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Busby Berkeley

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By a Waterfall, staged by Berkeley


Dance director Busby Berkeley (1895-1976) may have had his most critical training in the army. As an entertainment officer in 1917, he gained a reputation for exceptional drill routines. By 1930 he had twenty-one Broadway musicals to his credit and made his film debut: Whoopee, with Eddie Cantor. What he lacked in formal dance instruction, Berkeley compensated for with brilliant visual concepts and meticulous planning. His first hit movie — 42nd Street (1933), with Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, and Ginger Rogers—gained him sufficient backing and total editing control for the $10,000-per-screen-minute extravaganzas that followed. Between 1933 and 1937, Depression-era audiences were transported by Gold Diggers of 1933Footlight ParadeDamesFashions of 1934, Wonder Bar, In CalienteGold Diggers of 1935Gold Diggers of 1937Varsity Show, and Hollywood Hotel. Berkeley quickly learned and invented cinematic techniques, created unusual camera angles, and incorporated rolling platforms, mirrors, and wide-angle lens to maximize space and impact in his musical numbers. He took each shot from only one angle and claimed never to require a retake. Berkeley's stage finale was his role as supervising producer for the 1971 Broadway revival No, No Nanette!, starring Ruby Keeler.

Pictured left: "By a Waterfall," from the film Footlight Parade (1933). This work exemplifies the spectacular scale of Busby Berkeley's production numbers, which created geometric patterns out of female bodies. (FP-82; from the collections of the Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research, Madison, Wisconsin.)


Essay by Imogen Sara Smith -- Selected resources


"I Only Have Eyes for You," from Dames (1934). Berkeley marshaled elaborate sets, regimented dancers, and daring camera movements, creating surreal effects in a tribute to his frequent star Ruby Keeler.