A dance number from Busby Berkeley’s “Dames” (1934).
Busby Berkeley was one of the true visionaries of the Hollywood studio era. He started off directing choreography in Samuel Goldwyn’s musicals and directed nearly two-dozen broadway musicals in the 1920s. Probably the most interesting thing about Busby Berkeley’s directing and choreography is that it was partially inspired by his experience in the military, as a field artillery lieutenant in World War I. Berkeley seemed to synthesize the two opposing worlds seamlessly, integrating highly-choreographed dance numbers with elaborate sets to create geometric designs that were both stunning and organic. He also had an instinct for blending the real with the fantasy, the stage with the screen, which during the 1920s was completely counter-intuitive, as films were just beginning to transition from silents to “talkies” and musical films were still a very new concept. Tackling transitions with ease, Berkeley’s stage numbers often flow in and out of dreamscapes, going from a single plane of dancers to architectural structures covered in beautiful chorus girls. And most of these effects were achieved in-camera!
So how about those chorus girls? I mean, they’re obviously meant to be sexy, but just how sexy? Am I reading too much into this, or does this entire number seem to be a metaphor for, y’know… sex objects?
Another thing Busby Berkeley was well-known for was his portrayal of women in his films. Sex and sensuality were blatant, and it seemed as if style was much more important than substance, especially in Berkeley’s choice of leading ladies. Much less concerned with their actual talent as he was with their looks, Berkeley made sure that his women were under no uncertain terms chosen for their stylistic element as opposed to their talent. This might be frustrating to some women who view this as objectification, and it definitely is, but remember: in Hollywood, women have always been commodities, and I’d contend that they still kind of are. It was worse in the 1920s-’50s, when studios could still force girls to become contract workers and pretty much treat them as they pleased. Chorus girls had it the worst: months of grueling choreography for absolutely no recognition. There is a Busby Berkeley film called “42nd Street” that calls to light some of the treatment of women, albeit in outrageous and ridiculous fashion with its musical numbers. It also has its extremely self-aware moments, as it stars one of Berkeley’s leading ladies, Ruby Keeler, who was known more for her beauty than much else; the character she plays in 42nd Street seems a parody of herself, blissfully unaware of her lack of talent, pushed around by men and the studios to perform.
But back to the objectification of women for a minute, I think getting huffy about studio treatment of actresses in the ’20s is understandable, but silly. I look at these films as historical accounts of the treatment of women that should be taken with a grain of salt. It’s not like these spectacles are any deeper than their showmanship, anyway.
The sexuality aspect ties into this to, in terms of temporal relevance. Censorship in the studios began around 1934, so there’s was almost a full decade of talkies and musicals that pretty much had free reign. One of Berkeley’s most famous musical numbers from “Gold Diggers of 1933” is a song called “Pettin’ In The Park”, and it’s exactly what you think it’s about. So yes, these girls bending over and looking through their legs is partial choreographic choice, part deliberate juxtaposition with their entrance through the stage doors and lying on their backs and spreading their legs. Legs, by the way, being another focal point in all his pieces, and probably why he used Ruby Keeler as much as he did - what gams!
I fully recommend checking out as much of Berkeley’s work as you can, if you’re at all concerned with being ‘cool’ and ‘in-the-know’. I’m not into broadway (to be honest, theatre in general is entirely out of my element), but pre-censorship musicals are some of the most hilarious and outrageous films I’ve ever seen, not to mention visually stunning. Berkeley was a master of choreographic special effects, his massive sets and backdrops that take you far beyond the confines of a soundstage, and utilizing large numbers to create geometric sequences on stage.
Oh! If I could go an a tangent, again, this really excites me as a filmmaker. In the 1920s and ’30s, there was no shortage of girls wanting to break into “the biz”. Every girl wanted to be next Greta Garbo or Ginger Rogers, and they’d do just about anything to get there. All someone like Berkeley had to do was put out a casting call for leggy women who owned tap shoes, and they’d come in droves - very smart and economical, as his numbers often called over thirty-or-so ladies. These large numbers also served their own purpose, as there was no way to focus on a single chorus girl, so shortcomings in dance ability and enthusiasm were masked. It’s all about style, but I can’t really think of a time in Hollywood when it wasn’t.
Also of note, many of Berkeley’s films were made during the Great Depression. I have no idea what Bob Gosse’s excuse was for “I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell”.