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Shining a Light on Dark Side of Busby Berkeley

A new documentary shows his genius--and its counterpart.

January 25, 1998|Clifford Rothman | 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."

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