Dozens of beautiful chorus girls strumming neon-lighted violins and twirling in double-tiered translucent Chinese silk hoop skirts slink around an enormous curving staircase. An overhead camera captures the constantly moving silver-wigged chorines in concentric circles before they glide in and out towards the giant circle’s center—the image, a pulsating sunflower.
This is the famous “The Shadow Waltz” scene from Gold Diggers of 1933, and the genius of choreographer-director Busby Berkeley (1895–1976), the man who delivered new and intriguing ways of experiencing song and dance productions. Turning hundreds of dancing bodies (oftentimes with whimsical props) into complex human kaleidoscopes, Berkeley made cinematic history during the Great Depression, creating indelible numbers for almost every musical Warner Bros. produced from 1933 to 1937.
His work has been called everything from brilliant, miraculous and extraordinary to vulgar, sexist and camp, but Berkeley was essentially a purveyor of dreams and moods. Less concerned with his showgirls’ actual dance technique than their ability to maneuver into geometric figurines, Berkeley used only one movable camera on custom-built booms, monorails, cranes and holes drilled into the studio’s roof to capture his whirlwind visions; it was, in fact, the camera that did the dancing.
“Some of Berkeley’s ideas came from Broadway producer Florenz Ziegfeld, who liked to have lots of chorus girls in lines,” says Richard Schickel, film documentarian, author and Time magazine movie critic. “But Berkeley’s work really requires the camera to realize that. He didn’t just burst the fourth wall of the theater—he burst all the walls.”
Born in Los Angeles the son of theater director Wilson Enos and actress Gertrude Enos, William Berkeley Enos began performing with his family at age 5. He later christened himself Busby Berkeley by combining the surname of actress Amy Busby with his mother’s maiden name, Berkeley. At 12 he attended military school, eventually enlisting in the army during World War I. While stationed in France and Germany, Berkeley directed military exhibitions and parades. He also served as an aerial observer with the Air Corps.
These unique jobs, coupled with his theatrical upbringing, undoubtedly shaped the untrained choreographer’s future cinematic vision and earned him the position of dance director for nearly two dozen musicals, including the 1927 hit A Connecticut Yankee. It wasn’t until 1930, when Broadway star Eddie Cantor suggested Berkeley create the dance routines for the film Whoopee!, that Berkeley found his calling behind the camera.
In addition to Gold Diggers of 1933, four classic musicals made for Warner Bros. sealed Berkeley’s immortality: 1933’s 42nd Street, starring tapper Ruby Keeler in the famed “Shuffle Off to Buffalo” routine, set the tone for future backstage musicals; Footlight Parade (1933), is known for its extravagant “By a Waterfall” dream sequence, where scantily clad showgirls form a cascading human waterfall (the glass-lined pool was the largest soundstage ever built); in Fashions of 1934, 20 to 30 dancers fashioned as harp columns join 200 girls dancing with white ostrich plumes to create prismatic floral designs; and in Gold Diggers of 1935, 56 white grand pianos come to life performing with 56 girls in “The Words Are in My Heart,” and Berkeley’s masterpiece, “Lullaby of Broadway,” involves a mass dance sequence of 150 tappers.
Moving to MGM after the decline of outlandish musicals in the late 1930s, Berkeley worked on four films with the young Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney. Disagreements with Garland caused Berkeley’s removal from Girl Crazy, but his number “I Got Rhythm” remained. During this time, he also created Eleanor Powell’s epic “Fascinatin’ Rhythm” finale in Lady Be Good.
Berkeley’s surreal style resurfaced in 1943 when Carmen Miranda wore a towering fruit headdress and showgirls danced with giant bananas in “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat,” from The Gang’s All Here. In all, Berkeley staged and directed over 50 Hollywood musicals, choreographing seven films in the 1950s, including Esther Williams’ exotic water ballets in Million Dollar Mermaid, before his final credit on the 1962 film Billy Rose’s Jumbo, starring Doris Day.
By the end of the decade, Berkeley had been virtually forgotten, until a ’60s camp craze renewed interest in his work. He toured the college lecture circuit, returning to the Great White Way in 1971 as production supervisor in a successful revival of No, No, Nanette. Five years later, Berkeley passed away of natural causes at his home in Palm Springs, CA, at age 80. His influence is still felt today, from the “Be Our Guest” sequence in Walt Disney’s Beauty and the Beast to “Miss Piggy’s Fantasy” swim number in 1981’s The Great Muppet Caper.
“Berkeley’s moment was the 1930s. But the numbers are timeless,” says Schickel. “With 100 people getting together as a gigantic team and doing a routine in which everybody is perfectly unified—that’s what people were trying to say about the United States. We had to pull together. It wasn’t about individualism. These are perfect statements of collectivity—100 people working together to create a gorgeous effect.” DT
Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning arts journalist and freelance dance critic for The Los Angeles Times. She teaches dance history at USC and Santa Monica College.