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.