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Busby Berkeley

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Busby Berkeley
Busby Berkeley c. 1935
Berkeley William Enos

(1895-11-29)November 29, 1895
DiedMarch 14, 1976(1976-03-14) (aged 80)
Resting placeDesert Memorial Park, Cathedral City, California
  • Film director
  • choreographer
Years active1927–1971

Berkeley William Enos, (November 29, 1895 – March 14, 1976)[1] known professionally as Busby Berkeley, was an American film director and musical choreographer. Berkeley devised elaborate musical production numbers that often involved complex geometric patterns. Berkeley's works used large numbers of showgirls and props as fantasy elements in kaleidoscopic on-screen performances.

Early life[edit]

Berkeley was born in Los Angeles, California, to Francis Enos (who died when Busby was eight) and stage actress Gertrude Berkeley (1864–1946). Among Gertrude's friends, and a performer in Tim Frawly's Stock company run by Busby Berkeley's father, were actress Amy Busby from whom Berkeley gained the appellation "Buzz" or "Busby"[2][3] and actor William Gillette, then only four years away from playing Sherlock Holmes. Whether he was christened Busby Berkeley William Enos,[4] or Berkeley William Enos, with Busby's being a nickname, is unknown[2][5] – the "Child's names" entry on his birth certificate is blank.[4]

In addition to her stage work, Gertrude played mother roles in silent films while Berkeley was still a child. Berkeley made his stage début at five, acting in the company of his performing family.

In 1917, he lived in Athol, Massachusetts, working as an advertising and sales manager.[6] During World War I, Berkeley served in the U.S. Army as a field artillery lieutenant, drilling 1,200 soldiers in complex choreography.[7]


Early years[edit]

During the 1920s, Berkeley was a dance director for nearly two dozen Broadway musicals, including hits such as A Connecticut Yankee. As a choreographer, Berkeley was less concerned with the dancing skills of his chorus girls as he was with their ability to form themselves into attractive geometric patterns. His musical numbers were among the larger and better-regimented on Broadway.[8][9]

His earliest film work was in Samuel Goldwyn's Eddie Cantor musicals, where he began developing such techniques as a "parade of faces" (individualizing each chorus girl with a loving close-up), and moving his dancers all over the stage (and often beyond) in as many kaleidoscopic patterns as possible.[10] Berkeley's top shot technique (the kaleidoscope again, this time shot from overhead) appeared seminally in the Cantor films, and also the 1932 Universal film Night World (where he choreographed the number "Who's Your Little Who-Zis?").

Groundbreaking choreographer[edit]

The "By a Waterfall" production number from Footlight Parade (1933) made use of one of the largest soundstages ever built, specially constructed by Warner Bros. to film Berkeley's creations.

Berkeley's numbers were known for starting in the realm of the stage, but quickly exceeding this space by moving into a time and place that could only be cinematic, to return to shots of an applauding audience and the fall of a curtain. He used one camera to achieve this, instead of the usual four, to retain control over his vision so no director could edit the film.[11] As choreographer, Berkeley was allowed a certain degree of independence in his direction of musical numbers, and they were often markedly distinct from (and sometimes in contrast to) the narrative sections of the films. He often didn't even see the other sections of the picture.[11] The numbers he choreographed were mostly upbeat and focused on decoration as opposed to substance, some costing around $10,000 per minute more than the picture they were in.[11] One dramatic exception was "Remember My Forgotten Man" from Gold Diggers of 1933, which dealt with the mistreatment of World War I veterans during the Great Depression.[12]

Berkeley's popularity with an entertainment-hungry Depression audience was secured when he choreographed five musicals back-to-back for Warner Bros.: 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, the aforementioned Gold Diggers of 1933, Dames, and Fashions of 1934, as well as In Caliente and Wonder Bar with Dolores del Río. Berkeley always denied any deep significance to his work, arguing that his main professional goals were to top himself and never repeat his past accomplishments.

As the outsized musicals in which Berkeley specialized became passé, he turned to straight directing. The result was 1939's They Made Me a Criminal, starring John Garfield. Although a success at the box office, it was the only non-musical film Berkeley directed.[13] Berkeley had several well-publicized run-ins with MGM stars such as Judy Garland. In 1943, he was removed as director of Girl Crazy because of disagreements with Garland, but the lavish musical number "I Got Rhythm", which he directed, remained in the picture.[14]

Carmen Miranda in The Gang's All Here (1943)

His next stop was at 20th Century-Fox for 1943's The Gang's All Here, in which Berkeley choreographed Carmen Miranda's "Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat" number. The film made money, but Berkeley and the Fox brass disagreed over budget matters.[9] Berkeley returned to MGM in the late 1940s, where he conceived the Technicolor finales for the studio's Esther Williams films. Berkeley's final film as choreographer was MGM's Billy Rose's Jumbo (1962).

Later years[edit]

In the late 1960s, the camp craze brought the Berkeley musicals back to the forefront, and he toured the college and lecture circuit giving talks about his career. The 75-year-old Berkeley returned to Broadway to direct a successful revival of No No Nanette, starring his old Warner Brothers colleague and 42nd Street star Ruby Keeler; both played cameos in the 1970 film The Phynx the same year.

Personal life[edit]

Berkeley being carried into his trial on a stretcher, September 1935

In 1937, Berkley purchased the Guasti Villa, located at 3500 W. Adams Boulevard, in the West Adams district of Los Angeles. [15] Built in 1910, Berkley owned the home until 1944.[15] Because of the association with Berkley, the home is now Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument No. 478.[16]

Berkeley was married six times.[17] His wives included actresses Merna Kennedy, Esther Muir, the starlet Claire James, and Etta Dunn, who survived him. He was involved in an alienation of affections lawsuit in 1938 involving Carole Landis, and he was engaged to Lorraine Stein.[18]

Berkeley drank heavily, often having martinis in his daily bath.

In September 1935, Berkeley was responsible for an automobile crash in which two people were killed and five seriously injured.[19] Badly cut and bruised, he was brought to court on a stretcher,[20] where Time magazine reported he heard testimony that made him wince:

'Witnesses testified that motorist Berkeley sped down Roosevelt Highway in Los Angeles County one night, changed lanes, crashing headlong into one car, sideswiped another. Some witnesses said they smelled liquor on him'.[19]

The first two trials for second degree murder ended with hung juries; he was acquitted in a third.

After his mother died and his career began to slow, he attempted suicide, slitting his wrists and taking an overdose of sleeping pills in July 1946.[21] He was admitted to a hospital for an extended stay, an experience which severely affected his mental state.[22]

Berkeley died from natural causes on March 14, 1976, in Palm Springs, California at the age of 80.[23] He is buried in the Desert Memorial Park in Cathedral City, California.[1][24]


Berkeley was inducted into the National Museum of Dance's Mr. & Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney Hall of Fame in 1988.

Broadway credits[edit]


See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Palm Springs Cemetery District, "Interments of Interest"
  2. ^ a b Joseph F. Clarke (1977). Pseudonyms. BCA. p. 112.
  3. ^ Amy Busby portrait gallery; New York Public Library Retrieved April 28, 2015
  4. ^ a b Spivak, Jeffrey, Buzz, The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley (University Press of Kentucky, 2010), pp. 6–7.
  5. ^ "Busby Berkeley – Hollywood's Golden Age".
  6. ^ U.S., World War I Draft Registration Cards, 1917–1918 for Busby Berkeley Enos
  7. ^ Spivak, Jeffrey (November 29, 2010). Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley. University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 978-0-8131-4008-7.
  8. ^ Spivak, Jeffrey (2011). Buzz : the life and art of Busby Berkeley. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky. ISBN 9780813126449. OCLC 703155214.
  9. ^ a b Rubin, Martin (1993). Showstoppers : Busby Berkeley and the tradition of spectacle. New York: Columbia University Press. ISBN 0231080549. OCLC 26930276.
  10. ^ Mackrell, Judith (March 23, 2017). "A kaleidoscope of legs: Busby Berkeley's flamboyant dance fantasies". The Guardian. ISSN 0261-3077. Retrieved December 10, 2018.
  11. ^ a b c Turan, Kenneth (August 1, 2008). "Busby Berkeley's dance numbers are still eye-popping". Los Angeles Times. ISSN 0458-3035. Retrieved December 10, 2018.
  12. ^ Huddleston, Tom (October 28, 2019). "Where to begin with Busby Berkeley". bfi.org.uk. Retrieved January 7, 2024.
  13. ^ McGrath, Patrick J. (August 23, 2006). John Garfield: The Illustrated Career in Films and on Stage. McFarland. ISBN 978-0-7864-2848-9.
  14. ^ Hugh Fordin, The World of Entertainment: The Freed Unit at MGM, 1975
  15. ^ a b "Guasti Villa, West Adams". Calisphere.org. University of California. Retrieved July 8, 2024. In 1910, leading vintner Secondo Guasti commissioned Hudson & Munsell Architects to design the mansion in the Beaux Arts and Italian styles. In 1937, the home was purchased by Busby Berkeley, who turned the basement wine cellar into a film editing studio. Then in 1944, the Los Angeles Physicians Aid Association acquired the property as a retirement home.
  16. ^ "Guasti Villa - Busby Berkley Estate". LACity.org. Historic Places Los Angeles. Retrieved July 8, 2024. The property meets the criteria for HCM designation because it is identified with 'a historic personage,' as the home of well-known film director-choreographer Busby Berkeley.
  17. ^ Hanley, Robert (1976). "Busby Berkeley, the Dance Director, Dies", in the New York Times, March 15, 1976, p. 33
  18. ^ Fleming, E.J. (2005). Carole Landis: A Tragic Life in Hollywood. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland and Co. ISBN 978-0-7864-2200-5, p. 49
  19. ^ a b People, Sep. 30, 1935, from Time magazine
  20. ^ Choreographer and film director Busby Berkeley being carried into his manslaughter trial on a stretcher, a Los Angeles Times photo from the website of the UCLA Charles E. Young Research Library
  21. ^ "1583 Alvito Way 18Jul1946 Busby Berkeley Suicide Attempt p1". Los Angeles Times. July 18, 1946. p. 2. Retrieved February 25, 2020.
  22. ^ Spivak, Jeffrey, Buzz, The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley (University Press of Kentucky, 2010), p. 221.
  23. ^ Johns, Howard, (2004). Palm Springs Confidential: Playground of the Stars. Fort Lee, New Jersey: Barricade Books. ISBN 1-56980-297-1
  24. ^ Brooks, Patricia; Brooks, Jonathan (2006). "Chapter 8: East L.A. and the Desert". Laid to Rest in California: a guide to the cemeteries and grave sites of the rich and famous. Guilford, CT: Globe Pequot Press. pp. 240–2. ISBN 978-0-7627-4101-4. OCLC 70284362.

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