By David Rather
I failed as a father again.
I spoke to one of my adult daughters the other day, and I mentioned to her that I was writing a post about Busby Berkeley.
“WHO?” He said.
“Have you never heard of Busby Berkeley?” I asked, incredible.
“No,” he said.
“You mean, like, saltines and their ilk, eh? Gold digger of 1935 (1935) Or 42nd Street (1933)?! “
“I have never heard of any of these movies. And I’ve never heard of Busby Berkeley. “
“Well,” I said. “Another item will be added to David’s list of failures as a father.”
“Absolutely!” He agreed with me a little too easily.
Despite being an important figure in the history of American movie music, most people seem to have no idea about Busby Berkeley. His trademark is the over-the-top, crazy, offensive number that shakes his head (and buttocks) to this day.
Regardless of the era, music production numbers always have a certain amount of unreality. Take, for example, the opening number of La La Land (2016). I’ve been in hundreds of freeway traffic jams in Los Angeles for years. Not once do people get out of their cars and start singing. Of course, maybe sometimes boxing or shooting often, but singing and dancing? Sadly, no.
Part of the joy of a movie musical is our desire to accept that people will break down into songs and dances when it never happens in real life. Busby Berkeley movie musicals are on a whole other gloriously irrational level.
Berkeley was an unusual choreographer who was not particularly interested in how well his dancers could actually dance. Her main interests were the overall look of the group of dancers, the geometry of their group performance and the kaleidoscope of their movement together. She rarely shows up to an individual dancer or couple. Berkeley’s choreography is almost always about the group — everyone looks the same, and we rarely see their faces. The stage he shot at was huge and often had the scene of an impersonal, strange city that you would find in Weimar-era German expressionism.
“Stay, Mister. “What’s with the Snowy reference to Weimar-era German expressionism? I mean, seriously? We just want to rent a fun and entertaining movie. You don’t have to throw away all these academic things.”
My apologies to you for stopping me before I get to the Lenny Riefenstahl monumentalism themes in her film, I think, we can all be grateful.
Where are we? I can tell you where we are not going: the elements of proto-fascist design are its many production numbers. No, we are No. Going there.
Let’s go back a little bit. The first thing to notice about Busby Berkeley movies is that they have all the nutritional value of aggressively over-the-top and angel food cakes. But they are a lot of fun! His productions are absolutely meaningless and absolutely irresistible.
What is it, you say? Did you want anything more? No, my friend, this is a Busby Berkeley production. It’s just going to be silly, a lot of fun, and glorious to look at.
There is no question that Berkeley created a completely solo style of movie musical. The curious thing is why he is so forgotten nowadays. Almost everyone knows Fred Astier, Jean Kelly, Ginger Rogers, even Jerome Robbins, the choreographer. Oklahoma!
But mention Busby Berkeley, and you’ll get to look mainly blank.
Perhaps this is partly because of its lack of warmth and humanity in its numbers; Berkeley was not interested in his dancers because it was nothing more than the huge geometric puzzle he was assembling. There were no star dancers in her numbers – the sizes they were. Even in somewhat conventional musical numbers of the 1950s, like Carmen Miranda The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat, Miranda only appears in about half of the numbers. The rest of it is given to a chorus line of dancers working with six-foot-long styrofoam bananas. Is it entertaining? Absolutely. But what is it? Hard to say, really. I showed this number to my wife, and she was smiling all over the place. When it was over, he had a question: “What is he doing?”
No one knows, my darling. No one knows.
Busby was born in Berkeley on November 29, 1895, to a theatrical family in Los Angeles. Her mother was an actress and her father ran a theater company. By the time he was 22, he was in the U.S. Army, serving in Europe during World War I. Berkeley held the position of Field Artillery Lieutenant, and the soldiers were closely assigned to the training of marching. It was at this time that he began experimenting with ornate marching drills. Her first dancer was a soldier. These are simply elements of a complex marching pattern that he designed for over 1,200 men, nothing more.
After the war ended, he returned to Los Angeles and its burgeoning film industry and got a job as a choreographer. His choreography was always spectacular and unique, often with nothing to do with the film or the story. With the advent of the Great Depression, Berkeley’s light-hearted and outrageous production numbers became a favorite with viewers who were largely overwhelmed by the sadness of the day. In fact, he went out of his way to deny any deep meaning or underlying meaning of his work.
Film critic David Kehr, writes New York Times In 2005, Berkeley’s movie had to say:
“At Berkeley, one of the strangest and most original talents to work in Hollywood, each movie is about the creation of a universe – on its own. Using fully mechanical means, he created a free-floating dream world, where space can expand and contract May be (such as the shrinking nightclub stage that opens up to the size of a football field); human figures arrange themselves in intricate geometric patterns, and find more bizarre and vertical angles in a constantly moving camera action. “
Although, Busby Berkeley, as all, was a pretty scary person. He was married six times, and in 1935, probably one evening after drinking martinis in his bathtub, he should have been convicted of some form of murder for driving his car into another car on the Pacific Coast Highway. He killed two people in the other car and seriously injured three others.
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, interest in his widely forgotten work was suddenly revived by a new generation of fans who found his campaign interesting. He was hired to create a Busby Berkeley-style ad for Cold Medicine Contact. Advertising, called Cold Diggers of 1969, There was a mass of dancing women in ornate patterns Button up your overcoat A huge Art Deco style with the Contac logo under the neon sign. It’s a lot of fun (and probably looks even better if you drop the acid before you see it, because a lot of people were prone to doing things then).