In your dreams, have you ever imagined yourself swooping through the open legs of a line of hot babes? Or have you ever pictured rows and rows of nubile beauties disrobing in sexy silhouette? And just for a change of pace, have you ever dreamed of two lines of female swimmers interlacing their naked legs to form one long, moist, human zipper?
I'm guessing that you haven't. But Busby Berkeley did, and he dreamed these dreams in public. In the early years of the "talkies," Berkeley was one of the greatest and most sexually suggestive choreographers and production-number designers in Hollywood. His often-libidinous fantasies perked up even routine motion pictures and made the more-than-routine ones better.
On March 21, the mad maestro's work will be newly available in The Busby Berkeley Collection, a six-disc DVD set. This boxed set includes, in their entirety, such black-and-white backstage musicals as Gold Diggers of 1933, 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, Dames and Gold Diggers of 1935 (which he directed, too). There's also a disc containing the production numbers from those films plus other numbers from Fashions of 1934, Wonder Bar, In Caliente and Gold Diggers of 1937.
Except for that last one, all of these Berkeley-blessed movies debuted between 1933 and 1935 a brief three-year span that was nevertheless long enough for his surreal genius to emerge and captivate the country. Today, some of these films, particularly Gold Diggers of 1933 and 42nd Street, possess a simple nostalgic charm. But Berkeley's over-the-top contributions to those movies transcend their period, and his charm amounts to much more than nostalgia. Watching his work now, you're aware of the old-fangled trappings yet bedazzled all the same.
William Berkeley Enos was born in 1895 and began to find his artistic footing in the army, directing parades and staging camp shows. In 1930, he became a film choreographer and the timing could not have been better. Just a few years earlier, and he would have encountered the silent-picture era, which didn't much need choreographers. A few years later, and he would have run smack into Hollywood's Production Code. The Puritanical code was created in 1930 but wasn't enforced until late 1934, by which time Berkeley was well-established and had even completed much of his most enduring work. (On the other hand, maybe he would have been OK with the code: Most of his sexually charged choreography had what politicians call plausible deniability, especially in an America that had yet to digest Freud. His leggy zipper, after all, is only a zipper if you choose to see it that way.)
It was the Great Depression that really boosted Berkeley's career. The Depression, of course, was a very ill wind, but it blew only good for Berkeley, whose natural audience turned out to be the dispossessed. People whose security had been recently and suddenly shattered were living lives that seemed to them at least faintly absurd. The general discombobulation of the period's public matched the disorienting aesthetic of Berkeley's screen fantasies.
"It's like he's putting our eyeballs or our sense of perception on a roller coaster," offers author Martin Rubin in one featurette included in the new collection. (There are also vintage cartoons and other standard goodies.) The consistent casts of the collection's films tend to feature Dick Powell, the debonair tenor; Ruby Keeler, the slightly shellshocked ingenue; avuncular Guy Kibbee; naughty Joan Blondell; and, early on, a madcap, Fred-less Ginger Rogers. (James Cagney pops up as the star of Footlight Parade.) Among the songs are "By a Waterfall," "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," "You're Getting To Be a Habit With Me," "I Only Have Eyes for You," "Lullaby of Broadway," "We're in the Money" and, of course, "42nd Street."
The strikingly similar plots involve high hats and empty pockets, mistaken identities and stolen kisses, and, above all, show people who want to put on a show. Sometimes one of them will actually remark that he hopes to mount the kind of production that will lift the spirits of Depression-damaged people exactly what Berkeley himself had in mind.
"In an era of breadlines, Depression and wars," he once reflected, "I tried to help people get away from all the misery … to turn their minds to something else. I wanted to make people happy, if only for an hour."
It wasn't just the erotic crackle of Berkeley's imagination that appealed to his audience. The sheer extravagance of his production numbers was thrilling to people who barely had enough to get along. Berkeley gave them not just one ivory-white baby grand piano, but 56; not a single Broadway baby, but a bevy. If there's one type of shot that's more closely associated with him than any other, it's the view from above that captures a large group of chorines who form and re-form themselves into kaleidoscopic patterns.
"He certainly did not originate this device," film historian John Gillett explains in Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, "but he used it as a graphic 'show stopper,' often surpassing all the visual extravagances that had gone before."
Sometimes Berkeley's gift for excess and his sexual fantasies merge: Gold Diggers of 1933 opens with chorus girls wearing costumes made of little else but coins, singing a jazzy version of "We're in the Money." They carry shields that are giant coins and dance against a backdrop of even larger ones. Imagine what that must have looked like to folks without two nickels to rub together!
Today, even people who have never seen a Busby Berkeley production know what that name implies.
"His name itself means 'brilliant dance numbers,'" says Hairspray director John Waters in a featurette. "It has become a definition of that." Berkeley, adds film-and- theater historian John Kendrick, "took us places that we never could have gone except in our dreams."
And, for most of us, not even firstname.lastname@example.org