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Busby Berkeley Number
Even when sober, this is really trippy.

All the big, splashy musical numbers with elaborate sets and precise, fancy choreography that are a key memory of the Golden Age of Hollywood came largely from the mind of one man. He basically brought the Rule of Cool to musical theater.

Busby Berkeley was a former theater actor who served in World War I as an artillery lieutenant. There, he learned how to get large groups of people to move in sync. This helped him when he went to Broadway and set up some of the most elaborate dancing numbers in the history of theater, with only Florenz Ziegfeld coming close. When he went to film, he topped even that, thanks to cameras being able to shoot where people couldn't sit, using more Chorus Girls than could ever fit on an ordinary stage. (In 1971 he was once again credited on Broadway for choreographing the revival of No, No, Nanette, but this was In Name Only.)

One of his trademarks was to drill a hole in the ceiling to take direct shots of the dancers from above (before Orson Welles made the camera lower with a hole in the floor) while they moved in intricate patterns.

But that's just some of the crazy things he did. Watching his numbers is a visual treat, even for those not into musicals.

Naturally, today, musicals are likely to have homages to him, especially in Disney Acid Sequences.

There's a subset of Busby Berkeley Numbers that could be called "Esther Williams Numbers" for their most famous star (info at The Other Wiki): scenes done in pools, featuring wonderful examples of synchronized swimming. Usually with several female swimmers standing in a row on the left side of the screen and jumping in the water sideways to the right. Traditionally the camera then follows them swimming under water and then, in bird perspective forming a huge circle with their floating bodies.

Films featuring his work:

  • Whoopee! (1930), Berkeley's first film
  • 42nd Street
  • Gold Diggers of 1933, Gold Diggers of 1935, Gold Diggers of 1937
  • Footlight Parade
  • Dames
  • The Gangs All Here
  • Million Dollar Mermaid (Berkeley only worked on two Esther Williams films; this is one of them.)


Homages:

Advertising
  • The "Whopperettes" ad campaign Burger King started with Super Bowl XL was clearly inspired by Busby Berkeley.
  • The 1970 Great American Soups ad featured a vaguely Busby Berkeley-ish number performed by Ann Miller (a top tap dancer) as a housewife telling her returning husband what kind of soup was at home. The ad proved to be very popular and increased sales of soup, but not Great American Soups soup. People bought rival Campbell's Soup instead.

Film
  • "Too Marvelous For Words" from Ready, Willing and Able had Ruby Keeler and Lee Dixon dancing on the keys of a giant typewriter with the legs of sixteen Chorus Girls typing out the lyrics. Oddly enough, Warner Bros. didn't get Busby Berkeley to do this movie.
  • Mel Brooks seems to be a fan of Berkeley's work:
    • In the "Springtime For Hitler" number in The Producers, dancers march in a formation resembling a swastika (but overhead, like the typical Berkeley shot).
      • The stage production (and the newer film) of ''The Producers" even uses a rear wall of mirrors to display the top angle of the dance number, replicating the overhead camera shot.
      • The number "I Want to be a Producer" has a very Busby feel to it, with its elaborate set and chorus girl posing, though it is somewhat minimal.
    • Part of "The Inquisition" song from History of the World Part 1 has a swimming number with Nuns and Rabbis.
    • And, of course, in Blazing Saddles, one of the sets they break into is rehearsing one of these.
  • The "Miss Piggy" number from The Great Muppet Caper, with the titular pig as the lead performer, is a take on the Esther Williams Number.
  • Kenneth Branagh's Love's Labour's Lost has several dance sequences, but No Strings (I'm Fancy Free) stands out as another Esther Williams Number.
  • "So Long, and Thanks For All the Fish", from The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy. Especially strange, as it involves dolphins.
  • Willie's "Anything Goes" floor show in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (which of course wouldn't work as an actual floor show).
  • The Big Lebowski has a bowling-themed number like this as one of The Dude's dream sequences, which not only references choreography from specific dances, but also Berkeley's distinctive editing style as well.
  • Ken Russell's MGM adaptation of the Broadway musical The Boy Friend contains a number of elaborate production numbers that homage Berkeley's work, including from-above shots of synchronized circular choreography.
  • The Robin Williams movie Toys features a brief one involving a squadron of mechanical tanks.
  • Believe it or not, High School Musical 3, particularly "I Want It All" - which actually makes sense: Sharpay and Ryan Evans rule the theatre club and share a dream of becoming Broadway stars.
    • High School Musical 2 has a shot in "Fabulous" that also homages Busby Berkeley dance maneuvers.
  • In the 1982 film version of Annie, the whole "Let's Go To The Movies" scene with the ushers and Chorus Girlsnote  is pure Berkeley.
  • The ending of Jackass: Number Two, which involved the cast getting dispatched in various ways.
  • The Movie of The Pirates of Penzance briefly shows the policemen in one of these near the end of "Go, Ye Heroes!".
  • Singin' in the Rain had the somewhat more low-key number "Beautiful Girl", which nevertheless featured a flock of Chorus Girls who follow and then form rings around the lead male singer in an overhead shot at the end of the number, following a mini fashion show within the song (featuring some truly ridiculous roaring 20's looks), all of which had nothing to do with the plot.
  • The Pool Scene of Caddyshack begins with one of these, a successfully absurd synchronized swimming sequence.
  • During the "Augustus Gloop" song in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, several Oompa Loompas dive into the chocolate lake Berkeley-style and then are seen from overhead creating synchronized patterns around the chocolate pipe.
  • In the The Wind in the Willows claymation film, the ducks do this during the "Ducks Ditty" song.
  • Naturally, the "Star-Spangled Man" sequence in Captain America: The First Avenger runs on this, complete with dancing showgirls, tanks that shoot red-white-blue confetti, and choreographed Hitler punching.
  • Tank Girl has a parody version of this. Everyone at the Liquid Silver club breaks out into a Crowd Song (and dance) set to Cole Porter's "Let's Do It".

Live-Action TV
  • The Scrubs' Musical Episode.
  • Harry Solomon performed one in a Dream Sequence in 3rd Rock from the Sun.
  • In the Get Smart revival movie The Nude Bomb, Maxwell Smart and the villain make two separate armies of clones of each other and have a battle that includes an injoke of an overhead shot of them fighting in a Busby Berkeley formation.
    • In an episode of the TV series, Max is pushing a baby carriage containing a MacGuffin when he and numerous other agents start switching around their carriages in Berkeley formation.
  • The closing ceremony of the Vancouver 2010 Olympics featured, near the end of the telecast, a parade of everything stereotypically Canadian set to a jazzy air of "The Maple Leaf Forever", that the American anchor specifically called "Busby Berkeley meets Canadia." With dancing mounties, giant hockey players and flying moose. And giant, inflatable squirrels.
  • There were a few Sesame Street shorts featuring chorus girls doing Busby Berkeley Numbers while teaching the kids at home about numbers.
  • In one run of the newscasting game in Whose Line Is It Anyway?, Ryan Stiles' role is that he's always wanted to star in a Busby Berkeley musical. The audience is then treated to a dance inspired by the forecast of "sunny days ahead", which includes an overhead shot of Ryan doing snow-angel and running-in-place motions while lying on the floor.
    • Busby Berkeley has come up in multiple episodes of both the American and British versions of the show, particularly (of course) during the musical games.
  • In The Armando Iannucci Shows, a vision of heaven features a Busby Berkeley routine "performed" by corpses.

Music
  • The Chemical Brothers' music video, directed by Michel Gondry, for Let Forever Be. Probably the only Busby Berkeley Number to involve a drumming hobo.
  • The video for "I Heard a Rumour" by Bananarama.
  • Pulp's "This Is Hardcore" video.
    • "Party Hard" (from the same album) seems to be inspired by the concept as well.
  • The Red Hot Chili Peppers' video for "Aeroplane".
  • The Magnetic Fields' song "Busby Berkeley Dreams"
  • Take That's music video for Shine is a three minute long homage/parody of his work.
  • Cloud Nothing's video for "Fall In" has this while the band plays.

Theatre
  • "Busby Berkeley" is the name of an improvised theatre game in which the participants are to improvise a dance number in which they must move symmetrically without looking at each other directly.
  • Cirque du Soleil's "O", which has a giant pool serving as its stage, features several transitions with Esther Williams-style synchronized swimming.
  • The choreography for "Dirty Laundry" from The Witches of Eastwick deliberately invoked Berkeley's style.
  • In a rare case of cross cultural osmosis, the traditional "Thousand Handed Goddess" dance routine from China draws a lot from this trope.
  • In The Drowsy Chaperone, the Man in Chair refers to "The Bride's Lament" number as "a little Busby Berkeley, a little Jane Goodall".

Western Animation


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