E., "Berkeley in the Nineties," in Village Voice (New York), vol. 36, 16 July 1991.

Fischer, L., and G. Vincendeau, "L'image de la femme comme image: la politique optique de Dames et autres numeros musicaux de Busby Berkeley," in Cinémaction (Conde-sur-Noireau), no. 67, 1993.

Komlodi, F., "Tancolj, Hollywood!" in Filmvilag (Budapest), vol. 36, no. 7, 1993.

Seville, J., "The Laser's Edge: Hear the Beat of the Dancing Feet," in Classic Images (Muscatine), no. 213, March 1993.

* * *

No American film director explored the possibilities of the mobile camera more fully or ingeniously than Busby Berkeley. He was the Méliès of the musical, the corollary of Vertov in the exploration of the possibilities of cinematic movement. His influence has since been felt in a wide array of filmmaking sectors, from movie musicals to television commercials.

Certain aspects of Berkeley's personal history are obvious in their importance to a discussion of his cinematic work, most specifically his World War I service and his work in the theatre. Born to a theatrical family, Berkeley learned early of the demands of the theatrical profession: when his father died, his mother refused to take the night off, instilling in Busby the work ethic of "the show must go on." Throughout most of his career, Gertrude Berkeley and her ethic reigned, no wife successfully displacing her as spiritual guide and confidante until after her death in 1948. Even then, Berkeley drove himself at the expense of his many marriages.

Berkeley's World War I service was significant for the images he created in his musical sequences. He designed parade drills for both the French and U.S. armies, and his later service as an aerial observer with the Air Corps formed the basis of an aesthetic which incorporated images of order and symmetry often seen from the peculiar vantage of an overhead position. In addition, that training developed his approach to economical direction. Berkeley often used storyboarding to effect his editing-in-the-camera approach, and provided instruction to chorus girls on a blackboard, which he used to illustrate the formations they were to achieve.

Returning from war, Berkeley found work as a stage actor. His first role was directed by John Cromwell, with Gertrude serving as his dramatic coach. He soon graduated to direction and choreography, and in 1929 he became the first man on Broadway to direct a musical for which he also staged the dance numbers, setting a precedent for such talents as Jerome Robbins, Gower Champion, Bob Fosse, and Tommy Tune. When Samuel Goldwyn invited him to Hollywood in 1930 as a dance director, however, that Broadway division of labor remained in effect. Berkeley had to wait until Gold Diggers of 1935 before being allowed to do both jobs on the same film.

From 1933 through 1939 Berkeley worked for Warner Bros., where he created a series of dance numbers which individually and collectively represent much of the best Hollywood product of the period. An examination of his work in this period in relation to the Production Code and the developing conventions of the musical genre illustrates his unique contribution to cinema.

Boy/girl romance and the success story were standard narrative ingredients of 1930s musicals, and Berkeley's work contributed significantly to the formulation of these conventions. Where he was unique was in his visualization of the onstage as opposed to the backstage segments of these dramas. Relying on his war service, he began to fashion onstage spectacles which had been impossible to perform on the Broadway stage. In his films he was able to explode any notion of the limitations of a proscenium and the relationship of the theatre spectator to it: the fixed perspective of that audience was abandoned for one which lacked defined spatial or temporal coordinates. His camera was regularly mounted on a crane (or on the monorail he invented) and swooped over and around or toward and away from performers in a style of choreography for camera which was more elaborate than that mapped out for the dancers. Amusingly, he generally reversed this procedure in his direction of non-musical scenes; he typically made the backstage dramas appear confined within a stage space and bound to the traditions of theatrical staging and dialogue.

As Berkeley created the illusion of theatre in his musical numbers, so too he created the illusion of dance. Having never studied dance, he rarely relied on trained dancers. Instead, he preferred to create movement through cinematic rather than choreographic means. Occasionally, when he included sophisticated dance routines, such as in the Lullaby of Broadway number from Gold Diggers of 1935 , he highlighted the dancers' virtuosity in a series of shots which preserved the integrity of their movement without infringing on the stylistic nuances of his camerawork.

The virtuosity of Berkeley's camera movement remains important not only for a discussion of aesthetics, but also for understanding the meaning he brought to the depiction of sexual fantasy and spectacle in a period of Hollywood history when the Production Code Administration was keeping close watch over screen morality. Throughout the 1930s, Berkeley's camera caressed as if involved in foreplay, penetrated space as if seeking sexual gratification, and soared in an approximation of sexual ecstasy. Whether tracking through the legs of a line of chorus girls in 42nd Street , swooping over an undulating vagina-shaped construction of pianos in Gold Diggers of 1935 , or caressing gigantic bananas manipulated by scantily clad chorines in The Gang's All Here , his sexual innuendos were titillating in both their obviousness and seeming naiveté. Berkeley's ability to inject such visual excitement meant that he was often called upon to rescue a troubled picture by adding one or more extravagantly staged musical numbers.

After leaving Warner Bros. in 1939, Berkeley returned to MGM where, although generally less innovative, his work set precedents for the genre: he directed the first Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney musical, the first Garland/Gene Kelly film, and with his last effort as a director, introduced the team of Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen. Undoubtedly the master director of American musicals in the first decade of sound film and a huge influence on many of the musical talents of succeeding decades, Berkeley worked only occasionally through the 1950s, staging musical numbers for various studios. The last of these was the 1962 MGM film Jumbo. With the nostalgia craze of the late 1960s, Berkeley's aesthetic was resurrected. In 1971 he triumphantly returned to the Broadway stage, where he directed a revival of the 1920s hit No, No, Nanette , starring his leading lady of the 1930s, Ruby Keeler, herself in retirement for thirty years. That moment was surely the fulfillment of all the success stories he had directed over his long career.

—Doug Tomlinson

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