Busby Berkeley, born November 29 1895 (died March 14 1976) was a highly influential Hollywood director and musical choreographer, famous for his elaborate musical production numbers that involved complex choreography through geometric patterns. Berkeley’s works used large numbers of showgirls and props as fantasy elements in on-screen performances which were both captivating and impressive.
Berkeley made his stage debut aged five, acting in the company of his performing family. Following his serving in World War I, during the 1920s Berkeley became a dance director for nearly 30 Broadway musicals. As a choreographer, Berkeley was more interested in his chorus girls’ ability to form attractive geometric patterns, creating an awe-inspiringly regimented display perhaps inspired by his army experiences. However, his audiences experiencing the Great Depression of America made Berkeley very popular, and he went on to choreograph four musicals back-to-back for Warner Bros.: 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, Gold Diggers of 1933 and Fashions of 1934.
For his choreographic work, Berkeley began to develop his theatrical techniques for the musical numbers of films, such as Samuel Goldwyn’s Eddie Cantor musicals. Here he trialled and extended techniques such as the “parade of faces” in which each chorus girl’s face was shot with an individual, loving close-up. He also began to move his dancers around the stage, and later beyond the stage in shooting highly cinematic shots containing as many kaleidoscopic patterns as possible. The ‘top shot’ filming technique, shot from above, became synonymous with Berkeley’s work, another kaleidoscope shot which also appeared in the Cantor films.
As a choreographer Berkeley was allowed much independence in his direction of musical numbers, yet they were often in great contrast to the narrative sections of the films, focusing on decoration and the aesthetics of dance and glamour. Many of his innovative creations have been heavily analysed, some critiqued for their display, or perhaps exploitation, of the female form as seen through the “male gaze”. However Berkeley always denied any significance of his work, arguing that his main professional goals were to constantly improve his work and never repeat his past accomplishments.
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