Sunday, April 30, 2023

The Classic Film Collective: Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley

  This was originally published in the former The Classic Film Collective Patreon.

The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley
by Jeffrey Spivak
University Press of Kentucky
Paperback ISBN: 9780813154084
410 pages

“In an era of breadlines, Depression, and wars, I tried to help people get away from all the misery; to turn their minds to something else. I wanted to make people happy, if only for an hour." —Busby Berkeley

Busby Berkeley was the master of motion picture choreography. If you’ve ever watched films like 42nd Street (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade (1933), The Gang’s All Here (1942) or Million Dollar Mermaid (1953), you’ll recognize Berkeley’s signature style. Berkeley's subjects would be transformed into veritable human kaleidoscopes utilizing all the elements he could to put the vision he had in his mind’s eye into reality. Berkeley had no real dancing background yet he had an eye for choreography, movement and composition. Elaborate sets, props, disembodied heads, arms and legs and carefully synched movements helped him create hypnotizing scenes that drew audiences to the cinema again and again. He was best known for his work on Pre-Code musicals but he had continued success throughout the1940s and 1950s. Berkeley would pivot to embrace different styles of work like working with Technicolor, widescreen, water and changing with the times. Personal troubles plagued him and he often made poor decisions. However, one can’t deny the impact Berkeley had on visual history of film.

Originally published in 2010, Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley by Jeffrey Spivak is the definitive biography on the director. Told in chronological order, the biography follows Berkeley’s life from his childhood, time served during WWI and his auspicious start as a stage director. He found his calling in the theater perfecting his techniques by directing actors in confined spaces.

He was personally recruited by Bill Grady of the William Morris agency and, after a background check by Samuel Goldwyn, was hired as a director of musical numbers for the Eddie Cantor film Whoopee (1930). Berkeley had an eye for staging and for beauty. This lent himself to musicals that were all the rave in the early talkie era. Berkeley worked mostly for Warner Bros. and MGM creating lavish numbers for various films. He grew to be more than just a choreographer and took the helm and full-fledged director on films like Comet Over Broadway (1938), Babes in Arms (1939) and For Me and My Gal (1942). He also proved that he could do more than just musicals and directed dramas like They Made Me a Criminal (1939), a boxing story starring John Garfield and featuring cinematography by James Wong Howe. Even when tastes shifted, he still proved relevant working with talents like Doris Day and Esther Williams well into the 1950s.

Spivak’s book primarily focuses on Berkeley’s professional work. The various musical numbers are described in detail. You have to be interested in the history of musicals as well as the particulars of dance, choreography and filming technique to really be engaged with this book. There isn’t a lot of focus on behind-the-scenes information. I’m much more fascinated with the social aspects of film history than technique so I particularly struggled with this. However, many of Berkeley’s dance numbers are available on watch free on YouTube and if you need to familiarize yourself with a number (or refresh your memory) do so with this free resource as it will add to the reading experience.

Interspersed throughout the book are some stories about Berkeley’s personal life. He had a very strong attachment to his mother which led to issues with his first five wives. He found contentment with his sixth wife with whom he was married until his death in 1976.

Then there was the terrible car accident in which Berkeley hit two vehicles injuring several people. One victim died immediately and others perished from their injuries later on. The author details the accident, the three trials, the aftermath and Berkeley’s continued issues with alcohol and depression.

There are many stories about how Berkeley worked with actresses. At one point the author uses a mock voice for Carmen Miranda’s reaction to an accident that happened while making The Lady with the Tutti Frutti Hat. It was a bit insulting and completely unnecessary.

Even with its problems, the book is an invaluable resource and offers much insight into Busby Berkeley’s artistry. If you love musicals and are in awe of those signature Berkeley numbers, this book is a must read.

Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley is now available in paperback from the University Press of Kentucky. Thank you to UPK for sending me a digital copy for review!

Now I leave you with some juicy nuggets from the book to enjoy.

Some interesting facts from the book:

  • His mother Gertrude was friends with actress Nazimova who helped cast her in the film War Brides (1916).
  • I learned that Busby Berkeley got his start as a stage director at a theatre that is directly next door to my old day job!
  • He preferred to use a single camera for his dance sequences because he could easily envision the production with one viewpoint rather than multiple.
  • Mary Pickford saved him from a terrible contract with Paramount.
  • In November of 1935, he received a patent for the rotating platform he invented for his musical numbers. The Patent # is 1979363.
  • In Gold Diggers of 1935, he had to arrange the position of an orchestra and the dancers so that the dancers could hear the music over their own tapping.
  • According to the United States Treasury, Berkeley received on of the highest salaries of 1937. Years later he got in trouble with the IRS for not paying his taxes.
  • Berkeley preferred to work with the same people from film to film. He had his “Berkeley girls” who followed him from project to project. He also gave regular work to soundmen, grips, electricians and cinematographers.
  • Doris Day loved working with Berkeley on Romance on the High Seas (1948) that she asked for him to come out of his retirement for Billy Rose’s Jumbo (1962).
  • A 300+ page copy of Busby Berkeley’s memoir went up for auction but never sold. It languished in storage until his widow passed on and it was thankfully salvaged. The author was able to access the memoir which was heavily biased and shared little personal information.

Some quotes from the book:

“Busby Berkeley was the premier dance director of motion pictures. His originality and sharply defined style brought him professional acclaim and financial reward. He saved a studio from bankruptcy and a doomed genre from senescence. Just don’t call him a choreographer.”
“Audiences in Berkeley’s day were treated to immersive, kaleidoscopic effects resulting in a thrill that only image size and collective response elicit. Spontaneous applause and the tossing of hats were by-products of the experience.” 
“For musical pictures he had no stylistic equal, yet the films he directed outside his purview were often middling and anonymous, lacking the imprimatur that defined his finest work.”
“In his most creative period, Berkeley’s tableau featured expansive art deco formations and repetitive set decorations with the occasional use of gigantism for fantasy props. Conversely, when bowing to budget restrictions, Buzz created his most interesting work with minimalist trappings.” 
“Studio records reveal that the Warner Bros. publicity department came up with a neologism to describe the uniqueness, distinctness, and inimitable nature of its star director. A man who combined groundbreaking technique in the artistry of film while seamlessly merging his craft with the classicism of dance was designated by Warner Brothers a cinematerpsichorean”

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