Know all those big, splashy musical numbers with elaborate sets and precise, fancy choreography that are a key memory of The Golden Age of Hollywood? They 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
- Fashions of 1934
- Ziegfeld Girl
- The Gang's All Here
- Million Dollar Mermaid (Berkeley only worked on two Esther Williams films; this is one of them.)
- The "Whopperettes" ad campaign Burger King started with Super Bowl XL was clearly inspired by Busby Berkeley.
- The 1970 Great American Soups ad by Stan Freberg 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. (Maybe the actual brand name, Heinz, should have been mentioned...)
- "Sunny Day Song" from Love Live!: The School Idol Movie features a performance by a huge number of school idols from all over Japan.
- "Better Life", the Broadway-esque number by Ansel Beauregard in Arlo the Alligator Boy.
- "Be Our Guest", from the Disney version of Beauty and the Beast.
- The Big-Lipped Alligator Moment with the frogs in The Brave Little Toaster.
- "In Summer" in Frozen has Olaf dance with cartoon seagulls for one of his verses while fantasizing about summertime.
- The "Food, Glorious Food" number in Ice Age 2: The Meltdown.
- The related short Gone Nutty plays with this trope when Scrat falls amid hundreds of acorns.
- The last part of the final stanza of "I Just Can't Wait to Be King", from The Lion King, is intended to invoke a Busby Berkeley Number, even if the visual elements aren't there. The "animal tower" especially is reminiscent of this part of "By A Waterfall".
- My Little Pony: The Movie (2017) has "One Small Thing", which quickly morphs into this as Pinkie Pie shows the seaponies a good time. It's an homage to the seaponies' appearance in G-1, which itself invoked this trope.
- The opening credits of Rio show flocks of colorful birds flying in geometrical patterns.
- "Princesses on Parade" from The Swan Princess.
- The Tigger Movie's "Round my Family Tree" counts as this, at least its end, complete with synchronized Tigger swimmers that dive in a pool and make a circle.
- In the The Wind in the Willows claymation film, the ducks do this during the "Ducks Ditty" song, overlapping with Disney Acid Sequence.
- "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 I 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.
- In the "Springtime For Hitler" number in The Producers, dancers march in a formation resembling a swastika (but overhead, like the typical Berkeley shot).
- Kenneth Branagh's version of 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," the opening song of 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.
- High School Musical:
- 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 version 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.
- Naturally, the "Star-Spangled Man" sequence in Captain America: The First Avenger runs on this. The montage of Steve Rogers' work for the USO where he goes on stage in his Captain America costume encouraging Americans to buy war bonds is 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".
- Parodied in the 1996 film Joe's Apartment. With singing cockroaches. In a toilet bowl.
- "Venus" has this in a dream sequence in Walking on Sunshine, in which Maddie's harem of swimmers dance around her in the swimming pool.
- Hail, Caesar! depicts the filming of one of these on a studio lot. It's a big synchronised swimming number entirely in the pool, with the lead actress dressed as a mermaid.
- The Scrubs' Musical Episode has the songs Welcome to Sacred Heart and Friends Forever. The first one, in particular, makes good use of overhead shots.
- 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.
- 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.
- Glee has one of those in the proposing number "We Found Love in a Hopeless Place", featuring the Synchronized Swimming team.
- In That '70s Show, on the episode "That 70's Musical", the number "The Joker" features the lead characters performing a Busby Berkeley Number while high on pot in Fez's head. Disney Acid Sequence indeed.
- In Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, the "West Covina" song ends with a giant Busby Berkely Number and the main character sitting on a giant pretzel.
- Warehouse 13 has the original marquee from the Strand theater which, when triggered, produces a several chorus lines of tapdancing showgirls and compels anyone in the vicinity to dance along to "42nd Street" until they die from exhaustion. Appropriately, Artie uses Busby Berkeley's drinking flask and the original pan from Tin Pan Alley to deactivate the artifact.
- The Chemical Brothers' music video, directed by Michel Gondry, for Let Forever Be. Probably the only one to involve a drumming hobo.
- The video for "I Heard a Rumour" by Banapnarama.
- 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" invokes the trope as a symbol of the singer's runaway imagination.
I haven't seen you in ages
But it's not as bleak as it seems
We still dance on whirling stages
In my Busby Berkeley dreams
The tears have stained all the pages
Of my true romance magazines
We still dance in my outrageously
Beautiful 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.
- OK Go's elaborate one for "I Won't Let You Down" involving Honda UNI-CUBs, Japanese schoolgirls, one well-controlled drone and an epic ton of umbrellas.
- The music video for The BPA and David Byrne's song "Toe Jam" combines this with Censored for Comedy. A large group of very attractive young people dance naked in a living room and use the censor boxes covering their privates (and occasionally middle fingers) to create humorous images and formations a'la Busby Berkley.
- The "Piggy's Fantasy" number from The Great Muppet Caper, with Miss Piggy as the lead swimmer, is a take on the Esther Williams Number.
- There were a few Sesame Street shorts featuring chorus girls doing Busby Berkeley Numbers while teaching the kids at home about numbers.
- One of them was written to be like a Busby Berkeley number, although the visual elements weren't present. The song was a subtle musical theatre parody called "I Just Adore Four," sung by Big Bird first as a solo, but then by the second chorus becomes a splashy showbizzy number with the assistance of the Tarnish Brothers. The album "The Count Counts" said it came from The Musical "Two Plus Two," but in reality it was the splashy opening to a Sesame Street episode called "The Number Four Show."
- The "Penguins" episode of Elmo's World had a short musical swim segment.
- "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:
- "O", which has a giant pool serving as its stage, features several transitions with Esther Williams-style synchronized swimming.
- Crystal has Busby Berkeley ice skating.
- The choreography for "Dirty Laundry" from The Witches of Eastwick musical 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".
- The Honeybee Inn of Final Fantasy VII Remake has been reimagined as hosting lavish nightclub-style floor shows, and Cloud finds himself roped into performing in one if he is to secure his disguise for getting into Don Corneo's mansion to find Tifa.
- "Pajama Party" in Rhythm Heaven Megamix is essentially one of these numbers themed on beds, pillows, and sleeping. "Kitties!" is another take on the concept, complete with the Big Band Jazz that would've been popular in Berkeley's time.
- Evil Genius uses a synchronized swimming number performed by scuba diver character models as the background of one of the menus.
- In the PixarShort "Partysaurus Rex", several of the bath toys dive off the edge of the bathtub one after the other a la Berkeley.
- In the Musical Episode of Batman: The Brave and the Bold, a group of Atlanteans do this while under the sway of the Music Meister. It's part of a hypnosis-induced Crowd Song that essentially the entire planet is performing.
- The My Little Pony pilot Special "Rescue at Midnight Castle" (AKA "Firefly's Adventure") features one of these performed by the Sea Ponies.
- Family Guy Have one of these every series or two, usually in their "Road To..." episodes, and one regarding the benefits of marijuana in episode "420".
- And their opening credits sequence, though it's by necessity a pretty short example.
- Shaun the Sheep has elements of it.
- The Dalton's dream sequence in the animated Lucky Luke film "La Ballade des Dalton" (1978) also has a Berkeleyesque swimming and dance number.
- The Simpsons: Lisa Simpson has one with the other children in a swimming pool, in the episode "Bart Of Darkness".
- The Year Without a Santa Claus features Snow Miser and Heat Miser singing their respective character songs before they engage in Ham-to-Ham Combat.
- In the Mickey Mouse (2013) episode "Roll 'Em", Mickey and Minnie stumble onto the set of a synchronized swimming number at one point.