Busby Berkeley (November 29, 1895 – March 14, 1976) was a highly influential Hollywood movie director and musical choreographer. Berkeley was famous for his 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 to stage actress Gertrude Berkeley. Among Gertrude's friends were actress Amy Busby and actor William Gillette, then only four years away from playing Sherlock Holmes. Gertrude apparently named her son after both Busby and Gillette after they agreed to be the boy's godparents. The boy was named Busby Berkeley William Enos.
In addition to her stage work, Gertrude played mother roles in silent films while Berkley was still a child. Berkeley made his stage debut at five, acting in the company of his performing family. 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 terpsichorean 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.
The “By A Waterfall” production number from Footlight Parade (1933) made use of one of the largest soundstages ever built, constructed especially by Warner Bros. to film Berkeley's creations.
His earliest movie jobs were on 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 programmer 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. 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. The numbers he choreographed were mostly upbeat and focused on decoration as opposed to substance; one exception to this is the number “Remember My Forgotten Man” from Gold Diggers of 1933, which dealt with the treatment of soldiers in a post-World War I Depression.
Berkeley's popularity with an entertainment-hungry Great Depression audience was secured when he choreographed four musicals back-to-back for Warner Bros.: 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, the aforementioned Gold Diggers of 1933 and Fashions of 1934, as well as In Caliente and Wonder Bar with Dolores del Río. Berkeley's innovative and often sexually-charged dance numbers have been analyzed at length by cinema scholars.[specify] In particular, the numbers have been critiqued for their display (and some say exploitation) of the female form as seen through the “male gaze”, and for their depiction of collectivism (as opposed to traditionally American rugged individualism) in the spirit of Roosevelt's New Deal. 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. 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).