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The Surreal and Subversive World of Busby Berkeley

Friday April 21, 2006

The films of Busby Berkeley are rendered in the popular imagination as naïve and silly entertainments from a simpler time, from a bygone era of innocence, frivolity and wholly unsophisticated audiences. This notion is not only false, it gives short shrift to the director and to the moviegoers who flocked to his films. 

In the 1930s films of Busby Berkeley the plot is merely a hook on which to hang the director-choreographer’s surreal musical sequences—interludes of imaginative and often highly subversive sexual fantasies. 

Six of Berkeley’s best-known movies have recently been released in a box set, the Busby Berkeley Collection, and a careful viewing of these early musicals dispels any lingering notions of their innocence. 

Movie musicals began with the advent of reliable sound technology in the late 1920s, which sent the industry into a tailspin as the major studios hastily adopted the new medium. 

Though there are examples of extraordinary filmmaking during this era, they are few and far between. For the most part, the earliest talkies were awkward and clumsy, and hardly any them are remembered today, other than as examples of the pitfalls of the new technology.  

Much of this was due to the physical demands of the equipment. The boom microphone hadn’t been invented, so large mics had to be somehow concealed on the set, and actors had to do their best to direct their voices toward them. And the camera, which was quite noisy, had to be engulfed in blimp-like wrapping to silence it, or placed inside a sound-proof booth, filming the action from behind a plate-glass window. Both techniques essentially immobilized the camera, rendering the early talkies static and stagebound.  

This is the context from which sprang the Hollywood musical. Early musicals were essentially filmed stage productions, with the camera placed dead center in the equivalent of the front row and the actors and dancers paraded back and forth before its gaze. And that was enough—for a while. Audiences were drawn by the spectacle, by the novelty of sound, and of course by the allure of Hollywood chorus girls. 

Then came Busby Berkeley. 

Before making the move to Hollywood, Berkeley had made a name for himself as a choreographer in a string of successful New York stage productions. Once in the movie business he quickly expanded his role, first taking over the direction of his musical numbers and then assuming control of the films themselves.  

Berkeley wasn’t much of a director when there was no music. In fact, he was quite mediocre. It’s unclear whether he simply had no talent for handling actors and dialogue or simply didn’t care enough to bother. But once the music started, there was no one like him. He exploited every device and angle that cinema afforded him. 

Berkeley presented dancers in vast groups, in multitudes swirling about in shifting geometric patterns. More often than not these multitudes featured dozens of identically and scantily clad ingenues in pulsating patterns, with the camera dollying smoothly and suggestively toward and through them. Film critic David Thomson, in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, describes Berkeley as having revealed cinema’s “ready, lascivious disposition toward orgy.” 

Gold Diggers of 1935 was made shortly after the industry began enforcing the Production Code, Hollywood’s attempt to appease the federal government by a method of self-censorship. It laid down strict rules of morality for film content: villains were to be punished; good must always triumph over evil; loose women should learn the error of their ways or at least be made to face dire consequences, etc. A director could manage to smuggle in some immoral behavior here and there, as long as it was questioned or punished by the film’s end. 

There were plenty of directors who flouted these rules, slipping subtle innuendo into their films. But no one subverted the code more ostentatiously than Berkeley. 

By the time Gold Diggers was made, sound technology had advanced significantly, with boom mics and a mobile cameras allowing Berkeley to expand his canvas. Though it is neither the film’s biggest nor most famous number, the “Words in My Heart” sequence is one of Berkeley’s most fascinating. The song features dozens of virginal upper-class society girls, dressed in white and seated primly at pearly white baby grand pianos, all swirling and spinning in ecstatic little pirouettes amid a sea of blackness. As they move about, the group takes on various shapes, at one point aligning themselves in two columns which recede into the distance. The two lines begin to move apart and together again in sensuous undulations as the camera pulls back, essentially taking on the appearance of a sort of animated Georgia O’Keefe painting.  

This would be suggestive enough, but Berkeley takes it a step further. For if you look closely, under each of those pianos is a pair of black-clad legs, the legs of dozens of men who are essentially carrying the pianos on their backs, propelling these young belles around the floor. The furtiveness of their placement, along with the positioning of the their bodies in relationship to the women, suggests far more than one might suspect at first glance. 

The fact that these men are visible is not an accident. Special effects were quite sophisticated by the early 1920s. This is not a case of a director clumsily revealing the mechanics of his technique. Berkeley chose to make those men visible, chose to incorporate them into the dance, chose to allow reflections on the black floor to bring out their silhouettes. With Freudian flair, he quite deliberately placed them beneath the gleaming, shimmering surfaces of lovely white pianos and lovely white ladies. 

The song is followed a few minutes later by the film’s climactic sequence, Winy Shaw’s Oscar-winning performance of “Lullaby of Broadway.” Again, the segment is typical Berkeley: A swarm of dancers parades across vast Art Deco sets, drawing Shaw into their whirlwind of movement. But the sequence ends abruptly as Shaw falls from a balcony to her death. It’s difficult to interpret this development: Was Berkeley bowing to the Production Code? Or was he satirizing the code? Or was it just a tragic little melodrama with no greater consideration?  

Perhaps it was meant to appease the censors, not for Wini Shaw’s devil-may-care frolic among the chorus, but for the racy “Words in My Heart” sequence that preceded it.  

In the depths of the depression, Hollywood provided glossy, escapist movies which sought to entertain audiences by returning them to the heady days of the 1920s, to the days of jazz, flappers and prosperity, an era when the theories of Sigmund Freud were in vogue. And in that generation of directors, there was no one more giddily Freudian than Busby Berkeley. 


The Busby Berkeley Collection 

Featuring Footlight Parade, Gold Diggers of 1933, Dames, 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1935, as well as bonus features, including a compilation of more than 20 complete musical numbers from nine of Berkeley’s Warner Bros. films of the 1930s.  

Warner Home Video. Unrated. $59.98›