Movies are time capsules—time machines even—and I love to journey back to the 1930’s. Especially in the musicals that showcase the work of Busby Berkeley; they have so much style, such moxie! I love the wardrobe, the sets, the way they speak and of course the choreography (being a choreographer myself).
During the Great Depression a trip to the theatre was an inexpensive means of escape. The Warner Brothers musicals of the 1930’s provided the perfect vehicle for that escape. Featuring the choreography of Busby Berkeley they faced the troubles of the times head-on, while providing plenty of fantasy and fun.
The early years of the decade saw a major decline in the movie musical. Most early products were an attempt to replicate the Broadway stage on film, and the public lost interest. Warner Brothers flipped the script with the release of three films in 1933: 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade.
On the brink of bankruptcy themselves, the studio put their full weight behind these films and the innovative talent of Berkeley. Warner Brothers was known for being gritty and topical with their dramas. This perspective was layered over the backstage musical/gutsy chorus girl cliché in these musicals.
The plot always centered on the “girls” finding work, finding a meal, and finding a rich man to save them, all while Putting On The Show. In fact money and love were always the central themes. Money for The Show to provide jobs for the main characters, and of course love…if the financer happens to be a handsome tunesmith, that’s killing two birds with one stone!
The plots and scripts never let you forget the times. Gold Diggers of 1933 opens with the production number “We’re in the Money.” (Ginger Rogers sings it in pig Latin!) We don’t see the whole number because the show is closed down, mid-routine…due to lack of money! The Great Depression in full effect! The storyline develops as a mission to provide jobs for “show people,” and the quest for dignity and respect, and oh yes, love.
In Footlight Parade, while rehearsing the “Prosperity” number (that also ends up getting cut) a dancer complains of the choreographers direction, “How can we look Prosperity when he’s got Depression all over that pan of his?”
I love these films for their expression of the era, their sass and spunk. Being made prior to 1934, they were actually rather risqué! Though they have essentially interchangeable plots and almost the same cast in each, the production numbers are what people came to see. That’s the escape hatch…and escape is putting it mildly, you may feel as if you’ve fallen down the rabbit hole!
These three movies all feature fantastic choreography sequences by Berkeley, who is credited with saving the musical genre.
Born into a performing family, Berkeley was not raised to perform and never took a dance class. He spent his youth in boarding school to accommodate his mother’s acting career.
How did a man who never danced on stage become a renowned choreographer? When the United States entered World War I, Berkeley answered the call to duty, and ultimately the call of destiny.
He was assigned to train troops to perform in military exhibitions and parades—Berkeley’s military experience was, in effect, an apprenticeship for his work in dance direction, and would color his choreographic style.
After the war he moved to New York City, where he became known as a “show doctor,” transforming flops into hits! By 1930 he had staged 21 Broadway musicals, and caught the attention of Hollywood.
After a stint with MGM, Berkeley joined Warner Brothers in 1932 to direct 42nd Street, embarking on the most productive era of his career. In the process of creating a film classic, he reportedly saved the company from bankruptcy.
Success gave him free-reign, and a Berkeley number became as big a draw as any big-name actor. His unique, elaborate productions focused on overall visual effect, not dance steps. He could bring surreal, kaleidoscopic images to life through the human form and a single camera.
He was the first to exploit a movie camera’s ability to roam the set, including the camera in the choreography. Utilizing cranes and monorails, the camera was allowed to soar and swoop through formations of dancers. He created effects audiences had not previously seen: the famous Berkeley Top Shot, the Parade of Faces and leggy, low-angle shots.
Camera, costumes and movable sets combined to create human geometry—with a dose of humor—and strangely organic, undulating, even erotic images. Critics deemed his work sexist, decadent, and even fascistic for portraying collectivism. (I say, lighten up and enjoy!) Berkeley professed any hidden meaning in his work was imagined. He had two main goals: to top himself and amaze the audience.
He was prolific, working on up to eight movies at a time and pushing Warner Brothers to ever-higher expenditure. You could say he became the ideal of his movies:
“Like the New Deal, he gave jobs to all those starving chorus girls, whatever their own pluck and luck. But . . . he was also the crazy visionary who choreographed vast ensembles of tall buildings, white pianos, man-made waterfalls.”—Morris Dickstein, Dancing in the Dark
Producing over 50 movie musicals during in his quarter-century career, Berkeley was inducted into the National Museum of Dance Hall of Fame in 1988.
For me, Berkeley’s inventive choreography exemplified the Machine Age—his work is Art Deco come to life! Anyone who has seen my choreography and these movies should be able to see that Berkeley’s work was a major inspiration of mine!
There is nothing like seeing when it comes to Berkeley, so here is a short video sampler of his work:
What do you think of the video? Check my Facebook page for more fun video clips!
Do you have a favorite movie? Genre? Actor? Director? Share why they move you in the comments!
Dickstein, Morris. 2009. Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of The Great Depression. New York, NY. W.W. Norton & Co.
Mordden, Ethan. 1988. The Hollywood Studios: Their Unique Styles During the Golden Age of Movies. New York, NY. Fireside.
Sennett, Ted. 1981. Hollywood Musicals. New York, NY. Harry N. Abrams, Inc.