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The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley

Jeffrey Spivak

Publication Year: 2011

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 like 42nd 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.

Published by: The University Press of Kentucky

Series: Screen Classics

Front Cover

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Series Page

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Title Page

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Copyright Page

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p. vi-vi

In an era of breadlines, Depression, and wars, I tried to help people get away from all the misery; to turn their minds to something else. ...


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p. vii-vii

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pp. ix-x

I am eternally grateful for the help, support, and advice of the following contributors, who made the writing of Busby Berkeley’s life story a Joe Franklin, for his witty Buzz Berkeley anecdotes and for putting Sybil Jason, for her personal recollections of working with Buzz. His story is balanced and fair thanks in part to Miss Jason’s first-person ...

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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 ...

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1. Actress and Son

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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 ...

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2. In Formation

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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 in Old 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 penned Peter Pan for Frohman in 1905...

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3. The Show Fixer

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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 ...

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4. A Cyclopean Vision

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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 with Whoopee! He had wanted Buzz to dance-direct a show a couple of years earlier...

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5. The Cinematerpsichorean

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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...

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6. The Cancerous Tire

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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...

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7. Post-Traumatic Inspiration

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pp. 143-150

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 Struck was shooting on an inflexible schedule...

Photo Gallery

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Continuation: 7. Post-Traumatic Inspiration

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pp. 151-163

...made a pilgrimage to see the queen. Those who were in the queen’s good favor (as Buzz was) received good press. They returned the favor by whispering juicy gossip in the queen’s ear. The diminutive “Lolly” was uttered only by the closest of friends. To her enemies (or anyone she held in disfavor), the words written under the byline of Louella O. Parsons...

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8. Buzz’s Babes

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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 for The Wizard of Oz when Buzz was busy...

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9. Art and Audacity

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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 on Girl Crazy ended far too precipitously, and his marriage was no longer tenable, so Buzz found himself with enough free time...

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10. The Stage Debacle

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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 in Cinderella Jones. Divergent announcements of Warner Brothers’ plans for Buzz were issued in January. First, Buzz was to direct and appear in “Star Spangled Banner Girls” followed...

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11. Inconsolable

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pp. 218-224

There was no Hollywood red-carpet premiere for Cinderella Jones when 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 with Rhapsody in Blue didn’t pay off. Alda never reached the studio’s idea...

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12. One Last at Bat

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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...

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13. Jumping, Tapping, Diving

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pp. 235-256

For ten months, from the Annie dismissal 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...

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14. Out of Sight

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pp. 257-261

“Busby Berkeley will make a comeback,” wrote the Daily Review in 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 for Lew Leslie’s International Revue, there was no reteaming despite the announcement...

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15. The Ringmaster

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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...

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16. Remember My Forgotten Director

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pp. 266-271

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

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17. The Figurehead

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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.”...

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18. The Palmy Days

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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...

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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...

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On Busby Berkeley's Memoirs

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pp. 300-301

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...


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pp. 303-326


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pp. 327-351


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pp. 353-367

E-ISBN-13: 9780813126449
Print-ISBN-13: 9780813126432

Page Count: 408
Publication Year: 2011

Series Title: Screen Classics