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Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley

Jeffrey Spivak
Series: Screen Classics
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 408
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Characterized by grandiose song-and-dance numbers featuring ornate geometric patterns and mimicked in many modern films, Busby Berkeley's unique artistry is as recognizable and striking as ever. From his years on Broadway to the director's chair, Berkeley is notorious for his inventiveness and signature style. Through sensational films like42nd Street(1933),Gold Diggers of 1933(1933),Footlight Parade(1933), and Dames (1934), Berkeley sought to distract audiences from the troubles of the Great Depression. Although his bold technique is familiar to millions of moviegoers, Berkeley's life remains a mystery.

    Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley is a telling portrait of the filmmaker who revolutionized the musical and changed the world of choreography. Berkeley pioneered many conventions still in use today, including the famous "parade of faces" technique, which lends an identity to each anonymous performer in a close-up. Carefully arranging dancers in complex and beautiful formations, Berkeley captured perspectives never seen before.

    Jeffrey Spivak's meticulous research magnifies the career and personal life of this beloved filmmaker. Employing personal letters, interviews, studio memoranda, and Berkeley's private memoirs, Spivak unveils the colorful life of one of cinema's greatest artists.

    eISBN: 978-0-8131-2644-9
    Subjects: History, Film Studies, Performing Arts

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Prologue
    (pp. 1-3)

    Professionally, he used only half of his birth name. His real name, disjointed and clumsy, contained both parental surnames and tributes to a famous actor friend and a part-time soubrette. Contrastingly, his stage name was pleasing, rhyming, and alliteratively euphonious. Saying it out loud evokes scores of platinum, pulchritudinous chorines arranged in geometric, eye-appealing configurations. The name, a lowercase noun inThe American Thesaurus of Slang,is defined as “any elaborate dance number.”

    Busby Berkeley was the premier dance director of motion pictures. His originality and sharply defined style brought him professional acclaim and financial reward. He saved a studio...

  5. 1 Actress and Son
    (pp. 4-19)

    In the northeast corner of New York State, on the western banks of Lake Champlain, lies the formidable town of Plattsburgh. On September 11, 1814, the Battle of Plattsburgh proved a crucial victory for the United States in the War of 1812. The fledgling U.S. Navy, under the command of Brig. Gen. Alexander Macomb, fought back an invasion from England, which, after defeating Napoleon, had turned its attention to retaking the northern states and possessing all navigation rights over Lake Champlain. The defeat of the British against overwhelming odds boosted national morale and was a chief catalyst in ending the...

  6. 2 In Formation
    (pp. 20-26)

    Gertrude was ready to quit the stage when Buzz entered the military, but there was an acting obligation in May. She starred inOld Friends,a premiere work produced, ironically, by Charles Frohman, Inc. His company had persisted long after his untimely passing. The play was by James Barrie, who had pennedPeter Panfor Frohman in 1905. That same month, the dramatic filmThe Iron Heartwas released to theaters. Gertrude played the devoted (and suffering) wife to a tyrannical nouveau riche factory owner. The owner is eventually given his comeuppance, after which his loyal wife welcomes the broken...

  7. 3 The Show Fixer
    (pp. 27-47)

    Buzz moved in with his mother and regaled her with military anecdotes. His successes with amateur theatrics fell on disapproving ears. Gertrude had hoped her soon-to-be-mustered-out son would find a job, any job, in any field except show business. The shoe factory apprenticeship in Athol was no longer an option: Starr Lee had died, and the company had gone out of business. Buzz also had no lady love in his life, a situation that caused no consternation in Gertrude; indeed, it suited her possessiveness.

    Not yet in civvies, the uniformed second lieutenant and his beaming mother strolled through the Broadway...

  8. 4 A Cyclopean Vision
    (pp. 48-65)

    Before Buzz arrived in Hollywood, Sam Goldwyn had him privately investigated. He was hesitant to hire him because of an alleged drinking problem. Whoever relayed that information to Goldwyn is a mystery, but Ziegfeld knew Berkeley prior to his involvement withWhoopee!He had wanted Buzz to dance-direct a show a couple of years earlier, but Buzz had been busy with theEarl Carroll Vanities. It’s quite likely that anecdotal accounts of Buzz’s indiscretions were passed between Sam and “Ziggy” in private dinner conversations. Goldwyn overlooked his trepidation and sent a greeting party from his studio and the West Coast...

  9. 5 The Cinematerpsichorean
    (pp. 66-122)

    On August 11, 1932, a Warnergram (interoffice memorandum) was delivered to M. Ebenstein from Jacob Wilk asking him to prepare a contract for the world motion picture rights of the unpublished novel “42nd Street.” Warner closed a movie-rights deal with former chorus boy–turned-novelist Bradford Ropes for six thousand dollars. The film was scheduled to start shooting in mid-September to coincide with the publication date of September 15. As of September 1, Buzz was still under contract to Sam Goldwyn until September 18, but that didn’t inhibit Warner Brothers’ plans. Mervyn LeRoy would direct the book; Buzz, the fifty-seven chorines....

  10. 6 The Cancerous Tire
    (pp. 123-142)

    The movie-going public, those who paid eighteen cents for a thinly padded balcony seat and purchased a tawdry movie magazine afterward, didn’t know the real Busby Berkeley. On his own he was increasingly drawn to liquor’s potent comfort, though on-the-set colleagues swore to his sobriety when he was on the clock. The blistering details of scandalous anecdota from two bitter ex-wives were known only to the closest of colleagues and, of course, his mother. Mother, with her son’s interest at heart (balanced with bitterness toward her latest ex-daughter-in-law), might have been the author of Buzz’s $65,000 defensive plea. Who could...

  11. 7 Post-Traumatic Inspiration
    (pp. 143-163)

    Buzz and Gertrude posed for acquittal photos for the Associated Press. The accused wore suit, tie, and artfully folded handkerchief; Mother was decked out in hat, brooch, and spectacles, looking very much like a doting grandmother. The grueling hours between court and set weighed heavily on Buzz.Stage Struckwas shooting on an inflexible schedule when the superfluous third trial was under way. A Dick Powell sequence wrapping at 2:00 a.m. was followed by a look-your-best appearance in front of judge and jury at 9:00 a.m. sharp. But Buzz looked at his oppressive schedule in a positive light: “I was...

  12. Illustrations
    (pp. None)
  13. 8 Buzz’s Babes
    (pp. 164-197)

    Buzz made the move to Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer with none of the grief he had suffered from Sam Goldwyn under similar circumstances. Mervyn LeRoy’s May memo came to fruition with Buzz’s first assignment. Bobby Connolly, Buzz’s peer from Warner Brothers, had been hired to direct the musical numbers forThe Wizard of Ozwhen Buzz was busy withThey Made Me a Criminal. Arthur Freed allowed Buzz a free hand in directing the number “If I Only Had a Brain,” sung by the scarecrow (Ray Bolger) to Dorothy (Judy Garland). Buzz employed reverse footage and undercranked his camera to an amusing effect....

  14. 9 Art and Audacity
    (pp. 198-210)

    Buzz requested a respite. He hadn’t taken a real vacation in years. He wedged in his weddings and his honeymoons whenever there was a free day or two in his schedule. His work onGirl Crazyended far too precipitously, and his marriage was no longer tenable, so Buzz found himself with enough free time for a holiday. Louis B. Mayer, knowing full well the histrionics that had occurred between Arthur Freed, Roger Edens, and Buzz, gave him a month off. He decided to take an ambitious cross-country automobile trip with Mother. They would wind up in New York, see...

  15. 10 The Stage Debacle
    (pp. 211-217)

    Buzz was still sporting a sling when he was seen again at Slapsie Maxies’s with his good arm around Lorraine. The two were close, and Buzz gave Lorraine a small no-credit role inCinderella Jones. Divergent announcements of Warner Brothers’ plans for Buzz were issued in January. First, Buzz was to directandappear in “Star Spangled Banner Girls” followed by a biography of Marilyn Miller, Florenz Ziegfeld’s talented singing and dancing star.

    Cinderella Joneswas a tepid comedy with a couple of songs. Saddled with a basic premise that was somewhat dated in 1943, Judy Jones (Joan Leslie), an...

  16. 11 Inconsolable
    (pp. 218-224)

    There was no Hollywood red-carpet premiere forCinderella Joneswhen it was finally released on March 9, 1946. By this time, the film had been recut and repackaged into a studio afterthought that garnered little praise. The gamble of waiting until Robert Alda had struck it big withRhapsody in Bluedidn’t pay off. Alda never reached the studio’s idea of his potential, andCinderella Jonessuffered because of it. The comedy with pertinent references to 1944 was dated and irrelevant two years later, and many of its war references were deleted by the studio.

    Buzz’s twenty-two-year-old bride separated from...

  17. 12 One Last at Bat
    (pp. 225-234)

    The trades in May revealed that Esther Williams was named by MGM to play the leading role in its newest film,Take Me Out to the Ball Game,which was to begin filming the following month.

    Whatever instigated the ugly argument that sealed his fate with Warner Brothers mattered little to Buzz now.Romance on the High Seashad garnered positive reviews and turned a tidy profit. Buzz proved to himself he could still direct with imagination and authority. Over the Fourth of July holiday, he undoubtedly was a recipient of some very troubling news concerning Carole Landis. She was...

  18. 13 Jumping, Tapping, Diving
    (pp. 235-256)

    For ten months, from theAnniedismissal of May 1949 to the last day of February 1950, Buzz remained unemployed. An agreement dated February 28, 1950, between Buzz and Loew’s Incorporated was signed. Buzz was to act as a dance director for an untitled film for a period of at least seven days and possibly more, at a salary of five hundred dollars per week. On March 23, the untitled film was revealed to beTwo Weeks with Love,and production officially began.

    If you were in your fifties in 1950, the nostalgia of fin-de-siècle America, as wistfully portrayed in...

  19. 14 Out of Sight
    (pp. 257-261)

    “Busby Berkeley will make a comeback,” wrote theDaily Reviewin September 1954. It reported that Buzz would be directing singer and actor Harry Richman for his show on a local Hollywood TV station. Although Harry had worked with Buzz back in 1930 forLew Leslie’s International Revue,there was no reteaming despite the announcement.

    The following month, producers Jack J. Gross and Philip N. Krasne of Gross-Krasne, Inc. signed Buzz to direct three new “telefilms” for their seriesBig Town. The offer was real, and there was no question of the show’s viability since it had been around since...

  20. 15 The Ringmaster
    (pp. 262-265)

    For a while the Berkeleys lived at 11968 Wilshire Boulevard in Los Angeles, but Buzz became increasingly disillusioned with the industry that was reluctant to offer new opportunities to a sexagenarian with his singular talent. In a momentous decision, Etta and Buzz picked up stakes and moved to Palm Desert, 140 miles east of Hollywood, and one mile from the date groves whereThey Made Me a Criminalwas filmed. They purchased what real estate agents might term a “modest” residence on a street named “Peppergrass.” The house, a one-floor unit with a sloping roof, minuscule front yard, and covered...

  21. 16 Remember My Forgotten Director
    (pp. 266-271)

    Buzz’s 1963 Director’s Guild dues form showed earnings of $16,000 (Jumbomoney and little else). As before, Buzz couldn’t venture a guess to the coming year’s financial potential, so he left the “future earnings” field blank.

    In March, Buzz took another job at MGM. He was again credited as the second unit director, but this time the title was more appropriate than it was inJumbo. He was assigned the stunt work for the tentatively titled “Moonwatch.” Buzz directed helicopters and navy craft and supervised a colossal automobile wreck on a California freeway. “I had the time of my life...

  22. 17 The Figurehead
    (pp. 272-291)

    Harry Rigby, the Broadway producer, loved the films of Busby Berkeley. In the 1930s, his well-to-do Philadelphia family routinely gave him movie money that he spent eagerly every Saturday. Harry particularly enjoyed Ruby, Joan, Ginger, and other musical stars of the day, but the films of Berkeley remained at the top of his list: “I was mad for them.”

    Harry was not what you would call a successful producer. In 1951, his first production,Make a Wish,closed in fewer than three months. It was especially painful to Harry as his family and friends had provided a good portion of...

  23. 18 The Palmy Days
    (pp. 292-295)

    Buzz and Etta flew to West Berlin for the city’s film festival in 1971. Still riding the wave of his newfound notoriety, Buzz accepted the Unicrit Prix Award, which was inscribed: “To Honour Busby Berkeley Master Musical Maker/A Tribute from Unicrit Berlin Film Festival 1971.” Buzz pontificated in his authoritative voice about beauty and his girls while the festival’s international press took notes: “I always named ’em the Berkeley Girls, and no one picked any girls but me. I picked ’em all. Always. Once a producer came up to me and said, ‘Buzz, that one on the end look cute,’...

  24. Epilogue
    (pp. 296-299)

    Riverside County’s certificate of death, like so much of Busby Berkeley’s public record, was rife with errors. Etta provided what little factual information it contained. His name was not “Busby NMN Berkeley” as reported; his father was not William Enos; and his parents’ birthplaces were not unknown.

    Buzz was interred at Wiefels and Son Funeral Directors in Palm Springs. “Professional and Personal Services” including the casket, memorial card printing, certified copies of the death record, filing fees, and taxes came to a total of $1,283.69.

    On March 29, the will of Busby Berkeley (signed on March 8, 1971) was field...

  25. On Busby Berkeley’s Memoirs
    (pp. 300-302)

    A fortunate convergence of timing and happenstance brought Busby Berkeley’s memoirs to my attention in the fall of 2009. While this book was being written, author and musical historian Miles Kreuger phoned me with the exciting news that famed cinema historian Marc Wanamaker of Los Angeles’s Bison Productions had presented him with the memoirs.

    As noted within, Berkeley’s memoirs went up for auction in 1998, and I had assumed that they were in the possession of the anonymous highest bidder. The auction house (Butterfields) would not reveal the disposition of the memoirs much less the identity of the auction winner,...

  26. Appendix: The Works of Busby Berkeley
    (pp. 303-326)
  27. Notes
    (pp. 327-352)
  28. Index
    (pp. 353-374)