Busby Berkeley’s Clockwork Chorines

Busby Berkeley and his showgirls.
Busby Berkeley and his showgirls.

When producer Sam Goldwyn brought 35-year-old William Berkeley Enos to Hollywood in 1930, he may have unwittingly unleashed a musical mustang into a film industry recently corralled by the introduction of sound. The silent era’s freewheeling cameras of Austrian and German Expressionist filmmakers (directors like Lang, Lubitsch, Murnau, Dieterle and Siodmak, and cinematographers like Karl Freund and Eugen Schufftan) were now locked inside soundproof hotboxes that made even the simplest camera move a challenge. Innovative cinematographers and directors, however, soon challenged the restraints.

A typical camera setup in the 1930s.
A typical camera setup in the early sound years.

Busby Berkeley was already a noted dance director in New York theater. Born in Los Angeles in 1895, he had survived a picaresque and peripatetic childhood. Both his parents were theater actors — “Buzz” made his stage debut at age 5, hiding under his stepbrother’s voluminous costume when he took a curtain call.

Before coming to Hollywood, Berkeley’s most notable Broadway credit was the 1927 production of Rodgers and Hart’s A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Although he took inspiration from the elaborately staged musical revues of Flo Ziegfeld’s numerous “Follies,” staged between 1907 and 1931, Berkeley also cited his military experience in World War I as formative to the ideas he introduced in a string of Hollywood musicals for Goldwyn, Warner Bros. and MGM in the 1930s and 1940s.

Goldwyn hired Berkeley to choreograph and direct the dance numbers in the 1930 Eddie Cantor musical Whoopee, a Ziegfeld Broadway musical turned movie.

Eleanor Hunt and Eddie Cantor
Eleanor Hunt and Eddie Cantor in promotional art for Whoopee.

Ziegfeld co-produced with Goldwyn. Though the movie is directed by the nearly forgotten Thornton Freeland, the cinematography is credited to three icons of the camera, all to become Oscar winners later that decade: Lee Garmes (Shanghai Express), Ray Rennahan (Gone with the Wind) and Gregg Toland (Wuthering Heights). Rennahan, known for his work in developing 3-strip Technicolor, was an expert in the 2-strip Technicolor process of the 1920s, starting with the color sequences in DeMille’s The Ten Commandments (1923). It was this considerable experience with color that Rennahan brought to Whoopee.


For anyone accustomed to seeing Berkeley’s elaborate Warner Bros. musical numbers of the 1930s in shimmering tones of the purest black and white, the muted color in Whoopee is a shock. Even though it was Berkeley’s first movie, several shots (including one from directly overhead) promise what would come in the next few years. An uncredited 13-year-old Betty Grable gets the song off to an enthusiastic start with her lasso. Berkeley’s biographer, Jeffrey Spivak, claims that when the artist first appeared on the Goldwyn stage for Whoopee, he was met by four cameras for multiple-angle coverage. Barely able to know what to do with one (although he had three great cameramen at his elbow), he dismissed all but a single camera for his dance numbers, claiming he only worked with one camera. This became a self-fulfilling prophecy, as Berkeley’s choreography was always so shot-specific that he required a single camera from then on.

Berkeley’s signature overhead geometric shot first appears at 2:20, and again at 3:45. Almost as startling is the shot at 4:10 of the female dancers moving left to right across frame as the camera shoots between their legs, an angle that was to become an ever-more-elaborate erotic trope in his subsequent films.

42nd St.
42nd Street

Gold Diggers of Broadway, another 2-strip Technicolor movie that was released just one year earlier, illustrates the proscenium-bound perspective of the film musical before Berkeley. All that survives of this energetic and acrobatic effort, directed by Roy del Ruth, is the final song and dance. The last minute of picture is lost to us, even while the music continues.

Berkeley was not the first filmmaker to use an overhead camera for dance numbers — see the Marx brothers’ Cocoanuts, co-directed by Robert Florey, from the year before — but he was the one who turned it into an art form. One needn’t look too deeply into Berkeley’s biography to find the origins of these elaborate patterns: his education and military service. When he was a boy, his mother, Gertrude (with whom he had an unusually close relationship), sent him to the Monhegan Military Academy. Then, on April 5, 1917, Berkeley enlisted in the military, and within a day the United States had declared war on Germany. He trained in Fort Ogelthorpe, Georgia, before being sent to France, where he trained at the Saumur Artillery School under Pierre Dreyfus, son of Capt. Alfred Dreyfuss (of the infamous anti-semitic scandal that rocked France and led to the "J'Accuse" condemnation by Emile Zola).

At Saumur, 2nd Lt. Berkeley was placed in command of the 312th Field Artillery, Battery F, specializing in use of deadly howitzers. The young man hated the assigned work and persuaded his C.O. to let him drill the 1,200 men in increasingly elaborate marching patterns that he worked out mathematically on paper — a masculine template for his future fantasies of femininity. Berkeley petitioned for combat but was assigned to aerial surveillance. He was able to track the pattern of lines cut and blown into the earth during the years of trench warfare, but he never saw actual combat. (These details are documented in engrossing detail by Spivak in Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley.)

Early on in his Hollywood years, Berkeley was a for-hire dance director for several studios, including RKO and Universal. Then he returned to Goldwyn and Cantor for the third time, for the pre-Code The Kid from Spain (1932). The musical number that opens the film is set in a women’s dormitory. The scene follows the young women as they dress and undress, swim and then dry off behind a screen. They are almost caught in the buff by Berkeley’s voyeuristic camera dolly, a rich foretaste of the risqué ideas and angles that soon became signatures of his Warner Bros. and MGM films.

Critics and historians have presented many theories about the influences on Berkeley’s musical style. Even European avant-garde cinema of the 1920s, heavily influenced by the Surrealist, Dadaist and Russian Constructivist art movements, has been cited as a basis for decoding the geometric and montage intricacies of his art. The high-blown sets and props of several of his musical numbers, such as the Ruby Keeler card icons of “I Only Have Eyes for You” from Dames, do evoke a kind of Dada kitsch. Unfortunately, the version available online has been edited to include intervening stills and posters, but you can still see hints of its deliriously absurd choreography.

One of the more off-the-wall but fascinating suggestions about Berkeley’s influences appears in Nicole Armour's essay "Machine Art," which aligns his clockwork choreography with the uniform impersonality of the costumes and machine-like movements of his “showgirls.” Armour’s equation of Berkeley’s style with that of Russian filmmaker Dziga Vertov (director of Man with a Movie Camera) is worth attention. (Vertov’s film was also the subject of one of my 2014 posts, "The Spinning Top and the Parvo: Man with a Movie Camera.")

It might seem farfetched, but Armour’s idea closely conforms to cutting-edge visual theories that were afloat in Hollywood in Berkeley’s time. She writes:

These images, of women uniformly kicking their legs and bowing their heads, move clockwise and counter clockwise against one another like the ratchets and sprockets of a finely tuned machine. This pattern is repeated in an overhead shot of the identical dancers forming two circles that move in the opposite direction from one another. "Side by side they’re glorified" in one of the most erotic depictions of the gears that make a clock tick.

Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein had been courted a few years earlier by American producers, and his montage theories, along with those of Serbian filmmaker Slavko Vorkapich, were being studied and adopted by Hollywood studios. In 1927, Vorkapich co-directed a silent short with Robert Florey and Gregg Toland that embodied visual ideas that were later exploited in Berkeley’s musical numbers. (I've written about this project previously.)

Perhaps the most abstract of all Berkeley numbers is the justly cited “The Shadow Waltz” from Gold Diggers of 1933, which features neon-lit violins in an otherwise dark frame, as well as kaleidoscopic mirrors and a strongly tilted camera.

Some may regard these sequences as the era’s ultimate escapist fantasies, but they also suggest contemporary awareness of the nation’s socio-political protests. Particularly noteworthy is “Remember My Forgotten Man,” also from Gold Diggers of 1933.

The dark expressionist tones in this sequence also reflect the social consciousness of Berkeley’s friend and supporter Mervyn LeRoy, who had recently directed the hard-hitting drama I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang. There was also the political backdrop of the veterans’ Bonus March on Washington. “We’re in the Money,” the number that opens the film, offers a chorus of barely clad, coin-bedecked chorines led by Ginger Rogers.

"We're in the Money"
"We're in the Money"

The irony is barely disguised in the early Depression metaphor of the dancers’ debt-ridden show being closed down by the police. It wasn’t a large leap from escapism to empathy for many in the audience at that time.

Berkeley’s career in the movies was a roller coaster, every bit as baroque as the choreography of his movies. He moved from one studio to another during the ’30s and ’40s. He was in and out of favor with some of the era’s biggest stars, including Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and Gene Kelly, who all had him replaced on their movies. He was married six times, and lived on and off with his beloved mother until her death. His lovingly moving close-ups of women’s faces suggest that he idolized womanhood, though there were rumors of homosexuality. A military discipline defined his work, yet his unpredictable lifestyle and reputed alcoholism haunted him, reaching a nadir even at the very summit of his creativity.

One night in 1935, while driving down the Roosevelt Highway (now known as the Pacific Coast Highway), he lost control of his car and struck two vehicles. Berkeley was seriously injured, and three people in a second car were killed. He was tried for second-degree murder but was acquitted at the third trial. At the time, the studios had tremendous influence on the press and could muzzle their stars’ adverse publicity with bribes to the police. And Busby was indeed a star.

Berkeley in 1933. (Credit: The Kobal Collection/Warner Bros.)
Berkeley in 1933. (Credit: The Kobal Collection/Warner Bros.)

After World War II, Berkeley’s concept of dance was seen as passé. A more spontaneous, even comedic style of dance emerged in movies, with Gene Kelly, Jerome Robbins, Stanley Donen, Vincent Minnelli and Michael Kidd leading the way.

Frank Sinatra, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly on location for On the Town.
Frank Sinatra, Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly on location for On the Town.

Berkeley did emerge from time to time in special assignments, on a few TV commercials, and even with a revival of the Broadway musical No, No Nanette. But there would be no more over-the-top images from him like this one from “By a Waterfall” in Footlight Parade.

"By a Waterfall"
"By a Waterfall"

Co-produced by TCM, NHK, the BBC and Hugh Hefner, the documentary Going Through the Roof (an allusion to Berkeley’s efforts to go ever higher with the camera) is rich with anecdotes and details about his work and life, including the life-altering auto accident, his relationship with his mother, and his final years, which were only intermittently fulfilling (apart from the delirious color-mad water sequences with Esther Williams).

Esther Williams in Million Dollar Mermaid.
Esther Williams in Million Dollar Mermaid.

Going Through the Roof is well worth watching. It’s a study of a legendary filmmaker whose rocket-like career trajectory fizzled before orbit, only to be tracked anew by a later generation of critics and fans. The film is on YouTube in four parts:

It includes a tribute by another brilliant filmmaker, Kenneth Anger, author of Hollywood Babylon, a book about other troubled movie celebrities.

The surreal, even Dada-esque choreography that was Berkeley’s trademark is a multi-layered metaphor for the brief, shimmering golden age of the black-and-white American studio musical.

Berkeley on the set of 42nd St..
Berkeley on the set of 42nd Street.


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