From Flesh to Fantasy: Busby Berkeley and the Revitalization of the Movie Musical

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Ah, the limitations of a writer. How do you describe a bevy of beautiful women, with come-hither curves and wholesome smiles, suddenly morphing into a giant glistening magnolia flower in bloom?

As difficult as such a scene may seem to put into words, imagine having to actually create it using real live human beings and without the aid of animation or CGI. And yet somehow 1930’s choreographer and movie director Busby Berkeley did just that: by pushing the limitations of the early sound film, Busby gave flesh to fantasies that we didn’t even know we had yet.

Before Busby, musical sequences in the popular “let’s put on a show!” genre were filmed in long shot; the movie audience could only see what a stage audience would see. In 1933, Busby revitalized the genre by putting the camera where a stage audience couldn’t go. Suddenly, show-girls could fly (Dames, 1934), violins glowed in the dark (Gold Diggers of 1933) and a scrub-woman’s laundry morphed into a gallant lover (Dames, 1934).  And then there’s the elaborate water ballet “By a Waterfall” in Footlight Parade (1933), a musical sequence full of lush forests, frolicking nymphs and a human waterfall that’s so erotic it makes me blush just thinking about it!

“But you couldn’t do that in a theater!” His critics still cry. Um, that’s the point. Welcome to the magic of the movies.

Busby’s choreography was sensual but it wasn’t sexist: a celebration of the beauty of the female form, it was almost always erotic but never pornographic. When I watched La La Land (2016) in the theater a couple of years ago, I was shocked by how skinny most of the chorus girls were. Conversely, musicals made from 1929 – 1934 often showcase gorgeous chorines with ample hips and beautiful thick thighs. The genre’s shift from curvy to skinny probably says more about the power of advertising than it does about human desire.

Busby’s musical sequences in films such as 42nd Street (1933), Footlight Parade (1933), Gold Diggers of 1933 and Dames (1934) still have the power to dazzle and enthrall even the most jaded audiences of today.

Who needs CGI when you’ve got Busby Berkeley?

Written by Heather Babcock, 2019

 

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