Before he was a Broadway and Hollywood musical choreographer, Busby Berkeley served as a field artillery lieutenant in World War I. Radical career change? Not really. While stationed in Europe, Berkeley created and directed large-scale drill parades – but with a bunch of dudes. Once he got back to the US, however, he was eventually asked to help direct the 1925 musical Holka-Polka and suddenly, dozens of leggy blondes in sparkling showgirl costumes were made available to him. And you can bet he took advantage of the change from troop to troupe.
Still, Berkeley’s military beginnings are clearly visible in the dances he created. For one, there’s some pretty sexually charged excitement about working with leagues of scantily clad, dancing women, and let's remember, this is being done by a man who had limited contact with the ladies for awhile. And I mean, excitement. Or maybe that’s just Busby. Always up for a bit of not-so-subtle phallic symbolism, Berkeley’s routines often included props such as balls, propellers, and yes, five-foot long bananas. In Wonder Bar’s “Don’t Say Goodnight,” there is a scene with women dancing around giant, moving pillars that pull out to reveal rows of men behind them. “By a Waterfall” from Footlight Parade has an overhead shot of wet women in a pool, forming the shape of twisting snakes. And “Dance Until the Dawn” from Flying High has an overhead sequence where a row of men slide back and forth between pairs of rings made by spinning dames. Keep in mind, these are the days of the Hays Production Code, the moral censorship guidelines that controlled the majority of Hollywood’s content decisions between 1930 and 1968. The censors did pause with the massive banana dance in “The Lady with the Tutti-Frutti Hat,” believing it to be too “phallic,” but the issue was apparently solved by having the dancers hold out the bananas out from their waists instead of at hip level. Trust me though- the symbolism is not lost with the few inches of placement change. Not to mention there’s an abundance of shameless crotch shots and many formations made by many more spread legs. But wait! Don’t go run off to watch the Collection just yet. There’s more to be seen in the beautiful dances of Busby Berkeley.
The other evident carry-over from Berkeley’s military background is the emphasis on group precision and tightly organized pattern formations. Famed for his elaborate routines and overhead shots of ornate human kaleidoscopes, Berkeley had the ability to transform a group of chorus girls into a moving mosaic of heels and great legs. Going from working in parades with as many as 1,200 enlisted men in the First World War, Berkeley maintained a vision that went beyond attractive arm and leg movements – every individual had their place within the group and a carefully planned place within the stage.
Between 1930 and the end of the Second World War, Berkeley had choreographed (and often directed the scenes) of musical numbers in nearly 30 film titles. His success during this era comes as no surprise. The surreal and stunning kaleidoscope visions in all their meticulously executed intricacies provided glamorous indulgence to a nation down on its luck, and ordered beauty to a world spinning into chaos. Order did not have to regimented and restricting, it was spontaneous and beautiful. The Berkeley world was predictable only in that you knew whatever shifting formations were being made would be more brilliant, and just as symmetrical. Berkeley’s stage offered a space for dreaming at a time that dreams were fading, and he filled those dreams with beautiful women and the safety of a gorgeous order. There was a kind of faith in the overhead shots that revealed the beauty of Berkeley’s controlled world. His direction took on a completely different perspective, showing that despite eye-level disorder, everything looks wonderful from above.
His routines were precise to the point of almost mathematical exactness. Many of his formations took on patterns seen in the natural world and in mathematical biology. Berkeley often favored aerial shots of dancers in floral patterns, the same kind of patterns studied for their adherence to Fibonacci numbers (the sequence of integers beginning with 0 and 1 where each progressive number is the sum of the last two). For example, in “Spin a Little Web of Dreams” from Fashions of 1934, the blond bombshells shot from above stand in rings and cover themselves up with feather fans which then unfold from the center to create the illusion of a blooming flower. In many other dance routines, Berkeley shaped his dancers into individual petals on a collective, whirling blossom. In fact, there is an entire line of study, Fibonacci phyllotaxis, devoted to studying the appearance of Fibonacci sequences in the structural formations of certain plants. But Fibonacci numbers aren’t just seen in flowers, shapes like Pascal’s triangle and certain spirals also follow the sequence, shapes that Berkeley also frequently uses in his arrangements.
What’s interesting about the prevalence of shapes associated with Fibonacci numbers in Berkeley’s work is the relationship those numbers have to the Golden Ratio. Since the Renaissance period, the Golden Ratio has been used in art and architecture because the proportion is believed to be especially aesthetically pleasing. And if you divide a Fibonacci number by its immediate predecessor, the result is an approximation of the Golden Ratio that gets continually closer to the real deal as the Fibonacci numbers progress. Like the Fibonacci flowers, the Golden Ratio is widespread in biological structures. from leaves on a stem to the human body. German psychologist Adolf Zeising found the Golden Ratio present in plant stems and veins and went on to examine its presence in animals and minerals. In 1854, Zeising said, “The Golden Ratio is a universal law in which is contained the ground-principle of all formative striving for beauty and completeness in the realms of both nature and art, and which permeates, as a paramount spiritual ideal, all structures, forms and proportions, whether cosmic or individual, organic or inorganic, acoustic or optical; which finds its fullest realization, however, in the human form.”
And here is where art meets order, beauty can be counted and arranged, and where Busby Berkeley meets the viewers of the 1930s and 40s – in a place where such things were necessary. If there was anything Busby Berkeley valued, it was the lusciousness of the human form. Through him, beauty in biology was no longer mysterious or accidental. It was about vision, casting a lot of great legs, and… mathematics. Berkeley showed us that an ordered world could be dazzling, that we could escape in swirling banana dreams, and not to worry, because everything was golden.
Busby Berkeley on IMDB
Busby Berkeley on TCM
Kristen Bialik is a writer, teacher and graduate student of Journalism and Mass Communication. In her spare time, she's a baker of pies and maker of stories.