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Monday, January 19, 2015

Busby Berkeley: Purveyor of the Visual Wow Factor

Busby Berkeley
Busby Berkeley (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

      Not only have I been impressed about the number of votes my current Battle of the Bands has received, but immensely gratified to see so many visitors taking the time to watch the ten minute clip of the Busby Berkeley production of "I Only Have Eyes for You".  If you have not yet voted on that post I hope you might take the time to listen to the song versions that I've offered and vote on your favorite.


An Innovative Film Pioneer

      One of my favorite parts of my DVD library is The Busby Berkeley Collection boxed set of five of his best musicals and a treasure trove of extras that includes period cartoons and shorts as well as several informative commentaries from film critics and historians.  There are hours of viewing in this set and it's a must have for any fan of Berkeley, musicals, or the movies of the 1930's.   It was a great era of movie making that gave the Depression Era generation an escape from their troubles.  Busby Berkeley was among the biggest names of that decade.

       Born into a show business family in 1895, Berkeley started his career at age 5 and worked in screen and stage productions until shortly before his death in 1976.  During World War I Berkeley served in the U.S. Army directing precision marching drills and military parades.  This military experience had a huge influence on his stylistic approach to staging dance numbers.  Watching these numbers one can easily see a relation to what Berkeley did with the dancers in the film and how soldiers march in precision drill formations.

       Berkeley's legacy in culture has been pervasive with an influence that can be seen in many movies, television shows, music videos, and even commercials.   His iconic visual style has endeared him to audiences even to this day.  In the 60's the Busby Berkeley films took on a cult status on college campuses and as stalwart midnight movie features.

        Though I grew up with an awareness of what Berkeley had done, I was not familiar with who he was until I learned more about him after I entered college in the 70's.  My ability to see his films was still infrequent until cable television and video made them more accessible.  Now that I've got the box set I have watched those films repeatedly and have yet to tire of those great Busby Berkeley dance productions.  The five films in this set represent only a small portion of his body of work.

Busby Berkeley's Influence on Nazi Germany

        Making a connection between Busby Berkeley and the Nazis might sound a bit ludicrous--and indeed Berkeley did not likely have many political interests--but there is no doubt that his work had a prominent influence on the Nazi propaganda film Triumph of the Will which is considered by many to be one of the greatest films of history.  The female director of this film, Leni Riefenstahl, admitted that one of her influences was from the dance numbers of Busby Berkeley.  Watching Riefenstahl's Triumph and her later Nazi propaganda film Olympia one can see much of the Berkeley style.

        Berkeley likewise was undoubtedly influenced by the Expressionistic art movement and notably the film making of German director Fritz Lang who directed the 1927 epic science fiction silent film masterpiece Metropolis.  Of course the art movements of that age had a pervasive influence over many of the films made during that time.  The set designers and art directors all combined efforts with the film directors and the choreographers like Berkeley to turn out films with the distinctive look that they had.

You Want Creepy?

         In her comment on my Battle of the Bands post, Robin from Your Daily Dose mentioned the creepy faces seen in the "I Only Have Eyes for You" clip from Dames.  If you thought those faces were creepy check out the video I've offered below.   Introduced in the film Gold Diggers of 1935, "Lullaby of Broadway" won an Academy Award for Best Original Song and has been recorded by many artists including a number 1 chart hit for the Dorsey Brothers Orchestra.

        The song is a paean to the party crazed people of the night.  This is a somewhat dark, yet joyous sequence.  There is debauchery that borders on insanity yet touches us with images of loneliness and the isolation of urban life.    Film noir fans should appreciate the stylistic approach of shadows and stark linear design.  The group (or shall we say mob) dance numbers display the fascistic motif as embraced by the Nazi propagandists.

         I am greatly amused by the description given by wacko film director John Waters in the commentary on the Berkeley Box Set disc for Gold Diggers of 1935.  To somewhat paraphrase, Waters observes:

        "The dance number of "Lullaby on Broadway" is scary.   It's like a cult--like Jim Jones or the Manson Family.  We see all of these angry tap dancers coming towards us.  They're like a zombie army. It's Night of the Living Tappers.  They want to kill you."

        It's very probable that George Romero was influenced by some of Berkeley's imagery for the Living Dead films.  Michael Jackson surely modeled many of his dance routines after the Berkeley style.

       If you have a moment to indulge in greatness of film choreography, check out this clip below. Nothing wrong with the video at the beginning, it's just a matter of not viewing on a larger screen and even then the clip starts out in the darkness with a tiny white dot at the top of the screen.   Watch the white dot as it continues to grow.  As in all of Berkeley screen dance sequences, the film editing is expertly executed according to Busby Berkeley's precisely planned vision.

       Hope you will take a moment and I hope you will enjoy this classic clip which Berkeley named as his favorite of all of the numbers he created.





         Again, if you haven't voted on my Battle of the Bands contest for the song "I Only Have Eyes for You" I hope you will add your preference to the tally.  There's still time as I won't be adding up the votes until this Thursday in order to announce the winner on Friday.  On Wednesday I'll be relating a personal story about this great song and asking you about similar experiences you've had.  Stay with me as I keep Tossing It Out.

          Were you familiar with Berkeley's work prior to my posts?   What do you think of the Busby Berkeley style and where have you seen the influences?    Have you seen Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will or Olympia?   If so, what is your assessment of those films?

60 comments:

  1. Yeah, that is a creepy, but entertaining, clip, Lee. I'd seen some of Berkeley's work before -- the big kaleidoscope images from shooting hundreds of dancers as they lay on the stage and move in intricate patterns, but it's been years and I don't know if I've seen this particular movie. Those lock-step tap dancers storming up and down the stairs sure do remind me of the propaganda images from Nazi Germany with the armies on parade in synchronized goose-steps.

    I'm amazed again by the sheer number of discrete shots it took to make the scene. The big dance number probably had several cameras going at once (including one possibly mounted with tracks installed on the upper ceiling, evidently -- I first thought it was a crane shot, but no-way could a crane maneuver over all those stairs on the set), but I bet there are hundreds of edits in this sequence of film.

    Very entertaining, Lee.

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    1. I'm glad that you are able to appreciate this work. I think you might enjoy watching the documentaries and interviews included in the box set. They tell about how they did some of the filming. Berkeley apparently planned the sequences very carefully before filming them and then had a good crew of innovative film craftsmen.

      Lee

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  2. I've heard the name Busby Berkeley but had no idea who he was.

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    1. I hope I've enlightened you with this post. Check out one of his films!

      Lee

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  3. Never heard of him either. But apologies, not a fan of old, black and white movies.
    Knew that dot would become a face.

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    1. You should expand your horizons some. You're missing out on some truly great film making if you don't look back on the movies that paved the way for the modern film makers.

      Lee

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    1. Kind of creepy, but on the other hand pretty cool and innovative.

      Lee

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  5. The Buzby Berkeley dance things were spectacular in their day. Never saw one I thought was creepy...

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    1. It's a matter of perspective really, I can see a creepy aspect to modern viewers who aren't used to these films, but you and I grew up on this stuff and came to appreciate it.

      Lee

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  6. He sure knew how to use the current of the times BW and the added shadows for effect with the lighting. Especially with her face. Shadows morphing from scary to a person and he plays to perception. It's all in the timing a perception. Interesting.

    Yes, I've heard of him before. :-)

    Sia McKye Over Coffee

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    1. Yes, you get what he was doing. Black and while film making allows for some great effects with light and shadows that isn't quite as effect with color.

      Lee

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  7. I'd not heard of Busby Berkeley nor his style until your post, but I really enjoyed it. And I didn't think it was creepy, but I like weird things, so...

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    1. It's different to modern eyes. I like weird things too and usually they are far weirder than Berkeley who I think was working in an art form.

      Lee

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  8. I'm not familiar with Berkeley at all and the clip is creepy.

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    1. Keep in mind this clip is out of context. Watch an entire film and you get a completely different point of view. They were fun films.

      Lee

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  9. I'm so behind on blog reading, Lee. I'm still trying to make the round of BOTB participants before the deadline. So, I don't have time to watch the clip (besides we've already determined that I'd find it "creepy" based on my comment on the first offering). Thanks for the mention. If I find the time, I'll be back!

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    1. I don't think the Busby clips are really as creepy as you might initially think. Put in perspective of the films they take on a more charming aspect. But then that's my opinion. Some people think anything old is creepy. Gosh, maybe younger people think I'm creepy.

      Lee

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  10. I'm so glad you did a Busby Berkeley follow up post. I knew the name before but didn't really know much about him before. Thank you.

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    1. I've been in a Busby Berkeley mode of late--again--and just wanted to share something I really enjoy.

      Lee

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  11. I wasn't familiar with him, but he's got an impressive background. Thanks for sharing!

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    1. If you become very aware of his work you begin to realize how influential his work has been on others. He's worth a look.

      Lee

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  12. it's been ages since I've last time seen a black and white movie, they don't even play those any more on TV here :) Coincidentally I did catch one I haven't seen before last night on TV, and I haven't even heard of it before last night - DIAMOND HEAD with that idiot Heston Charlton :)

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    1. I haven't seen Diamond Head before, but I watched the original Planet of the Apes the other day. That's a classic. TCM regularly shows old black & white films, but maybe you don't get that network where you are.

      Lee

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  13. Oh I know of Busby and love his work. Poor Mama's boy who liked the bottle a bit too much and was guilty of a hit and run but that's his personal life. His work as a director and choreographer are brilliant and the overhead shots are often in use even today. One can see his style in many music videos. I don't think it is this scene (I am at work so will watch it later) but I recall seeing a scene, i think from 42nd Street, where the dance sequence ends with a woman jumping to her death. I have not seen Triumph of the Will or Olympia but want to. I have seen clips and Triumph could now be called a horror film when one knows what happened

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    1. When you judge Triumph of the Will solely on its technique and visual imagery and forget the history related to what the film depicts, then the film is pretty impressive. Like so many geniuses of arts and entertainment, Berkeley had his demons and they probably diminished his latter success potential. Creatively though the man showed genius.

      Lee

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    2. Oh wow...I was wrong about the film as it is this film with the death scene! I was wondering but I thought it was 42nd Street. I have not seen either fir decades. Yes you are right about Triumph Of The Will and if I can rent the film I will see it one day

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    3. I think there may be a death scene (or at least some sort of violent scene) in 42nd street. I need to go back to watch it again. Triumph of the Will won't be high on most people's entertainment list, but it is important and interesting from a historical perspective and fascinating for anyone with an eye for art, film, and visual composition. Let me know if you see it and what you think.

      Lee

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  14. I have to say before these last couple of posts, my only exposure to him was in an Avengers comic, where the Beast complained after a battle, "It feels like I have two or three Busby Berkeley musicals going off in my head!" Of course, the only exposure to Metropolis I had was in another, where Ant-Man tours the Vision's android brain and says, "This looks like a leftover set from Metropolis- Fritz Lang's, not Clark Kent's!" But IMHO, you can't beat tap dancers- and he sure packed a lot of them in!

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    1. You make a good point for becoming familiar with old reference points--you don't get the jokes if you don't know what they mean. Love those lines you offer.

      Yes, the clip for "Lullaby..." is like hyper tap. John Waters' descriptions are very fitting of the visual.

      Lee

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  15. I must admit, his stuff is new to me but it is interesting. I've been a fan of musicals forever (good ones) since I saw Singing in the Rain when I was three.

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    1. Singing in the Rain is one of the best film musicals. Berkeley's work predates and merges with the time when that film was made. The Berkeley films are kind of musicals and kind of comedies with musical numbers in them. Whatever they are they are darn good and fun.

      Lee

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  16. You know i didn't know the name, but I'd seen a lot of his work and have always been fascinated with it. It's so huge, you know what I mean?

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    1. The spectacle of the dance numbers may be part of the reason it was not sustainable for the film industry which began to focus more on dance films such as those of Astaire and Gene Kelly. The Berkeley signature is huge numbers working in unison. It's something that works best in totalitarian environments like North Korea. They have huge spectacles such as what Berkeley put together. Flash mobs have also achieved the effect but those are usually done by volunteers and don't cost anyone anything but time, energy, and devotion to what they are doing.

      Lee

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  17. Don't think I'll be sleeping tight after that! Well the beginning anyway, the dancing, I love!
    Great cinematography! We never really know the names behind the scenes do we, it's always the actors, signers, dancers that get the credit but those behind the camera really make it real!
    You did a real service introducing us to Busby Berkeley.

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    1. And yet Berkeley was very well known in his day and to a lesser degree when his name was revived in the late 60's and early 70's. I think it's time for another Berkeley revival.

      Lee

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  18. The face/head at the beginning: definitely creepy! I loved the tap dancing choreography. And a nice nod to the casting of the kitty cat. :)

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    1. The kitty adds a definite note of pathos in its second appearance which represents the death of its owner. It's a nice touch I think.

      Lee

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  19. Oh Lee! Thanks so much for this clip. I used to love Berkeley musicals (how old am I?) and the choreography was always so amazing. The sheer force of numbers! Ever heard of La La Human Steps - a dance group out of Montreal - amazing...

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    1. Not familiar with that Montreal group. Berkeley deserves to be remembered and that takes introducing him to those who don't know his work.

      Lee

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  20. Great post Lee! Really loved this one. I love the black and white classics. What always strikes me is regardless of the setting such as a baseball game or shopping, guys are wearing ties and hats and women dresses. Compare that to the baggy pants of today. When the hell did society take such a plunge?

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    1. I'm not a fan of having to dress up in a suit and tie, but you're right about the style between now and then. Those old photos with all the guys and gals all dressed up are so cool. I can remember when my parents dressed like that.

      Lee

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  21. My mom was a Busby Berkeley fan, so I saw a lot of those dancing, singing films growing up. I'm still fascinated by the choreography and the camera angles they used to created the kaleidoscopic effects. I voted on I Only Have Eyes For You, but I cheated.

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    1. One film historian suggested that maybe Berkeley's favorite toy as a child was a kaleidoscope and he never outgrew it, instead seeing the whole world with that complex view. He did have a great eye for visuals.

      Lee

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  22. Hi Lee. I really enjoyed your battle - especially Busby's clip. this one is amazing too and every time I watch it I wonder what happened to the kitty. It's been a long time so I don't remember if this was the end or not.
    Also, copied your link on propaganda and have been reading over there. Quite interesting! I'll let you know how it goes. These people were clever... deathly so.

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    1. This musical clip is not the end of the movie, but it has been called a movie within a movie since it essentially stands alone when taken out of the context of the film.

      Good propagandists have to be deviously clever to manipulate minds successfully. The Nazis had some good ones and I'd say their tactics have been studied by marketers ever since. In order to convince a public to accept an evil agenda they have to create a strong appeal for what they are doing. We need to likewise question a lot of the tactics used by the political campaigns in our own society. Could we fall prey to another frightening agenda?

      Lee

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  23. This was my first introduction to Berkeley. Thank you for sharing more about him.

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    1. Hope you'll check out some more. You'll see a lot of motifs that artists today have continued to use in their own work.

      Lee

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  24. I do love the oldies and black & white brings more character to a face. I've started reading books from between the great wars. It's like stepping back in time. History you can live.

    Anna from Shout with Emaginette

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    1. It was a fascinating time that really brought the world into a new, sometimes frightening, sometimes wonderful age. Thankfully we have a good view of that era through the documentation of the movies.

      Lee

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  25. Okay. That was a really creepy video. I love the song (I sang it in show choir when I was in high school.), but I think I'm going to have nightmares after watching that!

    Interesting bit of history there!

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    1. There is the creepy side for sure, but there is also a fun side. That dancing is ebullient.

      Lee

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  26. It seems that there was a bio movie about Berkeley, and how he rose to great heights, then went broke, had a stroke...? Does that sound familiar? Was Billy Berkeley the good witch of the north in Wizard of Oz?

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    1. Actually Billie Burke was the Good Witch. I believe she had been the wife of Broadway producer Flo Ziegfield (I saw that in a movie about his life). I don't know about the Berkeley film, but it sounds like his life and would make a good story. I'll have to check that out as I'd like to see a film about Berkeley.

      Lee

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  27. No, I did not know about Berkeley's work prior to this. How very interesting. I'll definitely check out more of his work.

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  28. That's why I wanted to put Berkeley out there again. His work deserves to be remembered and to be seen by newer generations.

    Lee

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  29. Hi Lee, I was familiar with Busby before, but not intimately. It has been quite fun to read your posts and comments and get a bit deeper.

    Now I am convinced I must buy that boxed set you have! I would definitely enjoy it!

    Seahawkboyganboy VI

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    1. If you get it, please let me know what you think. Folks that don't appreciate old black and while films might have a hard time getting into it, but those who love the era and its art forms should get hours of nostalgic enjoyment from these old gems. I really enjoy the extras on each disc.

      Lee

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If you know me and want to comment but don't want to do it here, then you can send me an email @ jacksonlee51 at aol dot com.

Lee