Defines 1930’s Film Musicals Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

With film studios near bankruptcy at the height of the Great Depression, Busby Berkeley revitalized film musicals with new camera and staging techniques.

Summary of Event

In the late 1920’s, when sound films began to replace silent films, Hollywood studios produced a flood of musicals. Early sound cameras were almost immobile, since any motion created noise that was magnified on the sound track; most early musicals were therefore photographed as if the camera were a member of the audience. Apparently, studio directors did not realize that sloppy dancing, tawdry sets, and poor costumes, while sometimes effective on the stage, would appear ridiculous when magnified many times over on the screen. As a result, the first musicals failed at the box office. In 1928, sixty were released, but in 1932, only fifteen were released, and only two of those made a profit. By then, the Depression had forced many studios near bankruptcy, and in 1933, some twenty-five hundred theaters had been forced to close. [kw]Forty-Second Street Defines 1930’s Film Musicals (1933)[Forty Second Street Defines 1930s Film Musicals (1933)] [kw]Film Musicals, Forty-Second Street Defines 1930’s (1933) [kw]Musicals, Forty-Second Street Defines 1930’s Film (1933) Forty-Second Street (film)[Forty Second Street] Motion pictures;Forty-Second Street[Forty Second Street] Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Busby Berkeley[Berkeley] Musical motion pictures;Forty-Second Street[Forty Second Street] Choreography;musical motion pictures [g]United States;1933: Forty-Second Street Defines 1930’s Film Musicals[08200] [c]Motion pictures;1933: Forty-Second Street Defines 1930’s Film Musicals[08200] [c]Dance;1933: Forty-Second Street Defines 1930’s Film Musicals[08200] [c]Entertainment;1933: Forty-Second Street Defines 1930’s Film Musicals[08200] Berkeley, Busby Keeler, Ruby Powell, Dick Baxter, Warner Bacon, Lloyd

Darryl Zanuck, then employed by Warner Bros., Warner Bros. believed the musical still had a future, although he did not tell his bosses that he had a musical in mind when he brought Busby Berkeley to the studio. Berkeley had been dance director for twenty-one Broadway musicals, and as a soldier during World War I he had devised trick-drill patterns to allow the movement of masses of men in close formation. Both experiences would influence his Hollywood career. He had never had a dancing lesson, and he did not know much about cameras or photography when he was brought to Hollywood in 1930 to direct dance numbers for Eddie Cantor and Mary Pickford.

Berkeley had run out of work by the time he was assigned to Forty-Second Street. He directed production numbers at one site, while his colleague Lloyd Bacon worked with the rest of the script at another. Veteran cameraman Sol Polito was in charge of filming at both. The directors emphasized the Cinderella theme of this backstage musical, replacing the tearful sentimentality of many earlier musicals such as Al Jolson’s The Singing Fool (1928), which had involved, among other things, a dying child. Both directors understood that the Depression audience needed hope, not more depression.

Still, the film’s script and its first production numbers were fully grounded in the realities of the Depression. The threat of unemployment hangs over the characters who appear early in the film, from Julian Marsh (played by Warner Baxter), a Broadway producer who has lost his money and health, to the girlish Peggy Sawyer (played by Ruby Keeler). After being given a place in the chorus, Sawyer faints in rehearsal from hunger and fatigue. She and other chorus girls, desperate for work, stoically endure brutally crude sexual remarks and groping hands. Even the fictitious show’s star endures the witless sexual aggression of the show’s lecherous financial backer until, driven beyond her capacity, she rejects him. Shortly afterward, she is injured and must be replaced. Sawyer steps in, and in one grueling rehearsal scene, she is forced to prove her talent, courage, and capacity for hard work. At this point in the story, Berkeley inserted production numbers that reminded the Depression audience that bravery and a strong work ethic could make dreams come true.

The play’s music and staging change when Sawyer becomes a star. She does not appear in the first major production number, “Young and Healthy,” sung by Dick Powell, which introduced the moving platforms and geometric designs for which Berkeley became famous. The second major number, “Shuffle Off to Buffalo,” depicts Sawyer as a young bride, but the Pullman sleeping car in which she is traveling surrealistically splits in half, and she finds herself surrounded by chorus girls wearing night cream and mouthing cynical asides about love and marriage. These numbers are dwarfed by “Forty-Second Street,” which closes the film and made Berkeley’s reputation.

As that number begins, Sawyer is dancing, as if on a stage. The camera pulls back, and she is seen on top of a taxi. She climbs down and is surrounded by New Yorkers—police officers, nursemaids, ordinary pedestrians—going about their everyday dramas. A woman appears in an upstairs window. Terrified, she flees from a man who pursues her into the street and stabs her. Her death attracts no more than a moment’s attention, as Powell sings “Forty-Second Street” from an upstairs window. An instant later, both are forgotten as a chorus of precisely choreographed and beautifully costumed dancers tap along with the title song. They mount a staircase and, turning, reveal cardboard cutouts that form the Manhattan skyline. The skyline dances, stabilizes, and opens to reveal a skyscraper with Powell and Keeler embracing at the top. Berkeley had created a fairy-tale ending to a dazzling fantasy, and in doing so, he had built a world that could exist nowhere except on film and could be staged nowhere except huge Hollywood sound stages.

The techniques he used changed Hollywood musicals. He worked with a single camera rather than with the customary four, planning out each number so that its development was smooth. The camera’s eye was the audience’s eye, and Berkeley photographed from every possible angle. He respected the integrity of the production number and showed it without interruption. He demanded both beauty and intelligence of his dancers, and while critics complained about his tendency to focus on their bodies, he was careful to let his camera pause on their faces and especially on their eyes. He allowed greater variation of face and body types than was permissible later on, and he demanded precise movement, proud posture, and precision. By juxtaposing violence and musical exuberance, Berkeley reminded the audience of the world they were escaping even as they escaped it. His techniques would have their greatest effect on the Hollywood musical before the mid-1950’s, when the decline of the Hollywood studio system virtually ended the production of these expensive films.


The immediate effect of Forty-Second Street was that Berkeley was given a free hand and almost unlimited financial support at Warner Bros., which allowed him to develop his vision. The film’s success motivated other Hollywood studios to produce equally popular pictures. Among the first of these was the Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer[Metro Goldwyn Mayer] (MGM) production Dancing Lady (1933), Dancing Lady (film) which attempted to exploit the popularity of Clark Gable Gable, Clark and Joan Crawford, Crawford, Joan neither of whom was suited for musical films. Crawford’s dancing was strained and ungainly, but Fred Astaire, Astaire, Fred then new to Hollywood, played a bit part. MGM’s 1936 The Great Ziegfeld, with its giant wedding cake and beautifully costumed tiers of girls, owed more to Berkeley than to anything the real Florenz Ziegfeld could have produced on the narrow confines of a Broadway stage.

RKO gave Astaire a role—along with Ginger Rogers, Rogers, Ginger who had attracted attention with a bit part in Forty-Second Street—in its new film, Flying Down to Rio (1933), Flying Down to Rio (film) and the pair’s famous partnership was formed. Berkeley’s influence is evident in the spectacular aerial ballet that ends the RKO film and in the precision dancing of the “Carioca” production number that is the film’s showpiece. Twentieth Century (later Twentieth Century-Fox) imitated Berkeley with Stand Up and Cheer and George White’s Scandals, both in 1934, but it was not to find a successful formula until later in the 1930’s, when it featured singer Alice Faye, child star Shirley Temple, and ice-skating champion Sonja Henie.

While being imitated, Berkeley polished the forms he introduced in Forty-Second Street and developed new ones. His Gold Diggers of 1933 Gold Diggers of 1933 (film) featured, among others, the spectacular “We’re in the Money” number, in which Ginger Rogers led the Berkeley dancers, dressed in oversized gold coins, against a backdrop of gigantic coins. His “Shadow Waltz” in that film showed his chorus playing illumined violins and finally shaping themselves into the pattern of a lighted violin. In “Remember My Forgotten Man,” a parade of World War I soldiers, filmed in silhouette, becomes a ragged procession of the unemployed, and an out-of-work drunk wearing a combat medal is arrested. In Footlight Parade (1933), Footlight Parade (film) Berkeley shot a water ballet from over, under, and around a specially designed pool, and he incorporated “Shanghai Lil,” a number sung and danced by Keeler and James Cagney, which begins in barroom violence and ends, some time later, in one of the military formations that Berkeley frequently used. In Roman Scandals (1933), Roman Scandals (film) he filmed naked dancers.

In Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935), Gold Diggers of 1935 (film) Berkeley filmed what is generally considered his best work, “Lullaby of Broadway.” In this production number, the audience sees the life and death of a Broadway party girl as an army of precision tap dancers paces out the cadence of her life. Singer Wini Shaw’s Shaw, Wini face is first seen as a small white dot on a black screen. She sings “Lullaby of Broadway” as the camera moves gradually into close-up, and her face dissolves into a view of Manhattan. The audience sees her story: She arrives home after a night of fun, feeds her cat, sleeps all day, and sets out with Dick Powell for another night of entertainment. They go to an enormous nightclub, where two dancers begin the lullaby. Suddenly, the dancers become an army of men and women who engage in a dazzling display of precision dancing that does without musical accompaniment for many beats. The dancers become threatening and overpowering, and as they begin to engulf Shaw and Powell, Shaw flees to a balcony and then falls screaming to her death. The camera moves back to the New York scene. The cat waits to be fed. Shaw’s face fades back to a tiny white dot and then disappears.

In the late 1930’s, Berkeley moved to MGM, where his dance direction included Ziegfeld Girl (1941). His MGM credits also included Lady Be Good (1941), with dancer Eleanor Powell, and three of the most popular Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland musicals, Babes in Arms (1939), Strike up the Band (1940), and Babes on Broadway (1941), all backstage musicals that were variations on the Cinderella theme. He directed the eccentric dance by Scarecrow Ray Bolger, “If I Only Had a Brain,” for The Wizard of Oz (1939) Wizard of Oz, The (film) and designed spectacular swimming ballets for Esther Williams in Million Dollar Mermaid (1952) and Easy to Love (1953).

Although Berkeley was frequently imitated, some of his techniques were impossible to re-create. Far more than most dance directors, he stressed the precision movement of masses of people more than dance steps. No other director turned dancers into geometric patterns—flattening conventional perspective—as frequently as he did. At the same time, more than most other directors, he featured the dancers’ faces; his stars had to work harder to prove themselves than did the stars of more conventional musicals, which often showed the star figure alone against a vaguely photographed background of anonymous bodies. His juxtaposition of violence and exuberance was often imitated but was never presented as forcefully as in Berkeley’s own productions, in which Berkeley would not allow the use of mood music to signal the coming of tragedy. Berkeley’s gift was to give his audience a reality that they understood, one in which violence and agony come without warning, while at the same time giving his Cinderella figures an escape even more fantastic than the most imaginative of his audiences could dream. He was best known for his camera angles, but these were more easily imitated than the other qualities that made him unique. Forty-Second Street (film)[Forty Second Street] Motion pictures;Forty-Second Street[Forty Second Street] Motion-picture directors[Motion picture directors];Busby Berkeley[Berkeley] Musical motion pictures;Forty-Second Street[Forty Second Street] Choreography;musical motion pictures

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Altman, Rick. The American Film Musical. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1989. Made unnecessarily difficult by scholarly jargon, this book contains both difficult chapters on theory and more readable ones. The latter can be read separately and provide an excellent categorization of folk musicals, fairy-tale musicals, and backstage musicals. The material on backstage musicals necessarily includes much about Berkeley.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Delameter, Jerome. Dance in the Hollywood Musical. Ann Arbor, Mich.: UMI Research Press, 1981. This scholarly but relatively readable work includes two chapters, “Dance in Film Before 1930” and “Busby Berkeley at Warner Brothers,” which are useful for an understanding of Berkeley’s importance. Delameter, primarily interested in technical dance, thinks little of Berkeley but rightfully associates him with the French Surrealism.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kantor, Michael, and Laurence Maslon. Broadway: The American Musical. New York: Bulfinch, 2004. Comprehensive, lavishly illustrated volume on the history of musicals. Includes year-by-year list of significant shows, selected bibliography, and maps of the theater district at different periods. Companion book to a six-part PBS series.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Knapp, Raymond. The American Musical and the Formation of National Identity. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 2004. History of the genre focuses on how themes in American musical productions relate to how Americans view themselves. Includes useful appendixes, notes, bibliography, and index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Mordden, Ethan. The Hollywood Musical. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1981. Mordden’s witty, opinionated, and readable work remains a standard starting place for students of the film musical; he offers a general overview of Berkeley’s role in reviving musicals and influence on the genre.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Pike, Bob, and Dave Martin. The Genius of Busby Berkeley. Reseda, Calif.: Creative Film Society, 1973. This poorly produced book contains a lengthy interview with Berkeley, most of which is accessible in Tony Thomas’s book (see below). Also includes a filmography, some review material, and a biography that largely repeats the interview.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Schatz, Thomas. The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era. New York: Pantheon, 1988. Easily the best readily accessible source for information about the business side of filmmaking, including the making of Forty-Second Street. Provides an excellent list of archival sources and a reliable bibliography.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sennett, Ted. Warner Brothers Presents: The Most Exciting Years—From the “Jazz Singer” to “White Heat.” New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1971. Discusses Berkeley as a film director, a role in which he was relatively unsuccessful, as well as a dance director. Sennett gives an overview of Berkeley’s creative use of cameras, his inventiveness, and his contribution to the revival of the studio.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thomas, Tony, and Jim Terry, with Busby Berkeley. The Busby Berkeley Book. Greenwich, Conn.: New York Graphic Society, 1973. This is the single essential work for a study of Berkeley. Lavishly illustrated, it contains a foreword by Ruby Keeler, a biography, and a filmography.

Show Boat Is the First American Musical to Emphasize Plot

Hallelujah Is the First Important Black Musical Film

Hollywood Enters Its Golden Age

Studio System Dominates Hollywood Filmmaking

Gangster Films Become Popular

Lubitsch’s The Merry Widow Opens New Vistas for Film Musicals

Top Hat Establishes the Astaire-Rogers Dance Team

Categories: History