Dance in the Movies, a nod to #BusbyBerkeley

I came across a photo (where exactly it was escapes me, so frustrating!) of a scene from a Busby Berkeley movie.  I pulled this little essay out of my archives:

Within Busby Berkeley’s many techniques for engaging the eye and visual stimulation, the flower emerged as a repeated idea in group formations, set design and female sexuality.  Berkeley’s chorus girls appeared much like fresh-cut flowers: beautiful and attractive but unable to control or maintain their own short existence as a Berkeley woman.  While Berkeley’s women brought a dazzling sense of glamour and drama to visually deprived audiences reliant on entertainment to medicate the pain of uncertain economic times, their individual self-identities failed to emerge within the pack of uniform mannequin-like women.  Berkeley’s women were simply mannequins brought to life: they appeared in a statuesquely Hollywood style but their every movement was dictated with a militancy that not only disregarded but distorted their sexuality and intelligence.  Like mannequins, Berkeley’s women appeared in a precisely monochromatic, indistinguishable form solely for the viewer’s pleasure and appetite.

When first plucked from the ground, flowers carry their fresh scent and vibrant colors to whatever bouquet or arrangement they occupy.  However, cut flowers only survive for a few days no matter the amount of fresh water and fertilizer they received.  Cut flowers serve an immediate purpose for beauty, fragrance and an indication of their owner’s financial status allowing such a purchase.  Berkeley plucked his women out of obscurity, granting them an immediate induction into Hollywood grandeur and opulence.  The Berkeley hundred-fold women signified the financial investment film companies could afford to make in their director and his wishes.  The Berkeley woman epitomized the free woman, able to wear whatever she wanted, flirt with whomever she wanted, and dance with whomever she wanted –  a sign of the luxuriant financial and personal freedom that appeared increasingly elusive (Rubin 41).

While Berkeley’s women instantly appeared talented and capable, closer examination showed that the chorus line girls had little to no dance, music or theatrical training.  Everything they learned, they learned on the spot.  Such haphazard training and rehearsal that simply focused on the end goal, not the process in arriving at it, happened at the expense of bodies and minds.  As fresh cut flowers rarely reproduce (seeding is sometimes possible) and are tossed aside as soon as they wilt, Berkeley’s women received similar treatment.  If blondes were needed, out went the brunettes.  Fixating on the flower aesthetic, women’s legs were treated as curious stems, requiring constant perusal by the camera lens.  As the camera angles chosen for such inspection generally lifted from foot to thigh, the climactic focal point became the female crotch.  Frequent shots from beneath the body left the Berkeley women without any personal identification.  Instead, they blithely kept kicking their legs higher and higher as the camera visually groped their bodies (Goldiggers of 1933).

The women appearing in Berkeley’s films had a few things in common besides their legs: ambition and desperation.  As hundreds of women sought employment, the Berkeley hopefuls faced stiff competition.  Work on a film – besides the pay benefits – meant an instant social upgrade.  While the Berkeley women remained mostly unidentified, among their peers they could boast of the Hollywood experience.  These women sought to fulfill Berkeley’s every command regardless of safety or personal dignity.  As soft clay in Berkeley’s hands, the women became efficiently trained machines able to precisely negotiate arms and legs across and through water, stairs, fountains and each others’ bodies.  Berkeley’s women submitted to his grandiose vision without any understanding of it.  They simply marched, kicked and turned in complicated patterns that included often unwieldy props and sets (Goldiggers of 1933).

As intricate as were the designs the Berkeley women made with their bodies, their individual identities blurred within the scope of the scene.  Shot in extremity from close-up to faraway, the Berkeley women maintained fleeting identities as a face could not easily be attached to a personality or body.  Often in creating floral imagery, such as the opening and closing flower petals the Berkeley women were identified with extravagant grace.  Within this imagery, they were also identified with sexual reproduction and stimulation (Rubin 70).  The opening and closing of legs directed towards the camera, the unfolding of female bodies to receive an object whether it was water or the illusion of an object.  Their bodies were always available and open to the camera’s will.  Their minds were only available to Berkeley’s direction and manipulation.  Their wills were only available to executing the choreography.

Like fresh cut flowers, the Berkeley women brimmed with life and color.  Like fresh cut flowers, Berkeley’s girls could only be gazed upon – they never returned the gaze, nor did they ever turn away from the gaze.  They existed for Berkeley’s immediate fantasies and became new fantasies for their viewers.  They created a fantasy that they could not live to enjoy, as they were nearly talentless and powerless.  Their fantasy was one that only existed in a creative utopia where bodies morphed into objects that suddenly melted away to display a new world of moving bodies and limbs (Rubin 36).  While the costumes and sets deliberately explained Berkeley’s ideas and statements (think gigantic coins and massive pianos), the women’s identities always remained ambiguous, vague and unimportant to the viewer.  Their only identifying marks were that of physical beauty and precision.

Despite their incredible impact on musicals and stage choreography, the Berkeley women and the Berkeley aesthetic faded away.  Perhaps, Berkeley’s brilliancy could only be interpreted by himself and by women so desperate for fame and fortune they would submit to anything.  Perhaps, fewer women are willing to submit themselves to such a thankless, workhorse state of being.  While Berkeley’s camera and choreographic techniques can certainly be replicated and even enhanced by current technology, they are rarely accompanied by such a coup d’état that was the Berkeley empire.  Berkeley’s ambivalences regarding gender, sexuality and reality simultaneously provided the catalyst for his immediate success yet circumvented his long-term capabilities as they transcended his own personal life.

Berkeley and his chorus girls created a phenomenal, unforgettable display of geometric and physical aesthetics.  Berkeley could not have done so without his desperately ambitious women and they could not have participated in such a spectacle without Berkeley’s uniquely intelligent eye for design.  However, while Berkeley achieved a permanent position in Hollywood history, the Berkeley women simply fulfilled an immediate need and mostly disappeared when their services were no longer needed.  How could this happen?  Berkeley plucked and cut the flowers he wanted to glorify, knowing that they could neither outlast nor overshadow their owner.

 Works Cited

Rubin, Martin.  Showstoppers, Busby Berkeley and the Tradition of Spectacle.  Columbia

University Press, New York: 1933.

Warner Brothers Pictures.  Gold Diggers of 1933.

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