Where to begin with Busby Berkeley

A beginner‘s path through the kaleidoscopic choreography of Busby Berkeley.

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

Why this might not seem so easy

At first glance, legendary director and choreographer Busby Berkeley’s filmography might seem daunting: in his golden years between 1933-35, for example, his name was attached to no fewer than 14 pictures. But the effort is well worth it. One of the most original and groundbreaking visual stylists of his era, Berkeley could pack more inspired ideas and indelible images into a seven-minute dance routine than most directors managed in a full-length feature.

The quintessential Berkeley frame depicts a circle of dancing girls – scantily dressed, perfectly synchronised, beaming from ear to ear – making kaleidoscopic patterns for a downward-facing, God’s-eye camera. It’s such an idiosyncratic and unusual image that it’s almost unsettling: the only other place you’ll find such precise choreography en masse is in footage of the Nuremberg rallies, and it’s no surprise that Joseph Goebbels was a huge Berkeley fan.

Busby Berkeley

But Berkeley’s routines transcend such cold mechanical rigour; his dancers are much more than simply programmed robots. Partly this is down to the director’s habit of regularly cutting back to faces – always smiling, always welcoming. And partly it’s because human concerns are at the heart of every one of his routines, from romantic love and (often slyly voyeuristic) desire to more complex concepts like those explored in his most astonishing dance sequence, ‘Remember My Forgotten Man’, which describes the hardships faced by men returning from the First World War and stumbling into the Great Depression.

While he would go on to direct a number of movies in their entirety, in the mid-30s Berkeley was most regularly hired solely to oversee a film’s musical numbers. But within these limitations, Berkeley swiftly developed his unique and immensely popular style. By synchronising his sequences to a pre-recorded track he was able to transcend the studio-bound lifelessness of many early sound movies, his camera free to soar and swoop through huge, elaborate sets.

He was also able to come right up close to his half-dressed dancers, the camera gliding past their bodies and even between their legs, resulting in an unprecedented intimacy that would prove highly controversial, forcing the studios to shoot alternate, toned-down versions for distribution in the conservative states. It would also be dynamite at the box office.

The best place to start – 42nd Street

Three films released in the same year illustrate the breadth of Berkeley’s vision, and the stylistic diversity in his work. But the best place to begin is probably 42nd Street (1933), which single-handedly modernised the sound musical, all but inventing the puttin’-on-a-show backstage drama with all its attendant clichés: warring chorus girls, frantic directors, innocent ingenues filmed in adoring soft focus.

42nd Street (1933)

But it was Berkeley’s revolutionary dance numbers that brought the picture to life: the sequence he designed for the title song is perhaps the only musical routine in Hollywood history to incorporate gangsters, cops, dwarfs, horses, traffic jams and a genuinely disturbing attempted rape and murder, all presented as just part of the dizzying panoply of life on the “naughty, gaudy, bawdy, sporty” thoroughfare in question.

What to watch next

From the same year, Gold Diggers of 1933 also combines light comedy and unflinching social comment: the film’s plot is paper-thin and the majority of the musical numbers – including the gleefully prurient ‘Pettin’ in the Park’ and the neon-lit ‘Shadow Waltz’ – are intricately mounted fripperies. But in the closing minutes, the laughter dies abruptly as Berkeley delivers one of the all-time-great gut-punch sequences in cinema. With its soup-kitchen queues and lines of marching soldiers caught in the cogs of a relentless, inhuman war machine, ‘Remember My Forgotten Man’ is uncompromising, heartbreaking and borderline anti-American; a fierce defence of the helpless and the homeless. There’s absolutely nothing else like it.

Footlight Parade (1933)

Thirdly, Footlight Parade contains perhaps Berkeley’s most technically elaborate sequence, ‘By a Waterfall’. Swooningly dreamlike and unashamedly (homo-) erotic, the sequence begins in a forest pool as lines of jewel-encrusted bathing beauties descend on waterslides, splashing together in perfect unison and diving through each others’ legs. Berkeley then cuts to a huge, ornate Roman bath, wherein the routines reach a frenzied peak of kaleidoscopic complexity, the dancers weaving and spinning, rising and tumbling in such wild patterns that it’s hard to believe this is all in-camera and not some elaborate animated effect.

Dames (1934)

Other notable successes from the same period include Dames (1934) – whose title routine employs mirrors, experimental animation and some of Berkeley’s wildest costumes – and franchise follow-up Gold Diggers of 1935, which, though not quite as politically bold as its predecessor, does feature Berkeley’s own favourite routine of the period: the vast, 12-minute ‘Lullaby of Broadway’. 

Where not to start

In 1935, Berkeley was the driver in a collision that claimed two lives. The subsequent trials would result in two hung juries and an acquittal, but his flame would never burn quite as brightly again. In the ensuing years his focus shifted away from musicals, seeing him direct everything from romantic comedies (Men Are Such Fools, 1938) to gangster pictures (They Made Me a Criminal, 1939), few of which gave Berkeley the space to indulge his signature visual brilliance.

He continued to oversee the occasional musical sequence, including the jazzy, relatively low-key ‘Shine’ from Vincente Minnelli’s all-black musical Cabin in the Sky (1943). But it was with blisteringly camp wartime romp The Gang’s All Here (also 1943) that Berkeley truly rediscovered his mojo. Beloved of Berkeley devotees, the film is best known for the Carmen Miranda-fronted ‘Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat’, with its rows of gleaming, priapic bananas. But the closing ‘Polka Dot Ballet’ is even weirder – a neon-lit, proto-psychedelic freakout that feels decades ahead of its time.

The Gang’s All Here (1943)

Berkeley’s subsequent career would be patchy, but the best moments – including the ridiculous but massively successful musical biopic Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) – are still worth tracking down. Berkeley died peacefully in 1976, his name a byword for glitz, glamour and gleeful cinematic excess.

The BFI Musicals! The Greatest Show on Screen programme took place from October 2019 until January 2020 and it was the UK’s greatest ever season to celebrate the film musical, at BFI Southbank, on BFI Player and at venues across the country. 

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