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Q & A with Jeffrey Spivak, author of Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley

Posted by >>>>> on November 30, 2010

1.      Why did you decide to write a biography of Busby Berkeley, and why do you think there has never been a biography about him before now?

Busby Berkeley as a biographical subject came to me as if in a dream. I had tossed around a number of subjects that I wanted to write about, but the idea of a first-ever biography of a man whose very name conjures images of the type of work he did was too good to pass up. Not only do I not know why there never was a definitive biography of Berkeley, but I was somewhat shocked to learn as much in the early phases of my research.

2.      Berkeley is best known for intricately choreographed musicals, like 42nd Street and The Gang’s All Here. How did Berkeley come to develop his style of choreography and his directorial style?

The public record naively links Berkeley’s short-lived military career as a World War I air-based spotter as the impetus of his art. He flew high above France’s trenches and battlefields and many assumed that his point of view in the cockpit translated to his top-shots in the studio.

The fact is he developed intricate marching drills in the Army that did translate somewhat into his films. His real training for the cinema came via his successful years as a dance director for Broadway’s biggest shows and revues that featured chorus girls by the dozens.

3.      In your book, Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley you say that Berkeley saved Warner Bros. studio from financial. Explain how.

More specifically, it was Berkeley’s films that saved Warner Bros. from receivership. Busby Berkeley came along at a time when the novelty of the “all singing, all dancing” musicals was on the wane. It was a gamble on the part of Warner Bros. to release 42nd Street in the face of declining interest in musical pictures.  It was Busby Berkeley’s numbers that made 42nd Street a hit, and its success brought Warner Bros. back into profitability.

4.      Berkeley’s private life was, to say the least, dramatic. For one, he struggled with alcoholism throughout his adult life. What impact did his alcoholism have on his career and his personal life?

Busby Berkeley was an alcoholic at a time when such designations were kept from public knowledge. His co-workers have said uniformly that Buzz never drank while on the clock, but his penchant for martinis while he bathed was well known. He told Esther Williams he came up with his best ideas while soaking and sipping.

Drinking might have been to blame for Berkeley’s horrific auto accident in 1935, and arrests for public drunkenness definitely caused him to lose at least one directing assignment.

5.      Few people today know that Busby Berkeley was tried for second-degree murder. Tell us the story behind that.

The auto accident mentioned above left one person dead at the scene and two others perished within a week. Buzz was driving, and drinking was suspected. In most cases, an auto accident resulting in death where alcohol is the cause, the charge is manslaughter. The judge presiding over Berkeley’s hearing immediately raised that to second-degree murder, a far more serious accusation. An extremely possible sentence of life imprisonment hung over Buzz’s head.

The wild trials, their verdicts, and their after effects are discussed in Buzz.

6.      In your book, Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley you shed light on Berkeley’s co-dependent relationship with his mother. Who was Gertrude Berkeley and how did she shape her son’s personality and career?

Gertrude Berkeley was a well-regarded stage and silent-screen actress known to play motherly and “grand dame” roles. She had a strong personality and an inner fortitude that aided her in moments of tremendous loss. After a while it was only she and her son, and an impenetrable bond was forged. Buzz looked to his mother for advice, console and comfort and when she passed away his life crumbled.

7.      Berkeley was married six times to showgirls and actresses and there were a couple of scandals that arose from his marriages. What were they?

In fairness, Berkeley’s sixth wife was neither a showgirl or actress, but it is true he married five “career aspirants” often impetuously. The scandals were not as dramatic as other as aspects of Berkeley’s life, and usually revolved around alimony. The big mystery was his fifth wife. Their marriage played out in the press; first they were married as a result of a rash decision and then they were supposedly divorced in the mid 1940s. The 1950s saw their reemergence with new divorce proceedings!

8.      What do you think is Berkeley’s cinematic legacy? Are there filmmakers at work today whom you see his influence on?

The legacy of an artist whose work is so sharply defined is that his creations please audiences seven decades after their debut. Busby Berkeley freed the camera from its moorings and revealed the pleasing images of his mind’s eye.

I see less true “influence” on filmmakers and more respectful “homage” when it comes to Berkeley. The Coen Brothers in a number of films shot scenes in his same manner, employing high camera angles and actors placed in defined formations. Even The Simpsons took license to mimic the inimitable Berkeley style.

9.      Berkeley was known for working at a frenetic pace and for making steep demands from his actors. How did this affect his relationship with some of the actors who he worked with?

The pace was sometimes frenetic and other times deadly dull as Buzz wandered around the set in deep thought while cast and crew waited for inspiration to strike him.

When he was ready to shoot (after extensive rehearsals) he was a high-strung easily inflamed man whose sharp tongue and raving manner could emotionally slice a vulnerable actress in two.

Judy Garland knew the dual nature of Busby Berkeley. By the time of their final collaboration, Garland abjectly refused to work with the man and she had to be coerced to show up on set.

Conversely, actresses such as Ruby Keeler and Sybil Jason had nothing but warm recollections of their friend Buzz, and in fairness to the man, I include the accounts of several of Buzz’s character witnesses in the book.

10.  Berkeley went from being one of the highest paid men in America to being nearly destitute. How did this happen?

He was a spendthrift when the studio money was rolling in. He cavalierly purchased magnificent properties and antiquities. He divorced as leisurely as he married and almost always paid alimony.

Then there was the car accident. Musicals were changing and Buzz’s brand was on the way out. Less work meant less money. No work meant none. When the cash flow gravy train ended, so did the free-spending ways of Busby Berkeley as mortgages and marriages conspired against him.

11.  Why do you think Berkeley’s films continue to wow audiences even in these days when special effects and other visual technology is available?

In a word austerity. Berkeley shot his numbers with one camera exclusively. He edited in the camera. He could have used shortcuts to his labor intensive method, but instead followed his inner voice on how a number was to be filmed. The “wow” factor is based on two things: the austerity of Berkeley’s technique and the resultant eye-popping images.

12.  What is your favorite Busby Berkeley film and why?

Since Berkeley directed complete features as well as the musical numbers in films directed by others, I’ll take this as a two-part question.

Musical number: “By a Waterfall” from Footlight Parade. It is the grandest aquacade ever filmed and a perfect example of Busby Berkeley’s singular, incomparable, vision.

Film: Gold Diggers of 1935. This was the first complete feature directed by Berkeley. It reveals a talent for fast comedy, witty repartee, romantic situations, and extraordinarily imaginative musical numbers including the one Berkeley regards as his best, “Lullaby of Broadway”.

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