Busby Berkeley c. 1935
Berkeley William Enos
November 29, 1895
Los Angeles, California, United States
|Died||March 14, 1976 (aged 80)|
Palm Desert, California, United States
|Resting place||Desert Memorial Park, Cathedral City, California|
Berkeley devised elaborate musical production numbers that often involved complex geometric patterns. Berkeley's works used large numbers of showgirls and props as fantasy elements in kaleidoscopic on-screen performances.
Berkeley was born in Los Angeles, California, to Francis Enos (who died when Busby was eight) and stage actress Gertrude Berkeley (1864-1946). Among Gertrude's friends, and a performer in Tim Frawly's Stock company run by Busby Berkeley's father, were actress Amy Busby from whom Berkeley gained the appellation "Buzz" or "Busby" and actor William Gillette, then only four years away from playing Sherlock Holmes. Whether he was actually christened Busby Berkeley William Enos, or Berkeley William Enos, with "Busby" being a nickname, is not unanimous - the "Child's names" entry on his birth certificate is blank.
In addition to her stage work, Gertrude played mother roles in silent films while Berkeley was still a child. Berkeley made his stage début at five, acting in the company of his performing family. In 1917, he lived in Athol, Massachusetts, working as an advertising and sales manager. During World War I, Berkeley served as a field artillery lieutenant. Watching soldiers drill may have inspired his later complex choreography. During the 1920s, Berkeley was a dance director for nearly two dozen Broadway musicals, including such hits as A Connecticut Yankee. As a choreographer, Berkeley was less concerned with the dancing skill of his chorus girls as he was with their ability to form themselves into attractive geometric patterns. His musical numbers were among the largest and best-regimented on Broadway.
His earliest film work was in Samuel Goldwyn's Eddie Cantor musicals, 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 (and often beyond) in as many kaleidoscopic patterns as possible. Berkeley's top shot technique (the kaleidoscope again, this time shot from overhead) appeared seminally in the Cantor films, and also the 1932 Universal drama film Night World (where he choreographed the number "Who's Your Little Who-Zis?"). His numbers were known for starting out in the realm of the stage, but quickly exceeding this space by moving into a time and place that could only be cinematic, only to return to shots of an applauding audience and the fall of a curtain. He used only one camera to achieve this, instead of the usual four, to retain control over his vision so no director could edit the film. As choreographer, Berkeley was allowed a certain degree of independence in his direction of musical numbers, and they were often markedly distinct from (and sometimes in contrast to) the narrative sections of the films. He often didn't even see the other sections of the picture. The numbers he choreographed were mostly upbeat and focused on decoration as opposed to substance, some costing around $10,000 a minute more than the picture they were in. One exception to this is the number "Remember My Forgotten Man" from Gold Diggers of 1933, which dealt with the treatment of World War I veterans during The Great Depression.
Berkeley's popularity with an entertainment-hungry Great Depression audience was secured when he choreographed five musicals back-to-back for Warner Bros.: 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, the aforementioned Gold Diggers of 1933, Dames, and Fashions of 1934, as well as In Caliente and Wonder Bar with Dolores del Río. Berkeley always denied any deep significance to his work, arguing that his main professional goals were to constantly top himself and to never repeat his past accomplishments.
As the outsized musicals in which Berkeley specialized became passé, he turned to straight directing. The result was 1939's They Made Me a Criminal, one of John Garfield's best films and although a success at the box office, it was the only non musical film Berkeley directed. Berkeley had several well-publicized run-ins with MGM stars such as Judy Garland. In 1943, he was removed as director of Girl Crazy because of disagreements with Garland, although the lavish musical number "I Got Rhythm", which he directed, remained in the picture.
His next stop was at 20th Century-Fox for 1943's The Gang's All Here, in which Berkeley choreographed Carmen Miranda's "Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat" number. The film made money, but Berkeley and the Fox brass disagreed over budget matters. Berkeley returned to MGM in the late 1940s, where among many other accomplishments he conceived the Technicolor finales for the studio's Esther Williams films. Berkeley's final film as choreographer was MGM's Billy Rose's Jumbo (1962).
In the late 1960s, the camp craze brought the Berkeley musicals back to the forefront. He toured the college and lecture circuit, and even directed a 1930s-style cold medication commercial for Contac capsules entitled the "Cold Diggers of 1969", 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 starring his old Warner Brothers colleague and 42nd Street star Ruby Keeler; both also played cameos in the 1970 film The Phynx the same year.
Berkeley was inducted into the National Museum of Dance's Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame in 1988.
Berkeley was married six times, his wives included actresses Merna Kennedy, Esther Muir and starlet Claire James, and was survived by his sixth wife Etta Dunn. He was also involved in an alienation of affections lawsuit in 1938 involving Carole Landis, and was engaged to Lorraine Stein.
Berkeley drank heavily, often drinking martinis in his daily bath. After his mother died and his career began to slow, he attempted suicide by slitting his wrists and taking an overdose of sleeping pills. He was taken to the hospital and kept there for many days, an experience which severely affected his mental state.
In September 1935, Berkeley was the driver responsible for an automobile accident in which two people were killed and five seriously injured; Berkeley himself was badly cut and bruised. Berkeley, brought to court on a stretcher, heard testimony that Time magazine said made him wince:
After the first two trials for second degree murder ended with hung juries, he was acquitted in a third trial.