Search This Blog

Monday, January 30, 2017

Getting to know Busby Berkeley - thanks to the Harvard Film Archive

As a new classic film fan, after I heard the name just once or twice, the first image my mind conjured of Busby Berkeley came directly from the improbable sing-song throwback-style name.  It was an image of a simpler time, but also one of extravagance and fun, decadence and flamboyance. In a vague sort of way I'd picked up that this man was responsible for a number of spectacles in the early years of Hollywood. And that much was true.  He was a musical-number choreographer responsible for kaleidoscopic, dazzling, often surreal visual images of human bodies, mostly leggy women, punctuating depression-era tales such as 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933 or 1935, or 1937, into the MGM musical heyday of For Me and My Gal, and Take Me Out To The Ball Game.
Berkeley (1895-1976) as a young man
Thanks to the retrospective at the Harvard Film Archive over the past several weeks, Mr. Berkeley's image has come into much clearer focus for me.  Here's a collection of some of my observations thanks to the several films (all from the 1930s) that I treated myself to there, as well as a rare screening of a French television interview (Cineastes de notre temps) with Mr. Berkeley in the 1970s.
A typical image of chorus girls in formation as shot from above.  
Interesting Facts from Berkeley's Biography and Career 
  • While born in LA, he actually spent a few of his early years in my adopted state of Massachusetts, and toiled away in the legitimate theater locally, before moving to Broadway, and then Hollywood.
  • The inspiration for his complex, timed dance maneuvers was stated to have emerged from his days during WWI in the army setting up marching companies of soldiers.  Interestingly, in the French TV interview, he dramatically plays down this influence.  Read more here in this New Yorker piece by Richard Brody.
  • By using the camera, through its placement and movement capability to show performances that could *only* be done by the new medium of the moving picture.  In fact, many of his early movies had 'backstage' narratives, allowing multiple moments of stage performances, which would morph, right before your eyes, from rather static two dimensional views to brilliant, ethereal, multi-dimensional moving images disconnected from time, or even gravity  A good example of this can be seen here in this scene from Gold Diggers of 1933.
  • He advanced from choreographer to director, but the later films in which he directs aren't quite as visually spectacular.
  • He struggled with alcoholism, was married six times, and was responsible for the death of three people from a car accident, which haunted him for many years, and was said to have cost him at least two Academy Awards.
  • His work underwent a rediscovery of sorts in the 1970s.  
The Films (those designated with * are new to me from this retrospective)

*Night World (1932) Directed by Hobart Henley for Universal, this one is a dark, *very* pre-code tale of love and loss in a seedy speakeasy.  It stars Lew Ayres, fresh off his lauded performance in All Quiet on the Western Front, Mae Clarke as the showgirl with the heart of gold, and Boris Karloff as the unpleasant owner of the speakeasy.  George Raft also appears in a small role.  There is a staged number in the middle of the film in which a small group of young chorus girls perform a musical number as the nightclub's entertainment, and some of the usual Berkeley touches, ceiling camera, camera through the parallel legs of the girls, etc., are featured.  While not a spectacular film, it's entertaining for it's 58 minute run time.  Lew Ayres was a terrific drunk, and Clarence Muse, an African-American actor, played the club's doorman dealing with a personal problem.  Muse's character was sympathetic and well-drawn, significantly more so than the typical minority character of that era.

Alice Brady & Adolphe Menjou
*Gold Diggers of 1935 No doubt the best in this series is the first Gold Diggers of 1933, but I was pleasantly surprised by this one, Berkeley's first sole directorial feature.  Now that the Production Code was being enforced, much of the pre-code charm of the earlier film was off limits, and a new kind of charm had to be found.  In this case, the film played much more as a screwball comedy, a genre that was on the rise at this time in the mid-1930s.  However, the pacing, musical numbers, and comedy all are in harmony for good time.  Dick Powell is back, but this time his leading lady is Gloria Stuart, a gifted actress but without the infectious personality of a Joan Blondell.  I loved Alice Brady, who'd won me over with her portrayal of Carole Lombard's zany mother in My Man Godfrey.  Here she is...wait for it...a zany mother...who is frugal to the extreme, but wants to see her daughter (Stuart) married off to a wealthy but hopelessly clueless snuff-box historian, of all things.  The family is vacationing in an up-state resort hotel, with Adolphe Menjou as the hired producer to put on a show, and Powell is a hotel employee who has greater ambitions.  Frank McHugh, Hugh Herbert, Glenda Farrell, and Grant Mitchell all shine in memorable secondary roles.  

Footlight Parade I saw this one during last year's "Members' Weekend" at the HFA.  In addition to the fabulous choreographed numbers, most near the end of this spectacle, I recommend this one for a young James Cagney in a pre-code in which he was NOT playing a gangster.  As a theater impresario he was a blast to watch. 

*Fast and Furious  This was a relatively minor offering, not to be confused with a series of films from earlier this century starring Vin Diesel, that I saw as the second of a double feature with Night World.  Berkeley directs, ably, but there are no major musical numbers.  It's a cut rate "Thin Man" style murder mystery with sparring husband-and-wife detectives, here played by Franchot Tone and Ann Sothern.  There was a fair amount of slapstick humor with a lion loose in a hotel (the MGM lion??).

*Whoopee (1933)The last film I saw in the retrospective was Berkeley's first.  The HFA located a digital version of a restored print, which looked pretty good, with its two-strip technicolor.   This is a decidedly racist Eddie Cantor vehicle, with a relative mild blackface scene, but outside of those parts I found it hilarious and highly entertaining nonetheless.  A comic/western/romance, this was a big hit on Broadway and the film version was also a winner with the public.
Eddie Cantor as a rich hypochondriac with his smitten nurse,
Ethel Shutta (photo from IMDb)
The other Berkeley films I've seen are:   *42nd Street (1933);  Gold Diggers of 1933Roman Scandals (1933).


  1. Just a few point of facts:

    1. Busby Berkeley was born in Los Angeles, California, not in Massachusetts. His mother, a noted actress on the stage and in silent films was born in Plattsburgh, NY.
    2. Although Berkeley eventually designed interesting drill formations during his limited time in World War 1, his real inspiration came from his work on spectacular reviews for the Broadway stage.
    3. Some of his later films are visually spectacular. I urge you to see the Technicolor water numbers featuring Esther Williams, and his over-the-top dance direction in "Small Town Girl". You also failed to mention Berkeley's great films with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland, fully directed and dance numbers designed by Berkeley. "The Gang's All Here" is in another dimension all together!

    Jeffrey Spivak, author "Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley"

    1. Thank you! I corrected #1. And yes, I do need to see his later films; at the moment I seem to have a special interest in the 1930s films so that is what I gravitate toward. But this retrospective was quite generous in the diversity of the films screened and I wish I could have taken in more of them.