I believe few of my readers know of Busby Berkeley. I discovered him watching old black and white musicals when I was in my twenties. It was good they were in black and white because we didn’t have a color TV then! I was fascinated by how he created the overhead visuals of the dancers, especially those done in the water (!)
Busby Berkeley was an American film director and musical choreographer. His elaborate musical production numbers often involved complex geometric patterns, almost kaleidoscopic, using large numbers of showgirls and props as fantasy elements. His musical numbers were among the largest and best-regimented on Broadway. And yes, this first picture is of dancers!
Berkeley was the son of two actors, so his introduction to the Broadway stage and Hollywood came early. His earliest film work was in Eddie Cantor’s musicals for the producer Samuel Goldwin, 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 in as many kaleidoscopic patterns as possible, using a top shot technique from overhead.
During the Depression, Berkeley’s popularity with an entertainment-hungry audience was secured when he choreographed four musicals back-to-back for Warner Brothers; 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Dames. Berkeley said his main professional goals were to constantly top himself and to never repeat his past accomplishments.
As the outsized musicals which he had made popular became passé, he turned to straight directing. One of actor John Garfield’s best films, They Made Me a Criminal, was directed by Berkeley. Berkeley had several well-publicized run-ins with MGM stars such as Judy Garland and was actually removed as the director of her film Girl Crazy because of them. The lavish musical number “I Got Rythm,” which he had choreographed and directed, remained as part of the movie, however.
In the late 1960s, the camp craze made Berkeley’s musicals popular again. He toured the college lecture circuit and even directed a 1930s-style cold medication commercial, complete with a top shot of a dancing clock. In his 75th year, Berkeley returned to Broadway to direct a successful revival of No No Nanette, staring his old Warner Brothers colleague and star of the original 42nd Street, Ruby Keeler. I was privileged to see a production of No No Nannette in Los Angeles in the ‘70s, with the incredible dancing feet of Ms. Keeler, who was then in her early sixties. Now there was a hoofer.