Saturday, November 29, 2014

A Life as a Production Number—Busby Berkley

Busby Berkley at Work.

Busby Berkeley William Enos was born into a theatrical family on November 29, 1895 in Los Angeles.  His mother, Gertrude Berkeley, was an actress in the Tim Frawley Repertory Company and his father the director.  He was named for two other troupe members, ingénue Anne Busby and leading man William Gillette, soon to go on to fame playing Sherlock Holmes in the long running play that he wrote himself.  The two were godparents to the child.
Young Busby made his own theatrical début with his parents at the age of 5.  But like many theatrical children, he was eventually sent to boarding school.   He entered the Mohegan Lake Military Academy near Peekskill, New York at the age of 12 and graduated in 1914.  After three years of working for a Massachusetts shoe company, performing in local amateur theatricals, leading a dance band, and playing semi-professional baseball, he enlisted in the Army for World War I.
Berkley was commissioned a second lieutenant of Field Artillery.  He showed himself to be particularly adept at leading the troops through the intricacies of field drill.  He later credited that experience for inspiring his work as a stage choreographer moving his dancers in complex patterns across the stage.  After Armistice he was also charged with camp moral and produced entertainments and shows for the troops.
After the War, he went to New York to enter the family business.  Now using his mother’s maiden name, he drifted almost accidently from acting in small parts to staging dance numbers for shows.  Not a dancer himself—a fact that he kept secret from his performers—he developed a style less dependent on fancy footwork than on mass movement on the stage in geometric patterns framed by elaborate sets and flashy costumes. 
He quickly caught the eye of master producer Florenz Zeigfeld who put him in charge of production numbers for his hit A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.  Zeigfeld’s biggest star, Eddie Cantor, was so impressed with his work on Whoopee! that he asked him to accompany him to Hollywood to create the dance numbers for the film version of the show produced by Samuel Goldwyn.  At first he was limited to creating the choreography, but the film director still had control of camera shots and lighting and the editor of assembling the footage.  Berkley convinced Goldwyn to give him total control over all aspects of the production numbers.
That first film introduced many of Berkley’s signature devices including the parade of faces, close-ups of the faces of the lovely Goldwyn Girl dancers.  He continued to work on Cantor’s enormously popular musical comedies.  He took the overhead shot featuring dancers making kaleidoscopic patterns first used in MGM’s Dancing Lady, and made it bigger and more elaborate.  It became the signature of his epic production numbers.
After a string of hits for Goldwin, Warner Bros. snatch Berkley up in 1933 for their extravaganza 42nd Street staring Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler.  Two of Berkley’s production numbers, Shuffle off to Buffalo and the closing title number, were dazzling and secured his reputation as the top in his field.

The stunning Forgotten Man sequence in Gold Diggers of 1933 took an unflinching look at the reality of the Great Depression and was inspired by the Bonus March of veterans on Washington.  The perfect bookend to the extravagant opening number with chorus girls as dancing coins.

His next film, Gold Diggers of 1933, re-uniting many of the cast members of 42nd Street, was even bigger and established its own franchise.  Tailored to Depression audiences, the film opens with the fabulously glitzy We’re in the Money sung by Ginger Rodgers and an epic, much more serious piece about World War I vets, obviously inspired by the Bonus March, The Forgotten Man.
Through most of the ‘30’s Berkley had his hand in a string of Warner Bros. hits including, Footlight Parade, Fashions of 1934, Dames, Gold Diggers of 1935, and Gold Diggers of 1937In between he enlivened many Warner’s musical programmers and occasionally got a chance at directing a whole film, beginning with the 1933 drama She Had to Say Yes.
When the big production numbers that had been a welcome escape for Depression audiences began to go out of fashion, Berkley was even given the opportunity to direct one of the gritty crime dramas for which the studio was famous—They Made Me a Criminal staring John Garfield.  He repeatedly, however, clashed with the rising star on the set and soon found himself without a studio home.
But not for long MGM snatched him up to helm a popular musical with Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney.  This come-on-gang-let’s-put-on-a-show musical was on a significantly reduced scale than the extravaganzas Berkley had produced at Warner’s.  Babes in Arms was the first of several films starring Garland including Strike up the Band, with Rooney; Ziegfeld Girl; Babes on Broadway, again with Rooney: For Me and My Gal, Gene Kelly’s debut; and the final Rooney-Garland film Girl Crazy.  Once again, however, Berkley’s dictatorial methods on the stage alienated his star.  Garland, by now a studio box office powerhouse, had him replaced half way through Girl Crazy.

 Technicolor opened up new possibilities for Berkley.  He showed he had lost nothing of his visual imagination in the famous Carmen Miranda number The Girl in the Tuti-fruiti Hat from The Gang's All Here.

Rather than pay him off for the unfinished work on Girl Crazy, MGM loaned him to 20th Century Fox for The Gang’s All Here staring Alice Faye and Benny Goodman.  The film was Berkley’s first in full three-strip Technicolor, which he took full advantage of in the most memorable number, Carmen Miranda’s Lady in the Tutti-frutti Hat.
With their biggest star refusing to work with him, pickings were slim at MGM after that.  Berkley did a couple of down scale musicals with B stars like Joan Leslie.   On another minor musical, he was downgraded again to director of musical numbers for Romance on the High Seas with Jack Carson as an uncharacteristic leading man, Janice Paige, and the film debut of Doris Day.
Old pal Gene Kelly got him the director’s chair for Take Me out to the Ball Game in 1948, but Kelly choreographed and produced his own dance numbers.  It was Berkley’s last job as a director.  But it did connect him with rising MGM star Esther Williams.
It was back to strictly doing choreography in musicals for Jane Powel, Betty Gable and Dan Daily, and Tony Martin.  All pleasant but unmemorable.  Then MGM teamed Berkley with Williams for the spectacular water ballet sequences in a string of Esther Williams hits.  He re-created the lavish production numbers, including the over-head shots and gigantic stages of his early Warner musicals in dazzling Technicolor and in the water.  With Williams he also had a star who did not mind his demands and perfectionism.  Williams credits the water skiing number from Million Dollar Mermaid, mostly done in one continuous shot, as her favorite.
When Williams decided to retire to become a businesswoman and wife, Berkley’s usefulness to the studio was nearly over.  They let him stage dance numbers for a weak re-make of Rosemarie with Howard Keel and Ann Blythe.  Then they cut him loose.
He drifted, directing some episodic television, but was mostly idle.  In 1962 MGM did bring him back, partly at the insistence of star Doris Day, to stage musical numbers for the lavish production of Billy Rose’s Jumbo.  Despite much hype, the film was a critical and financial failure.  It was Berkley’s last movie.
The release of the nostalgic MGM compilation That’s Entertainment revived interest in old musicals in general and Berkley in particular.  So did the rise in availability of classic films on VHS tapes and classic movie TV channels.  Berkley found himself in demand as a speaker and lecturer at college campuses.  He was even commissioned to do a cold remedy commercial in his old style.
At the age of 75 Berkley came out of virtual retirement to direct a stage adaptation of the 1920’s musical No, No, Nannette which also featured his old Warner Bros. star Ruby Keeler.
Berkley’s personal life was deeply troubled.  He drank, had a notorious temper, and philandered openly, often with his personal pool of chorines.  He was married six times.  A nasty alienation of affections law suit involving comedienne Carol Landis made headlines in 1938.  Even worse, so did three jury trials for killing three people in an automobile accident after an evening of partying and drinking.  Despite hitting a car head-on in the wrong lane, there were two hung juries before a final panel produced a not-guilty finding in 1935. 
Berkley died of natural causes at the age of 80 in Palm Springs in 1976.  He was survived by his last wife, Etta Dunn.


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