The Life and Art
of Busby Berkeley
by Jeffrey Spivak
Kentucky, 408 pp., $39.95
We know a great deal about the brilliant and eccentric Hollywood dance director of the 1930s, Busby Berkeley. Now we know more. Jeffrey Spivak has delved into previously neglected sources that fill in some of the blanks. He has interviewed scores of surviving friends and associates. But while Buzz is a very useful biographical fact book, its quality is uneven.
Too often it gets lost in its own facts. In the early chapters we learn perhaps more than we need to know about the troubled lives of Berkeley’s parents, the local history of towns where they lived, and every single detail of Berkeley’s foolish and compulsive insubordination during World War I. Much of this material should have been relegated to footnotes. The book doesn’t really come alive until the Hollywood chapters, where the story begins to be compelling. Especially vivid is Spivak’s account of a 1935 car crash that led to Berkeley being tried (three times) for second-degree murder. But the narrative starts to meander again in the later chapters.
To his credit, Spivak has a great many interesting facts to relate about Berkeley’s creative methods, including some—but not all—of the tricks that he used to create his astonishing production numbers, both for Warner Brothers and for Samuel Goldwyn (these rival studio chiefs waged a bitter contractual war with each other for access to his services). As a result of feuds with Jack
Warner, Berkeley moved on to other studios by 1939: to MGM, and then to Twentieth Century-Fox.
Spivak renders some critical judgments on the merits of various production numbers, from the obvious masterpieces, such as “By A Waterfall” in Footlight Parade (1933) and “Lullaby of Broadway” in Gold Diggers of 1935 to the horrors, such as the vulgar blackface number “Goin’ To Heaven On A Mule” in the execrable Wonder Bar (1934). His subjective verdicts on some of the productions are debatable; but these are, after all, matters of taste. Buzz is extremely effective in presenting the high-pressure world of Hollywood in Berkeley’s day: the brutal hours, the relentless pace of the production schedules, the effects upon marriages, the battles over budget and control. Berkeley is depicted as a frequent victim of the system at its worst, but he was also a maniacal boss. Esther Williams berated him in scathing terms for risking her life on the set—she broke several vertebrae in executing one of his stunts—and Berkeley comes across as a talented overgrown child: He would lurch between self-defeating antics, brilliant inspirations, and dedicated craftsmanship.
Spivak’s approach is to interweave everything in chronological sequence. But this results in a tangled narrative. This is, after all, a hybrid work: a combination of biography, film history, and artistic commentary. The extensive descriptions of film plots and dance routines often bog down the narrative as badly as accumulations of biographical trivia. This particular problem might well have been averted if Buzz had been divided in half, with descriptions of production numbers and plots removed from the biographical narrative and inserted in the long and complete appendix that Spivak provides at the end: an appendix in which every single Berkeley creation (including nonmusical productions that he directed) is listed. This greatly expanded appendix would have been a house of wonders in which Spivak’s readers could browse at their leisure.
Such a strategy might also have freed the author to pursue a much broader exploration in the biographical section: to link the oeuvre of Berkeley to broader cross-currents in the dance world. Berkeley was, in the beginning, just a clever and precocious member of a tribe of producers and directors who specialized in Precision Dance, as it was called. Precision troupes were rife on Broadway in the Twenties. Berkeley learned a lot about coordinating movement in the course of supervising military drills during World War I, but so did other dance directors of the time. Even the creations that Spivak calls the Berkeley “top shots”—with the camera at the ceiling and the bodies of the dancers down below in a kaleidoscopic pattern—had been done by others: A shot of this type is featured in the Marx Brothers’ The Cocoanuts (1929). Director Robert Florey thought it up.
Many of these dances overlapped with the avant-garde movement Ballet Mécanique, whose title was borrowed from the musical composition of George Antheil and the related avant-garde film of Fernand Léger. Such dances depicted the fervent—and oversimplified—debate among writers and artists between the world wars regarding The Machine and its effects upon Western civilization. This theme, stretching back at least as far as the polemics of Thomas Carlyle, was represented during Berkeley’s heyday by novels like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). The “mechanical ballet” to which Spivak refers in his coverage of Berkeley’s dances for George White’s Scandals of 1928 must be understood in this context. On film, Berkeley used this imagery as early as 1931: “We’ll Dance Until the Dawn” in Flying High contains an overhead shot in which dancers (and their props) create concentric patterns suggestive of interlocked gears and ball bearings.
A comprehensive account of Berkeley’s creations could make a number of these cultural—and in some cases political—connections. Spivak calls due attention to the elements within the dances (especially given the political sympathies of the brothers Warner) that salute Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal. He also points out the very interesting fact that the Berkeley technique had some influential admirers in Germany: Josef Goebbels and Leni Riefenstahl. And this suggests yet another comparison that goes unexplored.
The nightmarish “Lullaby of Broadway” production number bears an interesting (and, upon reflection, obvious) relationship to Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will (1934), released just a year before “Lullaby.” The macabre spectacle of “Lullaby” features a dance within a “nightclub” that is vast and surreal: a set containing broad terraces, pendant vanes, and a rostrum-like platform where Dick Powell and Wini Shaw behold dozens of uniformed dancers—women garbed in jet black and young men in black shirts and gray jackets—performing a palms-down salute to the cadence of a massed tap that is suggestive of jackboots. These elements relate to the imagery of Riefenstahl’s spectacle: the terraces of the vast Nazi party amphitheater, the swastika banners (pendant), the black-clad men of the SS, who go goose-stepping down the terraces.
Richard Striner, professor of history at Washington College, is the author, most recently, of Lincoln’s Way: How Six Great Presidents Created American Power.