Busby Berkeley Became Hollywood’s Killer Choreographer 90 Years Ago

Movies Features Musicals
Busby Berkeley Became Hollywood’s Killer Choreographer 90 Years Ago

Busby Berkeley’s name was synonymous with choreography, and yet he had no formal dance training. He learned his trade in the army during World War I by teaching battalions of soldiers their maneuvers, before going on to spend much of the 1920s choreographing stage productions (his mom was a theater actor, and able to introduce him to useful contacts). In 1930, he first ventured onto the silver screen with his work on 1930’s now-forgotten Eddie Cantor vehicle Whoopee! 

It was three films that he choreographed in 1933–42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade–that would cement his name in Hollywood history. He wasn’t actually credited as director on any of the three, however. While they are considered “Busby Berkeley musicals,” each treated the production numbers and the narrative as two separate entities, with different directors captaining the dialogue scenes–Lloyd Bacon helmed 42nd Street and Footlight Parade, and Mervyn Leroy directed Gold Diggers.

There are differences in the narrative between the three, but just barely; in broad strokes, each is telling the same story. It’s the Great Depression, and plucky chorus girls are struggling to get by–of course, the only thing to do is put on the best gosh darned show Broadway has ever seen! In the process, plucky tap-dancing ingénue Ruby Keeler will be rocketed to top billing, and fall in love with Dick Powell along the way; Guy Kibbee will be a creepy (but rich and easily manipulable…) old letch; and the director will endure stroke-inducing levels of stress until the show inevitably proves a dazzling success. 

Despite the relative homogeneity of these stories, there are enjoyable elements within the rigid format, usually to be found amongst the glittering casts. In Gold Diggers, it’s the rapport between the glorious scheming showgirl trio of Keeler, Joan Blondell and Aline McMahon that gives the narrative its sparkle. In the worst of the Berkeley oeuvre, sitting through the cookie-cutter plots feels like the price you pay for the divine lunacy of the production numbers, but in Gold Diggers, the screwball-esque hijinks of Blondell, McMahon and Keeler are so enjoyable, the numbers feel like an added bonus.

And in Footlight Parade, the director role goes to James Cagney, who takes it and transforms it into something truly special. At this point in his career, Cagney had yet to turn his fast-talking charm to the world of musicals, but his abundant energy made him an immediate and luminous fit (he’d go on to win his only Oscar for 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy, a biopic of Broadway titan George M. Cohan). That he gets to act many of his scenes opposite his frequent screen partner Blondell makes it all the better; one of the most underrated duos of pre-code Hollywood, their warm, fizzy chemistry is a continual pleasure.

Still, what you really watch these films for are Berkeley’s song-and dance spectaculars. Seeing them today, with their scope, creativity and sometimes unsettling peculiarity, it’s easy to understand why the three movies came to be known as “Busby Berkeley musicals,” even though he only actually directed around 20 minutes of each. 

As these movies are 90 years old, it’s hard to fully appreciate how risqué they were, but the fact that they were made in the last full year before the production code clamped down on Hollywood is no coincidence. Besides the reams of innuendo in the narrative portions, the numbers were full of scantily clad showgirls in suggestive situations–there’s no better example of this than the ending of “Pettin’ in the Park” from Gold Diggers, which is just… something else!

The central tension of viewing these numbers in 2023 is that, in using their bodies to create incredible, vast scale choreographic displays, Berkeley was objectifying women in an almost literal sense. As such, the awe that they induce can be accompanied by a tinge of discomfort. If anything, it’s the sense of fevered unreality that permeates most of these performances that prevents that tinge from becoming anything more; when so little of what we’re seeing seems to be taking place in a dimension us mere mortals inhabit, somehow that discomfort usually finds itself floating off into the ether fairly quickly (although your mileage may vary, of course). 

At the other end of the spectrum to these racy routines, you have “Remember My Forgotten Man,” a moving tribute to the soldiers of WWI left in dire straits by the Great Depression. It’s as genuinely stirring as “Pettin’ in the Park” is strange, and that both are even in the same movie is as clear a demonstration as any as to how much tonal whiplash the Berkeley oeuvre can inspire. And if that wasn’t enough, just three minutes into Gold Diggers we’re presented with the singularly disturbing spectacle of Ginger Rogers singing a verse from “We’re in the Money” in Pig Latin as the camera zooms far too close to her face. You’ve been warned–it’s deeply unnerving. 

Perhaps the most beautiful performance from all three movies, though, is “By a Waterfall” from Footlight Parade, which sees the famous kaleidoscopic formations of the ensemble adopt another remarkable aquatic dimension. 

Back on dry land, the title number from 42nd Street takes Berkeley’s typical opening up of the stage space to a whole other level, telling a story within a story that ends with a murder; two years later, he’d expand upon this theme in Gold Diggers of 1935’s staggering 15-minute long centerpiece, “Lullaby of Broadway.” The darkness in both would foreshadow forthcoming events in Berkeley’s own life.

Indeed, after his bountiful bonanza of 1933, Berkeley’s professional and personal worlds continued to spin off into all sorts of directions. 1934 saw the release of Dames, another musical in the exact same vein as his 1933 trio. In 1935, he received sole directorial credit on three different movies–but he was also the culpable party in a drunk-driving accident that killed three people. Following three trials, he was acquitted of second degree murder charges (his lawyer used some fittingly show-stopping gimmicks), and would go on to have steady employment in Hollywood for a decade or so, often collaborating with the exceedingly in-demand Judy Garland. Then, financial problems following his mother’s death in 1946 led him to a suicide attempt and subsequent brief institutionalization. For the rest of his days, work was sporadic; by the end of the 1960s, he was directing self-parodic cough medicine commercials.

While his career in Hollywood had barely begun at the time, it’s now clear that 1933 was truly the year that showed the world what the dizzying marriage of the ridiculous and the sublime that characterized Busby Berkeley musicals could achieve. Ninety years later, their scale, strangeness and sheer confounding spectacle remain a sight to behold. 

Chloe Walker is a writer based in the UK. You can read her work at Culturefly, the BFI, Podcast Review, and Paste.

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