Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley


"The Great Depression was defined by poverty and despair, but visionary American filmmaker Busby Berkeley (1895-1976) managed to divert the public's attention away from the economic crash with some of the most iconic movies of all time. Known for his kaleidoscopic dance numbers featuring multitudes of performers in extravagant costumes, his musicals provided a brief respite for an audience whose reality was hard and bitter. Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley is a revealing study of the director, drawing from interviews with his colleagues,

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"The Great Depression was defined by poverty and despair, but visionary American filmmaker Busby Berkeley (1895-1976) managed to divert the public's attention away from the economic crash with some of the most iconic movies of all time. Known for his kaleidoscopic dance numbers featuring multitudes of performers in extravagant costumes, his musicals provided a brief respite for an audience whose reality was hard and bitter. Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley is a revealing study of the director, drawing from interviews with his colleagues, newspaper and legal records, and Berkeley's own unpublished memoirs to uncover the life of a Hollywood legend renowned for his talent and creativity." "Jeffrey Spivak examines how Berkeley's career evolved from creating musical numbers for other directors in films such as 42nd Street (1933) and Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933) to directing his own pictures, such as Strike up the Band (1940) and The Gang's All Here (1943). Though Berkeley claimed he was no choreographer, his movies revitalized the public's waning interest in musical pictures. While other popular filmmakers advertised their works specifically as nonmusical, Berkeley embraced his niche, eventually becoming the premier dance director of his time." However, the happy face Berkeley presented publicly did not necessarily reflect his life. Offstage and away from the set, the director met with scandal, and his fondness for liquor and women was well known. In September 1935, he was involved in a car accident that left three people dead and four others severely injured. Accused of driving under the influence, he was put on trial for second-degree murder. The accident significantly changed the nature of his stardom.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
A singular figure in film history, "dance director" Busby Berkeley won fame for designing kaleidoscopic dance routines for the "all singing, all dancing" era of early talking pictures. In the pre-Motion Picture Production Code days, his erotic yet innocent numbers diverted moviegoers during the depths of the Depression. Film reviewer Spivak presents the first major biography of Berkeley, covering his busy, turbulent life on and off the screen. He was known for his alcoholism, abusive treatment of actors and dancers, multiple marriages, a suicide attempt, and a deadly car crash that required the services of high-priced Hollywood lawyer Jerry Giesler. But Berkeley was respected for his work ethic, creativity, and cost-cutting abilities. Though his career faded in the 1950s, the 1960s nostalgia boom and a successful stage production of No, No, Nanette brought him renewed appreciation. VERDICT In this thoroughly researched book, drawn in part from Berkeley's unpublished autobiography, Spivak shows a keen understanding of Berkeley's talents but does not ignore his flaws. His biography illuminates a fertile period in American film history; recommended for knowledgeable movie buffs.—Stephen Rees, formerly with Levittown Lib., PA
From the Publisher
"This is an excellent book. The research is meticulous, the narrative crisp, and the evalution of Berkeley's life and work informative. Buzz fills a major gap in the history of both cinema and musical theater and is must reading, especially for those interested in either."—King Features Syndicate" —

"Spivak has the biographer's sine qua non: a sense of his subject's uniqueness on this Earth." — Page Laws, dean of the Honors College, Norfolk State University" —

"A gifted storyteller and historian, Jeffrey Spivak paints a finely detailed portrait of dance director Busby Berkeley and his doting actress mother Gertrude. It is a lullaby of Broadway and Holylwood as improbable as any of Berkeley's fantastical musical numbers."—Miles Kreuger, President, The Institute of the American Musical, Inc." —

"Berkeley was a choreographer extraordinaire. Who else could handle 150 dancers in one number? I can't think of anyone, and Berkeley was doing this in the 1920s and 1930s."—California Chronicle" —

"One could be excused for thinking that a book titled Buzz might be about Internet-based P.R. strategies for individuals or businesses, but it's actually a biography — the only one out there — of Busby Berkeley, the choreo-philosopher and one of the cinema's most original and distinctive creators."—New Yorker" —

"[Berkeley] was destined for a life in show business. And that life,... was as full of dazzling highs and lurid lows as any melodrama could be."—Barnes and Noble Review" —

"Spivak's well-written biography of the Hollywood choreographer and director, famous for the complicated, kaleidoscopic dances he choreographed for such films as 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933, has scholarly depth yet is gracefully accessible."—Booklist" —

"Spivak describes the entrepreneur's extraordinary career and catalogs his over-the-top life and similarly baroque song-and-dance numbers which featured ornate geometric patterns and influenced much that came after."—Moving Picture Archives News" —

"People today may remember Berkeley as the visionary behind those human geometric designs that beguiled Hollywood audiences during the 1930s and 40s, but Jeffrey Spivak's new biography Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley paints a deeper portrait of a true artistic innovator and an often troubled human being."—Chicago Stage Style" —

"Looking for a gift for a movie lover? Consider Jeffrey Spivak's new book, Buzz."—New York Post" —

"Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley is a pick for film and biography holdings alike, covering the career and personal life of film director and choreography Busby Berkeley, whose films changed the nature of the musical film itself and saved Warner Bros. studio. Berkeley's own unpublished memoirs, personal letters, legal documents, and more [complimentary] interviews with those who worked with him for a wide-ranging survey to any serious film or biography library."—The Midwest Book Review" —

"[Having] rescued [Berkeley's own memoirs] from a garbage clearance... Spivak recounts [Berkeley's] tales of relentless retakes, schedule-skimming night shoots, and crack-ups, whether emotional... or spinal."—Sight & Sound" —

"[A] fascinating read."—Playbill" —

"Busby Berkeley's name conjures up kaleidoscopic images of women's body parts: crane shots of synchronized movement, collaged into design and pattern by distance and directorial oversight. Jeffrey Spivak aims to promote Berkeley... to the role of directorial creativity and originality."—Times Literary Supplement" —

"Jeffrey Spivak offers a detailed look into the life and career of one of American cinema's most influential dance directors"—Theater Mania" —

"Spivak's biography perfectly captures Buzz's spirit as well as the legend, all rolled into one. Spivak covers the man from his humble beginnings, cowering under his brother's wardrobe as he first makes an "appearance" on stage, through to his Broadway successes and failures, and on to the peaks and nadirs he experienced in Hollywood. An even-handed tribute all around." — Broadway World" —

"Spivak... did an enormous amount of research for this biography. He even viewed the least notable of Berkeley's films and tracked unfinished projects." — Choice" —

"Spivak's text is undoubtedly praiseworthy for utilizing produce this substantial work."—Cambridge Journals" —

"[Spivak] writes the direct and concise... prose that makes for easy reading."—Quarterly Review of Film and Video" —

The Barnes & Noble Review

In A Star Is Born, Judy Garland sings that she was born in a trunk in the Princess Theater in Pocatello, Idaho. That might not have been literally true of Busby Berkeley, but he came close: as the son of Frank Enos and Gertrude Berkeley, a pair of traveling players who headlined in melodramas from Kansas City to Honolulu, he was destined to a life in show business. And that life, as Jeffrey Spivak shows in his fannish but workmanlike biography Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley (Kentucky), was as full of dazzling highs and lurid lows as any melodrama could be.

In the 1930s and 1940s, Berkeley created one of the most distinctive bodies of work in American cinema. Even today, his name is synonymous with the type of elaborate, often surreal dance numbers he choreographed in movies like Babes in Arms, 42nd Street, and Gold Diggers of 1933. Berkeley was the first "dance director," as his credit usually read, to break the conventions of the stage musical and create patterns of bodies and movement that only the camera could capture: overhead shots of dancers arranged in pinwheels, endless lines of chorus girls kicking or diving. His motto could have been "more is more," and the concept of bad taste was alien to him. He saw nothing wrong, in the Carmen Miranda musical The Gang's All Here, with staging a number ("The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat") that featured rows of girls "holding five-foot plastic (and unashamedly phallic) bananas over their heads…[as] Buzz's camera rises, dips, and tilts in glorious abandon like a drunkard on ice."

Beyond the comedy and vulgarity, however, there is often something disturbing, even fascistic, about the way Berkeley manipulates the human body. After all, his first experience directing big groups in motion came in World War I, when he designed parades in the army. It comes as no surprise to learn from Spivak that Joseph Goebbels was a fan of Berkeley's, or that Leni Riefenstahl said that she had learned from his Warner Brothers musicals when designing the Nuremberg rally sequences in Triumph of the Will.

Spivak, who offers descriptions of each of Berkeley's filmed routines and has read all his clippings, adds two characteristic details about the filming of "The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat." The first is "how happy Buzz was riding shotgun on the boom" as the camera swooped over the dancers' heads. He loved urging the camera to ever more athletic feats, and repeatedly clashed with studio bosses over his demands for revolving sets, monorails, and huge swimming pools, as well as his habit of cutting holes in the soundstage roof to gain a higher vantage point. The second is that Carmen Miranda was almost decapitated by that boom, when it overshot the mark and knocked some fruit from her famous hat. In his pursuit of spectacle, Berkeley drove himself and his performers beyond the limit: he thought nothing of making dancers work for 22 hours at a stretch, and his tricky water stunts almost killed Esther Williams on two separate occasions.

Berkeley's recklessness was fueled by his alcoholism, and it came to a head on the night of September 8, 1935. Driving home drunk from a Hollywood party, he swerved into oncoming traffic, causing an accident that killed four people. Warner Brothers got him the best defense lawyer in Hollywood, and he was acquitted after several trials. But he was tarred forever as a wild man, and more and more people found it impossible to work with him. By the early 1950s, Spivak shows, he was out of work and largely out of money -- his many divorces and run-ins with the IRS had squandered his big paychecks, and he retired to a modest home in Palm Desert. He lived until 1976, long enough to become a Hollywood legend, and spent his last years picking up awards and film festivals, but it didn't make him happy. As always, he would rather have been working.

--Adam Kirsch

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813126432
  • Publisher: University Press of Kentucky
  • Publication date: 11/29/2010
  • Series: Screen Classics Series
  • Pages: 408
  • Sales rank: 819,534
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.40 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Jeffrey Spivak writes about film for periodicals and websites.

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Table of Contents


Prologue 1

1 Actress and Son 4

2 In Formation 20

3 The Show Fixer 27

4 A Cyclopean Vision 48

5 The Cinematerpsichorean 66

6 The Cancerous Tire 123

7 Post-Traumatic Inspiration 143

8 Buzz's Babes 164

9 Art and Audacity 198

10 The Stage Debacle 211

11 Inconsolable 218

12 One Last at Bat 225

13 Jumping, Tapping, Diving 235

14 Out of Sight 257

15 The Ringmaster 262

16 Remember My Forgotten Director 266

17 The Figurehead 272

18 The Palmy Days 292

Epilogue 296

On Busby Berkeley's Memoirs 300

Appendix: The Works of Busby Berkeley 303

Notes 327

Index 353

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