The recent Warner Brothers release of The Busby Berkeley Collection six-DVD set is a marvelous retrospective of some of the greatest sound-sight marriage ever burned onto film. The set includes Berkeley’s five greatest classics from the 1930’s: Gold Diggers of ’33, ’35 & ’37; Dames (1934); Footlight Parade (1933) and, a special compilation, “The Busby Berkeley Disc,” which has production numbers from only the five films, plus rarely seen musical productions from Fashions Of 1934, Wonder Bar (1934) and In Caliente (1935).
Contemporary critics sometimes stumble on the poor theatrical elements of Berkeley’s work. Plot beyond boy-meets-girl is thinner than Depression-era soup, dialogue is inane and character development is for all practical purposes non-existent. That is precisely the genius of Berkeley. He may have been the first ever to truly realize and exploit on a grand scale the creative potential of film not as surrogate for live theater or literary storytelling, but as a fantastic visual, often overtly sensual, dreamlike extravaganza experience only the medium of film could convey. For Berkeley, story lines were no more than a necessary evil to string the viewer from one production musical fantasy to the next. What better example than the heretofore obscure production number, “Spin A Little Web of Dreams,” from Fashions of 1934. In an otherwise forgettable film, an array of all-blonde beauties in skimpy feather bikinis weaves a dream fantasy with ostrich plume fans that culminates in an all-women Viking ship with feather oars sailing on a mystic sea of undulating fabric. Where did Berkeley come up with this stuff?
When powerful show tunes marry with richly patterned extravaganza Berkeley is at his best, and Gold Diggers of 1935 has some great examples. “Lullaby Of Broadway” (complete with hundreds of tap dancing women and men), is a stunning celebration of the aura of the Big Apple at a time when America was 90 percent rural. “We’re In The Money,” replete with buxom beauties discretely festooned with silver dollars, is nothing less than a Depression-era anthem at a time when a third of America was out of work. “The Words Are In My Heart” is among Berkeley’s most endearing icons – 56 white pianos waltzing in formation.
Dick Powell’s rendition of “I Only Have Eyes For You” (Dames) is a monumental celebration of Ruby Keeler’s beauty with some dazzling special effects where at one point she pops up from the pupil of her own eye. Whoa. The Greeks did no better for ideal feminine beauty with Venus de Milo. I doubt Busby Berkeley ever met Sigmund Freud; however there is enough Freudian imagery in Berkeley’s work to last two lifetimes. Check out “By A Waterfall” (Footlight Parade), a deco extravaganza where Hollywood lovelies dive, slither, soak, swim and eventually rise in a tower surrounded by streaming jets of water (a still of which is the cover shot for the Warner Brothers set).
Berkeley loved women and his heyday films (prior to the restraints of the Hays Code, which commenced in 1935) are nothing less than burlesque on steroids. This is BIG TEASE. In “Petting In The Park” (Gold Diggers Of 1933) the beauties undress in explicit silhouette behind a screen. In pursuit of the female form, Berkeley’s single camera shot (a trademark of Berkeley) goes under water, under foot, overhead for dazzling kaleidoscope images and even through a colonnade of women’s spread legs in “Young And Healthy” (42nd Street). If you think our grandparents and great-grand parents were Puritan prudes, think again. If you think racy music videos were created in the 1980s, you are wrong by 40 years.
Berkeley’s films were hugely successful in the early to mid-30’s and the Warner Brothers set captures the core of his genius. Indeed, by the end of the decade the genre had seemingly run its course. WWII put Berkeley’s productions on hold. In the post war era, he teamed up with Esther Williams in Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) and in Easy To Love (1953).
Where, then, will historians place Busby Berkeley? I would nominate him to an artistic pantheon alongside a few others who were quick to realize the creative frontier of a new 20th century mass medium, and made a truly unique and enduring statement. In television it was Ernie Kovacs. With the electric amplification of the guitar, it was Jimi Hendrix. With the advent of the “talkie,” it was Busby Berkeley.
Berkeley led a troubled personal life. He suffered three failed marriages, a reported affinity for martinis in the morning and late in life, a drunk driving accident that killed two innocent victims for which he was tried three times and finally acquitted. He died in Palm Springs in 1976. At the time of his death Busby Berkeley was largely ignored and forgotten.
It’s a shame Busby Berkeley didn’t live another eight years. When Los Angeles welcomed the world to the 1984 Olympics with Opening Ceremonies at the Coliseum, it paid tribute to Hollywood with one of film’s great visual icons of all time. Arrayed at the peristyle end of the Coliseum under the colonnade were 56 white pianos waltzing to “The Words Are In My Heart.” Busby Berkeley may have been gone, but he was not forgotten.