Busby Berkeley Choreography: Geometric Gems

 

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He’s been called many things: an artist, a visionary, a perfectionist, a genius, a legend, even a fascist. But what Busby Berkeley did for musical numbers of the silver screen was simply unforgettable. While Berkeley had a long and successful career that included being a choreographer and a director, today I only want to address the choreography of his musical numbers that highlights his mastery of geometric patterns in dancing harmony.

From conducting military parades and staging camp shows for soldiers in WW1, William Berkeley Enos aka “Buzz” returned home and quickly became one of Broadway’s top dance directors. By 1930, Ziegfeld gave him his big chance to transition to film so he moved to Hollywood. Beginning with choreographing musical comedies like, WHOOPIE! (1930) with Eddie Cantor, he started to get noticed. Producers Samuel Goldwyn and Darryl F. Zanuck each gave him opportunities to have greater creative control. It was Zanuck that offered him the big break at Warner Brothers with the film 42nd STREET (1933) that forever changed his destiny.

In Lloyd Bacon’s 42nd STREET (1933), Berkeley directed the key musical numbers that made the film a huge hit, “Shuffle Off To Buffalo”, “Young and Healthy” and the “Naughty! Bawdy! Gaudy!“, depression-era story-telling finale, “42nd Street”. In these numbers, we see the enormous ensemble of dancers and grand scale perspective begin to emerge.

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In “Young and Healthy,” the circles and rows of dancers, including unique camera techniques like snaking underneath a bridge of continuous legs, creates magical human kaleidoscopes for which he soon became famous. In this number, we are also witness to BB’s frequent use of glowing shades of white in repetition contrasting against a black backdrop, another sign of his artistic-meets-tech mastery to achieve the greatest effect.

What followed was an astounding surge of creative output of some of the most iconic musical numbers ever put to film. Although he went on to direct and choreograph dozens of films and musical numbers until the 1960s, it was the massive production in the Pre-Code years that reflected his crowning achievements in geometric patterned brilliance.

In Mervyn LeRoy’s GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 (1933), Buzz reaches new heights. Working again with catchy, Oscar nominated songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, BB created four spectacular musical numbers: “We’re In The Money,” “Pettin’ In The Park,” “The Shadow Waltz,” and “My Forgotten Man” made the final cut. (“I’ve Got To Sing A Torch Song” number by Ginger Rogers was cut; instead given to Dick Powell, but not as a full production number.)

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In “The Shadow Waltz,” Berkeley showcases some of his signature moves such as the use of a reflective flooring that was used as a mirror to further create the kaleidoscope effect. In color, this would be too busy visually to simply use a mirrored floor. But in black in white, he knew that a shiny, black flooring with glowing shades of white elements- including neon violins- would create this effect with maximum results.

Another BB signature element is to have the rows of dancers move in a way that makes it appear alive. In “The Shadow Waltz” we see spinning, flowing movements that appear like a flower opening and closing its petals. One way he is able to create this effect is to have the camera often go from deep closeups shots to extreme ariel shots. In this case, each dancer twirls and the dresses are like spinning, inverted plates but from a distance, whether in a row or in circles, it takes on a new, and different form. To ponder how many hours of detailed planning was required to achieve this makes my head spin!

In Lloyd Bacon’s FOOTLIGHT PARADE, Berkeley leaves the gritty, marching rows of ‘forgotten men’ from his last film and takes a dip in the waters. From numbers that range honeymooners to back alley cats, in the “Shanghai Lil” musical number, he takes on prostitution and opium dens (and asian stereotypes) but ultimately returns to rows of marching military. Musical numbers:

  • “Honeymoon Hotel” – by Harry Warren (music) and Al Dubin (lyrics)
  • “Shanghai Lil” – by Harry Warren (music) and Al Dubin (lyrics)
  • By a Waterfall” – by Sammy Fain (music) and Irving Kahal (lyrics)
  • “My Shadow” – by Sammy Fain (music) and Irving Kahal (lyrics)
  • “Ah, the Moon Is Here” – by Sammy Fain (music) and Irving Kahal (lyrics)
  • “Sitting on a Backyard Fence” – by Sammy Fain (music) and Irving Kahal (lyrics)

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Buzz was known for coming up with his best ideas for his elaborate choreography from daily soaks in his bath tub. In “By The Waterfall,” synchronized swimming takes geometric patterns to new heights, and greater depths, than Buzz had ever gone before… or since.

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In Ray Enright’s DAMES (1934), “Beautiful Girls” is arguably the finest example of kaleidoscope inspired use of geometric patterns in a Busby Berkeley musical number. Additionally, in “I Only Have Eyes For You,” surreal, large Ruby Keeler heads dance around, but otherwise all the signature BB markers are present, from rows and circles of white twirling dresses against a black backdrop, with zooming extreme closeups and ariel shots.

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In GOLD DIGGERS OF 1935, Berkeley sits in the directing chair beyond just the musical numbers. The “The Words Are in My Heart” number takes the phrase “go big or go home” to heart with dancing pianos. A plethora of baby grand pianos are constantly moving and spinning on elaborate staircases and flowing in waving rows. To complete the kaleidoscope patterns, rows of women wave their flowing white skirts. In his masterpiece “Lullaby On Broadway,” he ambitiously tells a dark tale with armies of dancers in a mini film-in-a-film that lasts nearly 15 minutes.

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Busby Berkeley continued with directing and choreographing films and musical numbers so the examples above are only highlights. I know what you’re thinking. What’s the deal with that ‘fascist’ comment? According to a Busby Berkeley documentary, a few people called him that more in jest simply because of his obsessive work demands from dancers and the set crew, combined with his infusion of military-influenced marching formations.

Apparently, his demands were so intensely high that he was known to push people to extremes with zero sympathy, in order to achieve his dazzling results. He was also known to be anti-social to the point he preferred discussing tech over chatting with dancers. If you consider how he utilized his dancers- often dressed the same, and in formations like parts in a big machine, I guess it’s not that surprising. So I’m also not surprised to hear he was married six times, with each marriage lasting less than a couple of years. His last marriage being the only exception.

He lived a long life with a successful career but I wonder how his scandal of being tried for manslaughter for the deaths of two people affected him personally, and his relationships with others. It is said that alcohol was a contributing factor to him plowing into two vehicles one night in 1937 while driving home after a party that resulted in two deaths and five injured. He also attempted suicide and was placed temporarily in a psychiatric hospital following his mother’s death in 1946.

He was acquitted for the car crash deaths, but did that haunt him? Was work his salvation? Perhaps being a perfectionist helped him in some way. The brilliance of his geometric patterned wonders may not give us the answers, but they can provide us joy for decades and decades to come.

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This was my contribution to the Busby Berkeley Blogathon, hosted by Annette of Hometowns To Hollywood, January 25th- 28th. Be sure to read all the entries!

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A PreCode Paralyzed Piranha: Walter Huston in A HOUSE DIVIDED (1931)

One of the many joys of attending a classic film festival such as the recent TCM Classic Film Festival, sometimes you get a chance to screen a film for the first time. When seeing a decades old film for the very first time, yet on the big screen, it’s like momentarily slipping back in time. I imagined what it may have been for audiences of the past.

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Recently at #TCMFF 2016, I experienced such a unique pleasure in screening William Wyler’s A HOUSE DIVIDED (1931). It’s a PreCode with such dark tones, that Czar of Noir Eddie Muller himself introduced this screening with a brief interview of Wyler’s son, David Wyler.

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The story takes place in a small fishing town, centered on the main character, Walter Huston as Seth Law. He’s a strong, mean, miserable son of a bitch. As low brow as that sounds, I’m underselling it. Seth’s wife has just died so he takes his son, Douglass Montgomery/Kent Douglass as Matt Law, to the local dive to get drunk. Initially we give him some slack in his aggressive handling of the situation, assuming temporary grief. Soon Seth’s true nature becomes clear as he cruelly berates his son to prove his manhood and by attempting to force him to drink heavily. Matt is uncomfortable and offended by his father’s behavior but not strong enough to stand up to him. In his aggression, the father openly manhandles women as he slings back shots then starts a violent brawl that finishes with Matt out cold.

In striking contrast to his father, Matt is a kind, gentle and handsome blond lad. Back home, Seth announces he will simply replace his wife with a mail-order bride of strong stock. He has plucked her from a simple description in a catalogue (in “Heart and Hand” magazine, selecting a 35-year-old, hard-working good cook named Ada Peterson); not unlike picking out the strongest draft horse for the farm. Calculated enough to know his son would make the more persuasive communicator, Seth tells Matt to write the letter. Matt gingerly approaches his domineering dad with a trade. Now that he’s older and there’s help on the way, he wants to branch out on his own. He’s never liked it there. And who could blame him?

On the day of the new bride’s arrival, Matt is unable to convince his father to ‘clean up’ to greet his betrothed. Instead, he treated it like any other day, went about his fishing business and left it up to Matt to welcome her. A true romantic. When a young, very attractive, slight wisp of a gal shows up at the door, Matt is confused.

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This nineteen year old is evidently not the Ada Peterson as advertised. Young Ruth Evans (Helen Chandler) explains that she came in her friend’s place because the original bride-to-be had already married another by his letter’s arrival. There is an instant chemistry between the two. She initially assumes Matt is her groom.

Reality comes crashing in soon enough after he explains the mix-up and Pops walks in. In his socially inept and jarring method, Seth inspects his new livestock with disapproval. Ruth begs for him to reconsider because she has no where else to go. Besides, if his son is so sweet, how bad can dad be, right? Ruth eventually convinces him to change his mind after he realizes his pretty new bride can provide assets that a housekeeper cannot. Now he inspects her with hungry eyes. She’s switched to deep regret. Apprehensive, she ponders her mistake yet reluctantly moves forward with the wedding. It’s clear that without someone to stand up to Seth, she is not strong enough, physically nor rhetorically, to persuade him otherwise.

At the wedding ceremony, a crowd of unruly, drunken locals align with Seth’s behavior yet widen her eyes to the grim future before her. She’s sunk. After the spectacle of ill manners, Seth approaches Ruth back at the house. He’s ready for bed time, looking at her like she’s a gazelle dinner at a lion den. She openly states she’s made a big mistake; she tries to talk him out of it. Her pleas fall flat on his ears. He wants his dinner and he doesn’t care if she doesn’t comply.

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Matt finally intervenes and a violent confrontation ensues. The fight ends with Matt assuming he’s accidentally killed his father. No such luck. The town doctor is called and he says Seth will likely never walk again. Ruth and Matt feel doomed and torn, trapped by an obligation to stay. Meanwhile, this tragedy and a bond of fear of Seth has only drawn them closer together.

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Seth is determined to grow stronger and defy the doctor’s diagnosis. He is more ruthless than ever before to assert his bullying power over his son and display his machismo to his young bride. It’s nighttime. An intense storm is brewing outside. Matt slips into Ruth’s room. She confides in him that she is too afraid to stay a moment longer. They plan to escape together.

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Seth, whose bed has been set up on the main floor downstairs for obvious reasons, picks up that something is going on. With paralyzed legs, he pulls himself off the bed and crawls along the floor towards the staircase. Slowly and surely, he drags his body up each spindle of each step, along the outside of the staircase. His strong and determined arms pull him up as he peers onto the second floor. There light coming from underneath Ruth’s door.

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Sitting on her bed, as Ruth and Matt find love and solace in each other’s arms, Matt attempts to convince her to stay until morning, after the storm settles down. Ruth expresses that she is too filled with fear to wait. Just then, Seth bursts in. What follows is a frightening, suspenseful explosion of violence, fear and a chase through a horrific stormy sea.

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I’ve never been so freaked out by a paralyzed cinematic figure before. When Walter Huston crawls and drags his way upstairs, you do not think of him as having the disadvantage in power. Not in the slightest. Instead, you are biting your nails and gripped by your own fears that his son Matt will meet his doom.

That’s how intense, strong and cruel he comes across. It also has an eery quality that reminded me heavily of Tod Browning’s FREAKS (1932) when you see them crawl in the muddy muck under the circus trailer, with knife clinched in teeth, to hunt down their deserving victim.

The violent explosion between Matt and Seth is indeed a nail-biter. Seth pulls his body around the room on the floor, posturing his body to block, shoving chests of drawers and beds around like they were kindling, and one-handedly throwing a chair down the stairs after Matt, knocking him out. Trust me, there is no handicap on Seth’s part.

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I won’t give up the exact ending but the climax is palatably intense, with Seth remaining a terrifying threat right up to the end. Walter Huston makes this role. In his PreCode days, he sometimes played a father figure, or a cop, but was a master as the villain. There is something about his presence. When he says something, you believe it. His face scrunches up in an evil snarl. He’s defiant, intimidating, menacing, with a confidence deep in his bones that comes across boldly on the screen. There are many great screen villains, but I guarantee you’ll never forget this one.

This was my contribution to The Great Villains Blogathon, hosted by those lovely blogging ladies Kristina of SPEAKEASY, Ruth of SILVER SCREENINGS and Karen of SHADOWS and SATIN, May 15-20.

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