Busby Berkeley


Cheryl Cornetet

Berkeley’s creations were not meant to focus on dance. He envisioned an overall moving pattern, which he created by using moving bodies. He made the art of choreography a technique of design and visual mathematics, and combined this with his knowledge of film to bring his vision to life on the big screen. The skill of this multi-talented man brought Hollywood musicals to their full potential, creating a high demand for dance in films.

William Berkeley Enos was born November 29, 1895, in Los Angeles. He began his career as a choreographer in 1918 as a lieutenant in the army. Conducting and directing parades. He gained the ability to work with large masses of moving bodies to create a moving picture. He also worked as a choreographer to stage camp shows for the troops.

It was not until his collaboration with producer Florence Ziegfeld that Berkeley began choreographing for films. When Ziegfeld decided to turn his production of Whoopee into a film, he asked Berkeley, who had become one of the top Broadway dance directors, to choreograph the dance routines.

Berkeley, unhappy with the restrictions of his job, raised the bar for film choreographers by taking on decisions about camera angles and editing. Before Berkeley, these decisions had all been made by the director or the producer. One of Berkeley’s signature choices was to use only one camera. He also chose to use close-ups of the dancers in the chorus. He would say: “Well, we’ve got all these beautiful girls in the picture, why not let the public see them?” This approach showed that Berkeley understood that innovative filmmakers possess the ability to use the camera to show audiences what their normal sight does not allow. Bringing the audience close to the faces of the chorus dancers explored their movement in a personal manor. His camera was said to have done the dancing. It was not the individual dancers, but his quick editing cuts, multiple angles and shots, and special effects that created the brilliant movement.

Possibly Berkeley’s most memorable filming technique is his use of overhead angles. He even would drill holes in the ceilings of the studios so that he could make these shots possible. That is how he created his kaleidoscopic patterns that he was well known for.

One of Berkeley’s greatest displays of choreography is the production of 42nd Street. With the popularity of musical films decreasing around 1932, Warner Brothers decided they needed a real spectacle to save the genre. They brought in Busby Berkeley to create it. It was a smash hit, and so Berkeley was given an impressive seven year contract. Between 1933 to 1937, Berkeley created the dance sequences for almost every successful musical Warner Bros. released.

Some of his most well known productions were Footlight Parade(1933), Dames(1934), his extravagant use of 150 dancers in “Lullaby of Broadway” in the film Gold Diggers of 1935, Babes in Arms(1939), and his last film Take Me Out to the Ballgame(1949).

The life of this genius came to a sad ending. Throughout his life, Berkeley drank a lot. He also loved his mother more dearly than anyone else in the world. The combination of these loves almost drove him to insanity. After an accident caused by his drunk driving that resulted in the death of two people, Berkeley was brought to trial. Although he was acquitted, he never got over the incident. That combined with the death of his beloved mother, caused him to attempt suicide. He lived the remaining years of his life fighting for his sanity. He died March 14, 1976.

Although his death was tragic, Busby Berkeley will be remembered for his visionary talent. He has also been considered the creator of the formulaic marketing approaches you see today in music videos. As Larry Billman points out,“Berkeley’s ever-unfolding kaleidoscopic patterns and complete montage/ scenarios certainly had commercial advantage” (15). Berkeley embraced the possibility that the relationship between a camera and a moving body could bring a song to life. After his extravagant musical numbers, there was no doubt that the entire audience would leave the theater knowing the songs by heart.

And so Berkeley was way ahead of his time. He could see within film a very important image, not the individual dancers themselves, but the dancing image. And with that he created sequences that remain some of the most beautiful spectacles on the screen.