Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Busby Berkeley | Backstage Musicals


A typical Busby Berkeley geometrical arrangement of dancers, from Dames (1934)
Busby Berkeley was a highly influential Hollywood movie director and musical choreographer. He was famous for his elaborate musical production numbers that often involved complex geometric patterns. Berkeley's quintessential works used legions of showgirls and props as fantastic elements in kaleidoscopic on-screen performances. He started as a theatrical director, just as many other movie directors. Unlike many at the time, he felt that a camera should be allowed mobility, and he framed shots carefully from unusual angles to allow movie audiences to see things from perspectives that the theatrical stage never could provide. This is why he played an enormous role in establishing the movie musical as a category in its own right.
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.


Joan Blondell's stirring rendition of "Remember My Forgotten Man" in the Busby Berkeley production of Gold Diggers of 1933

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 I Live for Love with Dolores del Rio. Berkeley's innovative and often sexually-charged dance numbers have been analyzed at length by cinema scholars. 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, begging Warner Brothers to give him a chance at drama. The result was 1939's They Made Me a Criminal, one of John Garfield's best films.



Busby Berkeley's 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1935 posters. "Lullaby of Broadway"production number from Gold Diggers of 1935


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