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Busby Berkeley's Showstoppers

Getty Images / Hulton Archive / Evening Standard

Busby Berkeley's Showstoppers

Busby Berkeley is remembered as one of the most inventive choreographers ever to work in film. To celebrate his birthday, we look back at his life and career.

On Nov. 29, 1895, Busby Berkeley William Enos was born into showbiz, his mother a stage and silent film actress, his father a stage director. They named their child after Amy Busby – an actress in their repertory company who would go on to find fame in England – and William Gillette, another actor in the company who would become a Broadway star for his portrayal of Sherlock Holmes. Berkeley began working onstage at the age of five but his acting career was put on hold during WWI, when Berkeley served as a lieutenant field artillery commander. His duties directing military parades and watching soldiers march in formation may have helped inspire his complex geometric creations.

He had a number of different jobs after the war – working in a shoe company, playing semi-pro baseball, leading a dance band in Massachusetts. Eventually Berkeley worked his way to Broadway, where he acted and worked as an assistant director for small theater troupes. It was after being forced to take over directing duties for the musical Holka-Polka that he discovered his talent for arranging dance numbers. He soon came to the attention of producer Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. was looking around for someone to stage numbers for his musical version of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Through Ziegfield, Berkeley made the professional acquaintance of star Eddie Cantor, who recommended Berkeley to create dance routines for the film adaptation of his long-running Broadway musical Whoopee!

In his very first work for the screen, Berkeley already seemed to have an intuitive understanding of the possibilities offered by the medium, liberating the camera to offer perspectives you couldn't get in the theater, whether it was overhead shots revealing dancers arranged in kaleidoscopic patterns or sending a camera tracking between a long row of dancers' legs.

"Footlight Parade" of 1933

He worked with Cantor on several other pictures in the early 1930s, but his greatest success of the period came when he did the choreography for Warner Bros.' backstage musical 42nd Street. The film's success, which Berkeley quickly repeated with the hit Gold Diggers of 1933, would lead Warner Bros. to sign Berkeley to a 7-year contract.

With each film his dance numbers got more lavish and sophisticated. But even with his success, Berkeley felt the limitations of his role. Directors, not choreographers, dictated camera placement and shot selection, and could control pace through editing. He'd get his chance to direct with the follow-up Gold Diggers of 1935. In addition to kaleidoscopic, geometric compositions, another Berkeley innovation was using close-ups of his dancer's faces, unconventional at a time when most filmmakers saved close-ups for the big stars. His reasoning? "We've got all the beautiful girls in the picture, why not let the public see them?"

By the late '30s, extravaganza musicals were going out of fashion, and so Berkeley turned to directing straight dramatic fare like 1939's They Made Me a Criminal and Fast and Furious. The 1940s and '50s saw him return to musicals, and he worked with some of the greats of the era, including Judy Garland, Gene Kelly, Mickey Rooney and Carmen Miranda. His most interesting late period work came in Esther Williams' films, where he took his grandiose choreography into the water.

Judging solely by his films, one might think Berkeley's life was much sunnier than it perhaps was. He was married six times, struggled with alcohol and, in 1935 was drunk behind the wheel in an accident in which two people died. As a result, he was tried for second-degree murder. The first two trials ended in hung juries, and on the third he was acquitted. He later twice attempted suicide following the passing of his mother, to whom he was very close.

Perhaps in his work, he found the same uplift and escape he hoped to offer audiences.

"In an era of breadlines, depression and wars, I tried to help people get away from all the misery," Berkeley once said. "I wanted to make people happy, if only for an hour."