Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley

By Jeffrey Spivak | Go to book overview

Prologue

Professionally, he used only half of his birth name. His real name, disjointed and clumsy, contained both parental surnames and tributes to a famous actor friend and a part-time soubrette. Contrastingly, his stage name was pleasing, rhyming, and alliteratively euphonious. Saying it out loud evokes scores of platinum, pulchritudinous chorines arranged in geometric, eye-appealing configurations. The name, a lowercase noun in The American Thesaurus of Slang, is defined as “any elaborate dance number.”

Busby Berkeley was the premier dance director of motion pictures. His originality and sharply defined style brought him professional acclaim and financial reward. He saved a studio from bankruptcy and a doomed genre from senescence. Just don’t call him a choreographer. According to “Buzz,” his liberally used nickname bestowed by friends and colleagues, choreographers were defined with artists like Agnes de Mille. Buzz Berkeley wasn’t interested in dance steps and didn’t know a “buck and wing” from a “shuffle and riffle.” He defined “dance-directing.” Ascending a makeshift dumbwaiter twenty feet or higher above a cavernous soundstage, he peered into his large eyepiece and maneuvered his ensemble and his camera to the formations of his mind’s eye as he dance-directed.

His early musical numbers were hermetic, existing outside the narrative of the films in which they appeared. They were often stacked together, one after the other, in a film’s final reel. The brilliance of the numbers inadvertently created a side effect: they made a picture’s story line wholly irrelevant and forgettable. The numbers were so ingrained that Buzz often received the lion’s share of critics’ kudos despite the fact that his musical digressions appeared in films directed by others.

Music has always been an essential ingredient in motion pictures. From the earliest days of the silent film, a Pianola assumed the role of

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