A kaleidoscope of legs: Busby Berkeley's flamboyant dance fantasies

In hit movies like 42nd Street, Berkeley liberated dance from the stage and placed it in a purely cinematic dimension with dizzyingly inventive routines

A new West End production of 42nd Street opens this month and its mix of high glamour and romantic nostalgia may prove a fitting escapist fantasy for our uncertain times. In 1933, the original movie was designed to beguile and distract a suffering US. President Roosevelt’s programmes for rebooting the economy had yet to take effect, and the movie’s audience was desperate for the temporary relief of big-budget effects, big-name stars and the 200 “gorgeous girls” that the trailer promised.

42nd Street proved more popular than the Warner Brothers studio bosses had dared imagine but credit was given less to director Lloyd Bacon than to Busby Berkeley, the actor and self-trained choreographer in charge of its musical numbers. Warner Brothers were taking something of a punt on Berkeley, who had no formal dance training and whose first experience of choreography had been organising marching drills during the first world war. But Berkeley had displayed some talent for working with chorus lines on Broadway, and spent two years with the Samuel Goldwyn studio, choreographing a number of low-budget musicals.

During that period he’d begun playing with new ways to put dance on screen. 42nd Street gave him the budget and freedom to let those ideas fly. When we look at a number such as Young and Healthy today, its structural devices may seem tame but at the time they embodied a bold new attempt to liberate dance from the physical conventions of the stage, and place it in a purely cinematic dimension.

By constructing the choreography around a trio of hydraulically operated platforms, Berkeley transformed the spatial possibilities of his choreography. He could move his dancers between different levels, without the need for complex lifts or partnerwork (0.24); he could create effective shifts in pattern and speed with only minimal physical activity (0.40). Even more radical were the visual possibilities created by his agile camera, which ranged from this tracking closeup of the dancers’ legs (1.23), abstracting them to a V-shaped tunnel of stockinged flesh, to the dizzying overhead shots that turned the chorus line into a kaleidoscope of art deco patterns.

Berkeley’s overhead shot became his signature device (it was significant perhaps that he’d been an aerial observer with the US air corps); and he made even more dramatic use of it during the second half of the movie’s title number, which dramatised the “naughty, gawdy, bawdy, sporty” life of 42nd Street. Berkeley starts out by choreographing vivid vignettes of individual characters: a juggling street vendor, a fighting couple, a drunk, a barber, a cocktail waiter. But as these individuals are re-absorbed into the ensemble, and as the crowd then morphs into a street of dancing buildings, the camera soars higher and higher, until the scene is abstracted into a dreaming cityscape.

The box-office success of 42nd Street propelled Berkeley to the top of his profession. He choreographed six more musicals during the next two years and his ideas grew exponentially – and expensively – more flamboyant. The By a Waterfall number in Footlight Parade (1933) featured giant water tanks in which its chorus could float though a riot of pin-wheeling, molecular patterns. In Gold Diggers of 1933 and Dames, Berkeley elaborated his dance numbers with an ever more inventive panoply of costumes, props and multi-level platforms.

Berkeley helped make the 1930s a golden age for the Hollywood musical and the above compilation of clips illustrates just how brilliantly his imagination was suited to the silver screen. During that decade, Berkeley had a major rival in Fred Astaire, who was working for RKO, and even a basic comparison of the two men’s choreography reveals the limits of Berkeley’s style. Step for step, his vocabulary rarely deviates from a series of rudimentary leg kicks, shuffles and taps and a few simple, decorative movements of the arms. Lacking the musical phrasing, the grace notes, the full-bodied impetus of Astaire’s dancing, Berkeley’s choreography is memorable principally for the spectacle he was able to create out of large numbers of bodies moving in unison.

Berkeley also became increasingly dependent on the interventions of the camera, for tracking closeups, witty angles and bird’s-eye views that added texture and substance to his choreography. Astaire once quipped of his own film performances, “either the camera dances or I do”, and while most of his own on-screen dancing could work just as well on the stage, Berkeley’s numbers would have palled rapidly without their cinematic box of tricks.

If Astaire focused on the pure dancing body, and Berkeley on special effects, the other crucial difference between the two lay in their handling of sex. Back in 1930, a strict code of censorship had been laid out for Hollywood and Astaire’s musicals, although swooningly glamorous, were chastely compliant. Berkeley’s early productions for Warner Bros, however, came with a strong subtext of erotic titillation. In 42nd Street’s Young and Healthy, the lingering pace of the camera as it travels between the women’s legs has the intensity of a voyeur’s gaze. More blatant still is the way the camera hovers over the dancers’ torsos in the By a Waterfall routine from Footlight Parade, revelling in the illusion of naked flesh created by the women’s clinging costumes.

Berkeley offered his female actors and dancers up to the camera with a mathematical exactness that could border on ruthlessness. One of his signature tricks was to zoom, in rapid succession, over the faces of the chorus line, but far from individualising the women it simply confirmed their conformity to type (usually blond and china-doll cute). As a device it was no more humanising than Berkeley’s favoured shots of disembodied legs, busts, feet or arms.

Of course we look at old movies now with politically correct hindsight, but some among his original audience would have been made a little queasy by the sexual innuendo of Pettin’ in the Park, a choreographed guide book to the rules of seduction that featured in Gold Diggers of 1933. Berkeley introduces a small boy (Billy Barty) into his cast – dressed up as a rollerskating baby and leading a chorus of policeman a frantic dance; then chasing a football up the skirt of a beautiful woman, who lies on the grass with her stockings and suspenders in full view; and finally leering suggestively to camera as he lifts up a window blind to reveal a chorus of women in visible states of undress.

Berkeley always claimed there was nothing to read into his dances beyond his own ambition to make each better than the last. He resisted attempts to interpret his mass ensembles as an embodiment of Roosevelt’s New Deal collective spirit; he shrugged off comparisons between his precision-tooled chorus lines and the monumental street parades beloved of Mussolini, Hitler and Stalin. However, one of the most powerful numbers he ever directed – Remember My Forgotten Man – was also the most political, as Berkeley drew on his wartime experiences to choreograph the heroism and suffering of his fellow veterans. In movement terms it could hardly have been more basic – little more than a marching column of men that Berkeley filmed against a succession of ironic backdrops; a cheering, patriotic crowd, a rain-soaked battlefield, a postwar soup kitchen and a dole queue. But towards the end of the sequence (around 5.40) he deployed all his cinematic knowhow to orchestrate an image that potently evoked the despair and the exaltation of the soldiers’ sacrifice: as lines of men tramp wearily across the screen they simultaneously look like victims of a military war machine and figures enshrined in a stained glass window.

Berkeley’s brand of high-gloss musical gradually fell out of fashion and by the end of the 1930s he moved into straight directing. In the early 1970s, a revival of interest in the music, art and fashions of the 1930s restored movies such as 42nd Street to popularity. Berkeley’s influence is still felt in a whole range of choreographic creations. In Disney’s cartoon version of Beauty and the Beast, the Be Our Guest sequence pays a joyously overt homage, with its lines of dancing crockery and ditzy kaleidoscopic formations. The epic ensemble numbers in Riverdance are no less indebted to the choreographer in their machine-drilled, percussive unison. And the pure camp spectacle of synchronised swimming would surely have become a far lesser thing without the inspiration of Berkeley’s aquatically high-kicking chorus girls.


Judith Mackrell

The GuardianTramp

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