In lieu of going dancing ourselves, let’s delve into the eye-popping artistry of Busby Berkeley. In the midst of the Great Depression, Berkeley created a series of still must-be-seen-to-be-believed musical extravaganzas.
Featured in this 15-minute film festival are human waterfalls, 56 waltzing grand pianos and a Technicolor underwater ballet dedicated to Sydney’s own Annette Kellerman. While his films don’t shy from the realities of mass unemployment – ‘Breadline, I hear you calling me’ sings one leading lady – Berkeley’s interludes offer tantalising visions of collective rapture. Take a quarter-hour out of your midweek as we sashay from backstage Broadway to a sunny rooftop in Sydney.
Gold diggers of 1933
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, 1933, 1 hr 37 min (clip 1 min 45 sec)
Gold diggers of 1933 centres on the everyday travails of three out-of-work performers (Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, Aline MacMahon). This remarkable clip, known as ‘Shadow waltz’, transports the trio to a kaleidoscopic world beyond space and time. Dancers with neon violins unfurl from a floral design into an abstract clock face ticking to its own ecstatic beat.
Directed by Lloyd Bacon, 1933, 1 hr 44 min (clip 3 min 52 sec)
When asked after the premiere of Gold diggers of 1933 how he planned to top ‘Shadow waltz’, Berkeley replied: ‘I can see a big waterfall coming down through the rocks, with girls sliding down the rapids in a huge Ziegfeldian pool with 24 gold springboards and a gold fountain telescoping into the air!’ That is exactly what he delivers in this stupendous sequence, which turned an entire soundstage into an art-deco swimming pool. Berkeley’s signature overhead shots transform the synchronised swimmers into molecular patterns we might find under a microscope.
Gold diggers of 1935
Directed by Busby Berkeley, 1935, 1 hr 38 min (clip 3 min 42 sec)
With scenes costing US$10,000 per minute to film (the equivalent of almost US$200,000 per minute today), Berkeley redefined the scale and scope of the Hollywood musical number. What begins as a standard salon set-up – one seated vocalist – pans out to reveal 56 baby grands pirouetting across a multi-tiered stage in perfect unison. Who else could synchronise the movements of men crouched beneath piano shells with hundreds of female dancers arrayed in geometric formations? Who else could make extraordinary pomp seem featherlight?
Million dollar mermaid
Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, 1952, 1 hr 55 min (clip 2 min 28 sec)
Hold your breath for this underwater ballet. In 1952, Berkeley crossed paths with Annette Kellerman, the Marrickville-born endurance swimmer, vaudeville entertainer and silent film superstar who specialised in aquatic stunts. Starring Esther Williams, Million dollar mermaid tells the Sydneysider’s story through surreal aquacades, Technicolor grottoes and plenty of gold lamé (Kellerman popularised the one-piece swimsuit).
Directed by Gillian Armstrong, 1982, 1 hr 45 min (clip 4 min 9 sec)
Berkeley’s gymnastic pyramids and famous tracking shots through V-shaped tunnels of legs have been parodied everywhere from The Simpsons to The Big Lebowski. In this clip from Gillian Armstrong’s ’80s new-wave musical Starstruck, the camp erotics of the aquatic number pop up on a Sydney rooftop. Lifesavers belt out a tune about making it in showbiz while their cheap props and goofy moves deflate the grandiose originals. The Busby Berkeley showstopper might be inimitable but it’s fun to try.