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Q & A with Jeffrey Spivak about Buzz: The Life & Art of Busby Berkeley

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Q & A with Jeffrey Spivak about Buzz: The Life & Art of Busby Berkeley

Postby moira finnie » August 18th, 2015, 5:00 pm

"In an era of breadlines, depression and wars, I tried to help people get away from all the misery...to turn their minds to something else. I wanted to make people happy, if only for an hour."
- Busby Berkeley

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Jeffrey Spivak, the author of "Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley," will be our guest for an online Q & A at The Silver Screen Oasis on Aug. 22nd and 23rd. Drawing on personal letters, interviews, studio memoranda, and Berkeley’s private memoirs, our visiting author created a nuanced portrait of this natural talent, whose development of the kinetic aspects of film continues to influence filmmakers to this day.

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This thoughtful book reveals Busby Berkeley as a person without formal dance training but exceptional drive and ability who could never describe exactly how his creativity worked. Without whitewashing or indulging in unnecessary speculation, the author touches on Berkeley's intense closeness to his mother, Gertrude Berkeley, his six marriages, and the tumult in his personal life that nearly cost him everything. After reading his book, the reader can see the real life sources that inspired "The Lullaby of Broadway" in all its variations over the decades of his career at various studios.

Please join us here to post your own questions about Busby Berkeley and his films or to enjoy reading the exchanges. All are welcome.

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For detailed information on this book and our visitor, please visit the following links:

Jeffrey Spivak's publisher, The University Press of Kentucky:

http://www.kentuckypress.com/live/title_detail.php?titleid=2592#.VdOORLJVikp

Jeffrey Spivak at Amazon:

http://www.amazon.com/Buzz-Busby-Berkeley-Screen-Classics/dp/0813126436

Facebook Page for Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley:

https://www.facebook.com/pages/Buzz-The-Life-and-Art-of-Busby-Berkeley/108096302558741?fref=ts

The Hollywood Reporter on Ryan Gosling's purchase of the rights to our guest's book for a biopic:

http://www.hollywoodreporter.com/news/ryan-gosling-produce-possibly-star-689801
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Re: Q & A with Jeffrey Spivak about Buzz: The Life & Art of Busby Berkeley

Postby moira finnie » August 22nd, 2015, 6:22 am

Good morning, Jeff, and I appreciate your visit here at the SSO. I hope you enjoy this Q & A at least as much as I did your book. First, a few questions to kick this off that may be revealing:

1.) What drew you to the topic of Busby Berkeley's life story? Why do you suppose his work had never received the meticulous scrutiny that you brought to understanding his filmmaking techniques?

2.) Are there three films that you might recommend to a viewer revealing the range of Berkeley's talent? One of the interesting things that your book covers well are Berkeley's non-musicals, which are often overlooked. Could you name a drama or comedy that he directed and that deserves to be better known?

Thanks in advance for your insights.
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Re: Q & A with Jeffrey Spivak about Buzz: The Life & Art of Busby Berkeley

Postby buzzbbiographer » August 22nd, 2015, 7:59 am

First of all, thank you very much for inviting me. I'll be here online until about noon (central) and back, recharged, at around 6.

The answer to the first part of your first question came about when prolific biographer Patrick McGilligan contacted me after reading a number of my pieces on film. He asked if I'd be interested in writing a film biography for The University Press of Kentucky, where he is a consultant for cinema-related titles. A number of topics danced in my head, but it wasn't until I came across my copy of the 1970's "The Busby Berkeley Book" that a spark ignited. I checked to see what had been written about Berkeley, found there was a paucity of information on the man, and that propelled me to write a winning book proposal.

The examination of Busby Berkeley's work ran in cycles over the years. He was certainly the center of attention in his heyday, and in the late 1960's his all but waning fame was revived. Why Busby Berkeley's work wasn't as scrutinized as it is in my book is a mystery to me. He certainly was an artist in his own right with a definable and ceaselessly expanding personal style.

For the Busby Berkeley neophyte three films aren't enough, but if pressed I'd choose "Gold Diggers of 1933", "Footlight Parade" and "The Gang's All Here". A good drama is "They Made Me a Criminal"; for a comedy, I'd suggest "Fast and Furious". For the best of comedy, drama, and music, I'd pick "For Me and My Gal", a superb film and Berkeley's own favorite.

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Re: Q & A with Jeffrey Spivak about Buzz: The Life & Art of Busby Berkeley

Postby moira finnie » August 22nd, 2015, 9:03 am

I loved For Me and My Gal(1942), but I understand that there was some friction with Gene Kelly.

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I realize that the multi-talented Kelly always credited Judy Garland with teaching him quite a bit about film acting, but did he ever acknowledge how well Berkeley highlighted Gene's natural aggressive streak in his first film and how well did the director and performer work together later? (I wonder if this debut performance was as close as film audiences will ever get to seeing something akin to Kelly's legendary Broadway role as "Pal Joey"?).
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Re: Q & A with Jeffrey Spivak about Buzz: The Life & Art of Busby Berkeley

Postby buzzbbiographer » August 22nd, 2015, 9:23 am

I don't believe Gene acknowledged Buzz with anything acting related. Kelly was never a big fan of the man, and thought Berkeley's technique was heavy handed. This coming from a new Hollywood actor making his debut on screen. Also, Gene Kelly was promised by Louis B. Mayer that he needn't do a screen test for the role (coming straight from Broadway in "Pal Joey"), and was furious when he was forced to do one.

He also openly disparaged Berkeley during the shooting of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game", but it's to his credit that later in life he said:

"Berkeley showed what could be done with a movie camera. A lot of that is made fun of nowadays; sometimes laughed at. But he was the guy who tore away the proscenium arch. He tore it down for movie musicals. Many get credit for that, but it was Berkeley who did it. And if anyone wants to learn what can be done with a movie camera, they should study every shot Busby Berkeley ever made. He did it all."

Well said.

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Re: Q & A with Jeffrey Spivak about Buzz: The Life & Art of Busby Berkeley

Postby buzzbbiographer » August 22nd, 2015, 10:40 am

Quite amusing, I might add, is that nobody in the "For Me and My Gal" photograph looks the least bit happy.

The old Hollywood saying is that the happiest of sets yields the lousiest movies.

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Re: Q & A with Jeffrey Spivak about Buzz: The Life & Art of Busby Berkeley

Postby moira finnie » August 22nd, 2015, 10:56 am

How did Berkeley's family roots in the theater affect his development?

Could you please describe how World War One affected Buzz?

I really enjoyed your vivid descriptions of how Berkeley was already pushing out the bounds of space when he worked in the theater. Did his innovations have a lasting influence on the presentation of musicals on stage?

I loved that quote from that Gene Kelly showing how he had gained some perspective on Berkeley eventually. I guess some conflict was probably inevitable because of the generational difference and Kelly's sophisticated dance background and his style of more intimate dancing. You wrote that Berkeley did not study dance or seem to know a great deal about the art, even though he was associated so much with the musical. Was he being disingenuous about that?

Did Berkeley sometimes bluff his way through when he was embarking on a project and did he ever feel trapped by this close association with musicals?

Was the darker side of life seen in his musical numbers (such as "Lullaby of Broadway" in Gold Diggers of 1935) a reflection of his own experiences? In your book you included two photos, one from the "Lullaby of Broadway" number and the other a nearly identical 1920 Man Ray photo (see below). Were his designs influenced by contemporary artists such as Man Ray and surrealism--or was he really an instinctive, almost naively natural artist? Did his films influence design and fashion?
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(Image courtesy of The Getty Museum)

His sometimes exhilarating, beautiful, and bizarrely literal musical set pieces seem to indicate a man with a highly sensitive visual imagination--who sometimes created work that he had dreamt of while working on a production. Did you discover if he was aware of Freud and Jung as well as psychological symbolism?

Did Berkeley ever paint or draw (other than the storyboarding that he used in complex scenes)?
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Re: Q & A with Jeffrey Spivak about Buzz: The Life & Art of Busby Berkeley

Postby Sue Sue Applegate » August 22nd, 2015, 11:09 am

Thanks for joining us this weekend, Jeffrey. We much appreicate your visit!

I've read that Busby Berkeley "got his start" by directing parades while he was in the army, then progressed to Broadway, and eventually Hollywood. How did his experiences guide him to be such a talented director of some of the most iconic dance sequences on film? What kind of experiences did he have prior to his initial army enlistment?
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Re: Q & A with Jeffrey Spivak about Buzz: The Life & Art of Busby Berkeley

Postby buzzbbiographer » August 22nd, 2015, 11:42 am

Buzz was discouraged by his actress mother and stage director father. He developed outside the theater in military school and in the Army. When his father died, he saw his doting mother on school breaks (she toured the theater circuit), and it wasn't until his military service ended that he thought of pursuing a life on the stage, to his mother's chagrin.

Buzz really wanted to see action in World War 1, but the action he found was of the flesh, if you know what I mean. :wink: When he was finally dispatched as an aerial observer the war was soon coming to a close. He killed the boredom by designing complex marching drills which organized the soldiers in intricate formations while they silently counted to themselves. These drills, and not the aerial observing missions, were the true genesis of Busby Berkeley's art.

The Broadway years were the most formative in Berkeley's career. His shows were on par with the kind Florenz Ziegfeld was producing with regard to production values and chorus girls. I could not say for certain that Berkeley's innovations had a lasting influence on subsequent Broadway musicals, except that any show that resembled the work of Busby Berkeley was never overlooked by the critics who always gave him tribute.

Berkeley was not at all disingenuous about his disregard of dance and dance steps. Although it's impossible to believe he didn't pick up things along the way in his long career, he really was not interested in that aspect of presentation, and this goes back to his earliest days on the stage. In Hollywood, every studio had someone to teach "the routine" to the dancers. Buzz, eyepiece in hand, was too busy to worry about a "buck and wing" from Ruby Keeler. He was designing, then executing, the visions of his mind's eye. That's why he bristled when he was called a "choreographer" which he certainly wasn't. Warner Bros. called him a "Cinematerpsichorean", a name I used for one of my chapter titles.

A number that reflects his own experience is "Remember My Forgotten Man" from "Gold Diggers of 1933". I would place "Lullaby of Broadway" in the realm of pure artistic fancy. I don't believe in the heavy influence of other artists as Berkeley evolved. He was completely instinctual. He did, at times, feel trapped, and his studio bosses often did nothing to change this.

I'm not aware of any association with Freud or Jung. Berkeley didn't paint or draw, except on the canvas of his imagination.

I do agree with your description of the dreaminess of his tableau.

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Re: Q & A with Jeffrey Spivak about Buzz: The Life & Art of Busby Berkeley

Postby buzzbbiographer » August 22nd, 2015, 11:48 am

I think you answered your own question---it was his experience through the war, and especially Broadway that fueled a dormant need to produce entertainment on a lavish scale. He was a unique voice from Broadway when he found his way to Hollywood and his talent festered until Warner Bros. took notice; the rest, as they say, . . .

Sue Sue Applegate wrote:Thanks for joining us this weekend, Jeffrey. We much appreicate your visit!

I've read that Busby Berkeley "got his start" by directing parades while he was in the army, then progressed to Broadway, and eventually Hollywood. How did his experiences guide him to be such a talented director of some of the most iconic dance sequences on film? What kind of experiences did he have prior to his initial army enlistment?

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Re: Q & A with Jeffrey Spivak about Buzz: The Life & Art of Busby Berkeley

Postby Vienna » August 22nd, 2015, 2:38 pm

You mentioned THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL and FAST AND FURIOUS, two non-musicals which were very good.
Why do you think Busby didn't do more dramas/comedies in the 40s/50s?
Being an Ann Dvorak fan, I'd love to see 1935's FUNNY FACE (aka BRIGHT LIGHTS). Can you recommend it?
"Remember My Forgotten Man" is surely one of the most memorable scenes in any film.

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Re: Q & A with Jeffrey Spivak about Buzz: The Life & Art of Busby Berkeley

Postby buzzbbiographer » August 22nd, 2015, 5:50 pm

Vienna wrote:You mentioned THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL and FAST AND FURIOUS, two non-musicals which were very good.
Why do you think Busby didn't do more dramas/comedies in the 40s/50s?
Being an Ann Dvorak fan, I'd love to see 1935's FUNNY FACE (aka BRIGHT LIGHTS). Can you recommend it?
"Remember My Forgotten Man" is surely one of the most memorable scenes in any film.


In those days, whether you were an actor or director, you worked on the projects you were assigned. Berkeley begged his bosses to branch out and direct drama, but he was pigeonholed because of his early successes, a curse of sorts. He had big hits in the 1940's with Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland and he was quite viable in the 1950's, but he accepted his fate as a dance director with only a few diversions. One of those, "Bright Lights", I can most heartily recommend.

I also like Ann Dvorak, especially in "Three on a Match".

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Re: Q & A with Jeffrey Spivak about Buzz: The Life & Art of Busby Berkeley

Postby moira finnie » August 22nd, 2015, 6:44 pm

Could you please address the tragic situation that Berkeley found himself in at the height of his film success in the '30s? I admire the way that you presented this stage of his life as factually as possible, having seen previous accounts of this event that emphasized the scandal or legal aspects of the case.

Thank you so much for your thorough answers to my earlier questions.
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Re: Q & A with Jeffrey Spivak about Buzz: The Life & Art of Busby Berkeley

Postby buzzbbiographer » August 22nd, 2015, 7:17 pm

Buzz was an alcoholic at a time when many in the film industry were. It wasn't a secret to his friends and colleagues. After a studio party in which alcohol was served, Buzz was in a terrible auto accident in which lives were lost. Because of a blown front tire, his roadster crossed the highway dividing line. Was he drunk when the accident occurred? Maybe, maybe not. He was arrested. At the preliminary hearing he was brought in on a stretcher. Some witnesses said they smelled liquor on his breath the night of the accident.

In most cases, Berkeley would have been charged with vehicular manslaughter. But the judge didn't particularly like Hollywood big shots with their money and power. He upped Berkeley's charge to murder in the second degree. A gifted attorney, Jerry Giesler, took Berkeley's case through three difficult trials. All this took place at the height of his fame at Warner Bros. and couldn't have come at a worse time. Berkeley survived, but his career was somewhat in tatters. A new style of musical picture embodied by Fred Astaire was the rage, and this marginalized Berkeley to the point that he and Warner Bros. eventually parted ways, leaving him to begin anew at M-G-M.

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Re: Q & A with Jeffrey Spivak about Buzz: The Life & Art of Busby Berkeley

Postby buzzbbiographer » August 22nd, 2015, 8:48 pm

Let me take a moment to applaud this wonderful site and its beautiful graphic at the top of the page. It is, of course, taken from "The Shadow Waltz" in "Gold Diggers of 1933". The inspiration for the number came from Berkeley's memory. One night, many years before, Buzz saw a lady violin player performing in a night club setting. She twirled while she played, and would elegantly kick her leg high in the air, and drop it slowly to the floor. The cover of my book features the ribbon-like set of the number.

His vision was complete and he instructed his Berkeley girls on the proper method of spinning while playing. Watch the number again and you'll see the slow high kick that was etched permanently in Busby Berkeley's mind:

phpBB [video]


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