Shining a Light on Dark Side of Busby Berkeley

Clifford Rothman is an occasional contributor to Calendar

Busby Berkeley used to be easy.

The name conjured up platoons of blonds swirling with neon violins and forming human skylines of Manhattan. Impossible kaleidoscopes of women’s legs. Armies of dancers crosscutting with military precision on mammoth stages. Silly, fantastic, brilliant, surreal, the ultimate in camp.

But the image on the other side of the camera was far darker. The true story of Berkeley’s rise and fall in Hollywood, his professional and personal turbulence, is touched on in the one-hour documentary airing on Turner Classic Movies on Monday at 5 p.m.

It’s a story of a stunted career, of alcohol and abuse, isolation punctuated by brief marriages to showgirls, a suicide attempt, scandal and a type of manic depression no one knew how to treat back then.


Orson Welles certainly understood. Berkeley, in his own way, was as unwanted and frustrated in Hollywood as Welles; both were outcasts within only a few years after they burst on the scene. Both had grand dreams and extravagant visions, and were difficult men. And Hollywood has never known what to do with genius, especially if it’s not in step with popular taste.

Berkeley’s key to Hollywood quickly became his albatross. He came west from Broadway, carrying on the theatrical tradition of the Ziegfeld-like spectacular. It would give him brief glory but date him almost immediately. Assigned to choreograph the Eddie Cantor film “Whoopee!” in 1930, he took what had been a static camera and gave it legs; he had it swooping among the standing, outstretched legs of a lineup of chorus girls.

In a succession of legendary Warner Bros. musicals, he choreographed ever larger, more ambitious numbers. The camera grew wings. A hole was once built through the ceiling to accommodate a number. A revolving floor was installed, at the height of the Depression, at a cost of $15,000.

In one year alone, 1933, he created “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” and the ambitious “42nd Street” montage for “42nd Street” with Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell; “The Shadow Waltz,” “Forgotten Man” and “We’re in the Money” from “Gold Diggers of 1933” with Powell, Keeler and Joan Blondell; and “Honeymoon Hotel,” “Shanghai Lil” and “By a Waterfall” from “Footlight Parade” with James Cagney and Keeler.

Berkeley intuitively understood how to shoot musical numbers in film terms: Get closer to the action. Make it move, make it dimensional. He pulled apart a musical’s elements, offering close-ups of the dancers’ legs or their smiling, hopeful faces. Doing hundreds of camera setups for a single number, from every conceivable vantage point.

“The orchestra would basically saw away the same number over and over again, while Berkeley would think up these new fantasies, formations or angles,” says film historian Richard Barrios.


But vaudeville, burlesque and Ziegfeld-style spectacle--which had all been around since the teens--were old hat by the time Berkeley arrived in Hollywood. He just briefly invigorated it, because he did it more inventively and with more daring. But even Berkeley’s novelty could only buck the trend for so long.

Hollywood and Broadway were exploring a more mature form of musical storytelling, integrating music with story, involving deeper plots and songs with more complex emotions. It would firmly take hold by the time of “Oklahoma!” in 1943 on Broadway, and movies like MGM’s “Meet Me in St. Louis” and Columbia’s “Cover Girl” with Rita Hayworth, both released in 1944. Even the Ginger Rogers-Fred Astaire numbers scaled back as the 1930s progressed, becoming more intimate and less pyrotechnical.

When Warners’ signature-style musical petered out by the second half of the ‘30s, Berkeley was signed by MGM, whose musical unit was flourishing. Berkeley’s vitality must have seemed the perfect fit for its young talent like Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney, with whom Berkeley did a succession of films. He would also be freer to direct the story as well as the music.

“Babes in Arms” and “Babes on Broadway” were hugely successful, though the scale of the Berkeley number had been vastly diminished. In fact, Berkeley’s style had to be reined in, particularly so as not to overwhelm the talent. It created problems.

“It brought up the tensions of his kind of numbers and the [MGM] musicals,” says Martin Rubin, who assessed Berkeley’s work in “Showstoppers: Busby Berkeley and the Tradition of Spectacle.” “The Garland-Rooney musicals were personality-centered. The camera couldn’t be the star.”

But there was a bigger problem at MGM: the ascension of the Arthur Freed unit. Freed, and later Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, would be the backbone of the new musical, where the flights of fancy were more cerebral, more lyrical and more urbane, as evidenced by films like “On the Town,” “An American in Paris” and “The Band Wagon.”


Berkeley was caught in a trap: They didn’t want him for what he did best--showgirls, sweeping staircases and gimmicks--and if he suppressed his instincts, the results were generic. He tried to adapt. When he did “For Me and My Gal” in 1942, Garland’s first adult role and the film that introduced Gene Kelly to film, there was no hint of the old Berkeley.

And his professional difficulties could only have been worsened by his private demons. He was exacting on the set, working actors and himself relentlessly until he got what he wanted.

Rooney, in his autobiography, describes the “exhausting rehearsals.” “Sometimes he wouldn’t be ready to shoot until 6 p.m., which meant hours of night work,” remembers the actor.

Garland would also go on record in later years, calling him a “monster” during their brief reunion in “Annie Get Your Gun” in 1950 (Berkeley and Garland both were fired from the film). Berkeley treated her “the same as when I was 15,” John Fricke quotes the actress in the biography “Judy Garland: World’s Greatest Entertainer.”

“You can hear on the outtakes (of ‘Annie Get Your Gun’) that exist . . . you can hear Busby’s voice, shouting,” says BBC documentary producer David Thompson.

Ann Miller, who later starred with him in “Small Town Girl,” remembers and retells her own Berkeley moment.


“My foot was bloody. I said, ‘Can we please stop to change my stocking or put a Band-Aid on the blister?’ ” says Miller. “ ‘Hell, no, we don’t have time for that,’ ” she quotes Berkeley as saying. “He was sadistic.”

Esther Williams talks about Berkeley’s indifference to the welfare of stars and chorus. In the documentary, she describes being forced to plunge from a ring suspended high above the water into a small circle of swimmers in the water. “It was dangerous, and he didn’t care,” says Williams.

Alice Faye, who co-starred in “The Gang’s All Here,” does not remember Berkeley as a taskmaster, though they had no elaborate numbers to do. But she does remember another characteristic: his boyish exuberance. “He was fascinated by a ring I had, with a ruby star,” Faye says. “He just kept looking at the ring, and finally asked me if he could take it home. He said he designed a whole number just from the star--the way it shone, the way the rays fell. It just mesmerized him.”

And to the same extent that Berkeley hit high notes of giddiness and abandon, the other end of the spectrum was also there: the dark demons. Berkeley had lost his father when very young and his brother when he was a teenager. He was intensely attached to his mother and tried to commit suicide when she died in the late ‘40s. His relationships with women were highly problematic, and the successive marriages to showgirls lasted briefly.

There was also drinking; the Berkeley documentary mentions a 1934 drinking-and-driving episode that led to the death of passengers in another car. The deaths reportedly haunted him for the rest of his life.

By the late ‘40s, Berkeley’s career was deeply troubled. When he did “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” for MGM, his name was on the screen, but Donen and Kelly directed. Berkeley’s brand of flamboyant spectacle would be used effectively and briefly with the Esther Williams aquatic musicals, like “Easy to Love,” and “Million Dollar Mermaid.” But again, those were not the same musical unit as the Freed unit, nor was “Small Town Girl,” which contained the famous number of Ann Miller dancing around the protruding disembodied arms and hands of musicians whose bodies were beneath the stage.


Says Miller, “It was the best number of my career.”

“By the ‘50s, nobody would touch him,” says Thompson. “They may have considered him too dangerous, too unreliable.” He was fired from “Annie Get Your Gun.” And during the research, Thompson uncovered old newspaper clips.

“He was constantly being found drunk, being thrown in jail, promising he’d go on the wagon, his finances a mess, moving from place to place, being thrown out for not paying the rent. And he seemed a sad person. . . . Nobody is mentioned who ever seemed to befriend him.”

When the late ‘60s nostalgia boom led to a rediscovery of the campy Berkeley musicals, his tarnished star was briefly repolished. He was signed to a remounting of “No, No, Nanette” on Broadway starring Keeler in 1971. But in reality, Berkeley was simply a figurehead, and had little input on the direction. He died in 1976 at age 81.

As for Berkeley’s lasting contributions, Rubin thinks that gimmickry and spectacle have in fact obscured Berkeley’s depth. “There’s an intimacy and poignancy that make his best numbers great. An ability to shift back and forth between the spectacular and the intimate, between big abstract patterns and small personal details, between the mass chorus and the individual performer. That’s why when people try to copy Berkeley there’s something missing. They copy the spectacle, the overhead shots, but miss the intimacy.”

Berkeley has been characterized as being a cold, abstract, mechanical constructor of human forms. “But watch his numbers, and there’s that mystery element how he simultaneously produces effects both spectacular and emotional,” Rubin points out. “I’ve had tears in my eyes.’