Thursday, November 12, 2009

Busby Berkeley

In the early 1930s the director and choreographer* Busby Berkeley created a new form of film musical. Berkeley designed and directed elaborate production numbers featuring armies of chorus girls moving in geometrically precise arrangements. The production numbers in previous musical films had generally been shot from static positions in front of the proscenium—a theater audience's point of view. Berkeley's innovation was to make the camera a part of the choreography by placing it directly overhead, on the chorus line, or even tracking between the dancers' legs onstage.

We've recently been watching several of Berkeley's early musicals for Warner Brothers, and I thought I'd offer a quick survey. I realize that calling these movies "Busby Berkeley musicals" neglects the contributions of directors like Lloyd Bacon and Mervyn LeRoy, who were often in charge of the dialogue scenes. But with all due respect to Bacon and LeRoy, it's the Berkeley-directed dance numbers that make these movies unforgettable. So, in descending order of watchability:

1. Gold Diggers of 1933 is Berkeley's masterpiece, containing some of his most jaw-droppingly enjoyable numbers. Joan Blondell, Ginger Rogers and comedienne Aline MacMahon play wisecracking but good-hearted chorus girls (a setup so successful it was recycled a few years later in the excellent Stage Door (1937), also starring Ginger Rogers). Ruby Keeler is (what else) the ingenue, and her love interest Dick Powell is a rich kid slumming it as a Broadway songwriter. But all you need to know is that the screenplay provides enough snappy dialogue and comic situations to keep you thoroughly entertained between numbers.

And what numbers! From the opening "We're in the Money" (featuring chorus girls clothed in coins and Ginger Rogers singing the lyrics in pig latin) to the "Shadow Waltz" (with dozens of dancers playing neon-lit violins), Berkeley's stagings of the Harry Warren-Al Dubin songs are mind-boggling. My favorite may be the delirious "Pettin' in the Park," which says more about the sexual mores of my grandparents' generation than I really want to know. Here are the last two minutes or so of this sequence (formerly available in its entirety):

The movie closes with "Remember My Forgotten Man," a harrowing song about the mistreatment and neglect of World War I veterans, unforgettably performed by Joan Blondell and Etta Moten. Don't miss this one.

2. 42nd Street (1933) became the template for every backstage musical to follow: when a Broadway show's star (Bebe Daniels) breaks her ankle just before opening night, the ingenue chorus girl Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler) has to go on as her replacement. The movie has Harry Warren and Al Dubin's great title song about that "naughty, gawdy, bawdy, sporty" (or as Ruby Keeler sings, "spawty") thoroughfare, and the classic line delivered to Peggy by the harried director (Warner Baxter) just before she steps onstage: "You're going out a youngster, but you've got to come back a star!"

It also has Ruby Keeler's first and worst film performance. Her line readings are stiff and unconvincing, and worse, her dancing is ungainly and looks like the hard work it must actually be. When she launches into her clomping tap-dance* break during the climactic version of the title song, the tempo of the music audibly slows down instead of speeding up.

Throughout the film Keeler has a stricken, deer-in-the-headlights look. Perhaps she herself realized the ludicrousness of the scene in which another chorus girl gives up her chance to take over the leading role in favor of Keeler. That other chorus girl, who in fact handles the snappy dialogue and the jazzy choreography much more smoothly than Keeler, is played by Fred Astaire's future partner Ginger Rogers. Nah—she could never carry the show...

3. Footlight Parade (1933): Jimmy Cagney burns up the screen in an intense performance as the harried director of spectacular live "prologues" supposedly put on before movie screenings (sure—if the movie theater is the size of an airplane hanger and the exhibitor has an unlimited budget). To win a contract he's got to stage three prologues on one night in three different theaters—and he's only got a single weekend to prepare everything.

But you can forget (or enjoy) the multiple implausibilities when the movie includes Cagney, the great Joan Blondell, and one of the most absurdly spectacular numbers Berkeley ever filmed, the "water ballet" "By A Waterfall."

The inevitable Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler are also in the cast, with Keeler giving one of her better performances as a secretary who steps onstage and becomes a star. Just don't think too hard about the racial politics of the final number, "Shanghai Lil" (in which Cagney shows that he can sing and tap-dance a little, too).

4. Gold Diggers of 1935: Lightning does not strike twice; this sequel-in-name-only to Gold Diggers of 1933 testifies to the (temporary) exhaustion of the Berkeley formula—or perhaps, after his grueling work schedule of the previous three years, to Berkeley's own exhaustion. This time, instead of playing a gee-whiz kid, Powell plays a cynical and jaded gold digger himself. The plot centers on the creation of a charity stage show which is so spectacularly lavish that it loses tens of thousands of dollars.

The two main production numbers, to the Warren-Dubin songs "The Words Are In My Heart" and "The Lullaby of Broadway," only partly compensate for the unsatisfying plot. The opening and final images of "Lullaby" are a direct homage to the photographs of Man Ray, suggesting that Berkeley's surrealism was highly self-conscious. And talk about surrealism: the "Lullaby" number is staged as a bizarre morality play which ends with the Broadway Baby (Wini Shaw) falling to her death from a skyscraper—an eerie anticipation of the suicide of Dorothy Hale, immortalized in Frida Kahlo's famous painting. A strange coda to an oddly dark film:

(This is only a fraction of this number, which is nearly 15 minutes long; the full sequence is no longer available.)

* see Jeffrey Spivak's comments below.

Update 6 Feb 2011: Jeffrey Spivak's Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley has been published by the University Press of Kentucky. Thanks again to Jeff for his detailed comments below.


  1. Hello,

    I am the author of an upcoming biography of Busby Berkeley and I read your reviews of his Warner Brothers films.

    A couple of comments:

    Yes, Ruby Keeler was not the best of actresses and her dancing in 42nd looks (to modern audiences) rather clunky. The fact is she was an excellent dancer and wore wooden "buck" shoes (she was a buck-and-winger, as they say). Her style was not "tap" per se.

    Berkeley was not a choreographer, and hated being described as such. He was a dance director. On every film he worked on someone else taught the actual dance steps. Buzz (as he was called by his colleagues) was interested in the camera's potential--exclusively. The fact is that he couldn't dance a step and never took lessons.

    I'm glad you noticed the Man Ray connection to an image in "Lullaby of Broadway." The photograph is called "Woman with a Cigarette." and I plan to include the image in my book.

    Of course, Berkeley had many more eye-popping numbers up his sleeve (see "Dames" if only for the titular number and "I Only Have Eyes for You").


    Jeffrey Spivak

  2. Jeffrey, many thanks for your highly informative comments and corrections.

    I hadn't realized that Berkeley didn't choreograph the dance steps in his production numbers. Interestingly, he is credited as the sole choreographer for both Footlight Parade and Gold Diggers of 1935 on the Internet Movie Database Busby Berkeley page (IMDB is not always the most comprehensive or accurate source, I realize), and no other choreographer or dance assistant is credited for 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933.

    But what you say makes sense given the huge scale and complexity of the spectacles he was designing. I can well imagine that he would both want and need to have someone else devise and teach the dance steps to the chorus and soloists.

    Your comment also brings up something that until now had somewhat puzzled me, which is that while his trademark is the synchronized movement of large groups of people shot from unusual angles, actual dancing takes up a relatively small proportion of most of his production numbers.

    I had never heard of the buck-and-wing before, but after reading your e-mail I did some Googling and discovered that it's a kind of pre-tap dance related to clogging. So Keeler's dancing is flat-footed because it's supposed to be in order to create percussive effects. Thanks for clueing me in.

    Yes, the Man Ray allusion in "Lullaby of Broadway" is striking. If you click on the "photographs of Man Ray" link in the post it takes you to an enlargeable version of "Untitled (Head with Cigarette)." As you probably know, it was published in Photographs by Man Ray 1920-1934 Paris (Hartford, Connecticut: James Thrall Soby, 1934), and can be seen on page 43 of the Dover Publications facsimile reprint. Man Ray had also photographed Lee Miller in this pose sans cigarette, but with a dark background--I don't know whether the Lee Miller image was published before 1935, though. Berkeley was clearly familiar with Man Ray's work: there is another photograph from the Man Ray book (on page 64) which, inverted, may also be echoed in the Berkeley sequence.

    Can you give me any information on your book? I'd be happy to include that information for interested readers.

    Finally, many thanks for the Dames recommendation!



  3. Pessimisissimo,

    Some comments on your comments:

    On your page you sort of disparage "Gold Diggers of 1935." Sorry to disagree with you, but this was Berkeley's first job as full director and director of the musical numbers, and I think he did a masterful job on both.

    IMDB is accurate about 75% of the time. I know for a fact that Berkeley worked on films with no credit whatsoever, and they're not included in IMDB. Dance assistants are almost never credited, though they served a critical role in musical pictures.

    You'll never see the credit "choreography by Busby Berkeley." It's usually "dances and ensembles by BB."

    You're correct that actual dancing is little seen in Berkeley's numbers. He was a visualist. The hilarious conceit is that many of his numbers are supposed to be taking place on a stage. A shot of the audience applauding after "By A Waterfall" is probably the funniest thing in "Footlight Parade."

    Feel free to use my comments. My book is a scholarly work to be published by The University Press of Kentucky as part of their Film Classics series (curated by author Patrick McGilligan). The Press releases beautiful hard cover editions. My book will cover every film and stage show Berkeley worked on plus a full biography of his very volatile life. It will come out in 2010 (summer or early fall). It's the first full bio of Buzz, and the publisher has told me that the advance word is extremely positive and enthusiastic. The tentative title is "Buzz: The Disquieting Life and Art of Busby Berkeley."

    Be sure to check out both box sets of Berkeley Warner Brothers films as well as the Mickey Rooney/Judy Garland collection on which Buzz directed and/or did the musical numbers. If you haven't seen Fox's "The Gang's All Here" you're in for a rollicking good time. There's also plenty of information about the man in the extras including on all the DVDs.


  4. Jeff, while I try to be substantive in my blog posts, they definitely reflect my personal perspective, and for me Gold Diggers of 1935 didn't work very well. It's visually striking, thanks to Berkeley's direction, but surprisingly cold--every character is either utterly mercenary or a rich dupe.

    In my view, Gold Diggers of 1933 anticipated and side-stepped this problem by showing how funny, smart, and fundamentally generous the chorus girls Carol, Fay and Trixie are. Their snappy, wisecracking dialogue won my sympathy and interest; the less complex Dick Powell and Dorothy Dare characters in Gold Diggers of 1935 didn't.

    Of course, Gold Diggers of 1933 had the advantage of being based on a highly successful play, Avery Hopwood's The Gold Diggers (1919). And Berkeley didn't write the screenplay for Gold Diggers of 1935, so he can't be blamed for its shortcomings.

    But I'm always willing to be convinced that I've overlooked a masterpiece; I'll look forward to reading your analysis of the film in your book, which sounds fascinating.

    Thanks again for your comments, and for the DVD recommendations!