Today is the birthday of the great choreographer and director Busby Berkley (1895-1976). One is tempted to call him the greatest Hollywood choreographer ever but then one remembers the field has included people like Hermes Pan, Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Agnes de Mille, Michael Kidd, and Bob Fosse. Berkley’s bailiwick wasn’t “dance” per se in the same way as those others; in his films you don’t see a lot of solos or duets or movement sequences in traditional dance styles (ballet, ballroom, or even tap, if you think about it). He specialized in organizing large numbers of costumed chorus girls in abstract, kaleidoscopic, even hallucinatory patterns that became the very essence of the 1930s movie musical.
Berkley was a second generation actor who first stepped onstage as a child. He’d already amassed a good amount of professional stage experience when he enlisted in the army in World War One, which is where, as a drill instructor and aerial observer, he obtained the skills that were to set him apart in show business. After the war, he played some theatrical roles and began to choreograph regionally, making it to Broadway by 1925 with the show Holka Polka. He was to choreograph 17 shows for Broadway before making the critical move to Hollywood, getting in on the ground floor of the brand new art form of talkie musicals. His movie credits as choreographer included several Eddie Cantor vehicles, Whoopee (1930), Palmy Days (1931), The Kid From Spain (1932) and Roman Scandals (1933), as well as the classics 42nd Street (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade (1933), Wonder Bar (1934), Dames (1934), Gold Diggers of 1935 and Gold Diggers in Paris (1938).
His visual imagination seemed limitlessly creative. He had a magical way of wedding the spirit and aesthetics of Broadway to the motion picture medium. Yet film allowed a lavishness of spectacle not permitted on the stage, featuring sets, costumes and — most importantly — perspectives not possible in live theatre. He was able to choreograph numbers meant to be viewed from the ceiling, for example, or ones where the camera participated in the choreography, moving amongst the dancers. Often the numbers, purportedly taking place on a Broadway stage as a show-within-the-show, would catapult into total fantasy, taking us far outside the confines of any physical theatre, featuring city streets, automobiles and so forth before gradually returning us through some alchemy back to the stage show.
By the 40s tastes had changed to integrated book musicals but Berkley had also begun directing films in 1933, which helped ease the transition. His directing credits included Babes in Arms (1939), Strike Up the Band (1940), Ziegfeld Girl (1941), For Me and My Gal (1942) and Take Me Out to the Ball Game (1949, his last theatrical film as director). They Made Me a Criminal (1939) was a rare excursion outside the musical genre.
He worked steadily as a choreographer until the early 1950s. Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) which starred Esther Williams as Annette Kellerman, offered him a rare late chance to do the type of work he had been known for in his heyday. He directed some television in the mid 1950s, returned to the big screen to choreograph large circus sequences in Jumbo (1962) then retired for almost a decade, returning to direct the smash hit Broadway revival of No No Nanette in 1971, starring his old collaborator from four decades earlier, Ruby Keeler.
For more on the history of show business consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.