We're in the Money - or are we?

by Susie Hodgson

Warner Brothers is kind of like a cat with nine lives. In the days of the silent movies, the studio was saved from bankruptcy by a certain dog named Rin Tin Tin. In the late 1920’s, the struggling studio was saved yet again by a sensational talkie called the The Jazz Singer. But after that, everyone started making talkies – and poor Warner Brothers was on the edge of bankruptcy again.

What saved them this time? After the 20s, the Depression happened, which meant unemployment, bread lines and no hope in sight. What did the people need? To be uplifted, to be laughing and smiling. So what did Warner Brothers deliver? Bigger-than-life musicals. It was just what the public ordered.

Picture chorus line upon chorus line of beautiful girls, scantily clad. Picture them being filmed from up above, so all you saw was a kaleidoscope of legs, moving in and out, up and down – making the shapes of flowers, stars, backed up by very catchy show tunes and salacious innuendoes. (This was pre-censorship, after all.) Can you see it? If so, then you’re seeing the work of none other than Busby Berkeley. He signed on with Warner Brothers in 1932 and stayed until 1939. A lot of filmmaking – and trouble making – happened in those years.

His first big hit, which truly saved Warner Brothers, was the smash hit 42nd Street. It made a star of Ruby Keeler (who was married to Al Jolson) and has been revived on stage many times. You can probably sing the songs to this day. Bet you can hum Shuffle Off to Buffalo. Busby Berkeley took credit for filming from the ceiling, even cutting a hole at the very top! Recalled Berkeley, “Producer Daryl Zanuck came in and told me not to shoot from up there because the audience can’t go up and look down. So I said, ‘Oh no, I won’t.’ But I did!’”

He did the same thing as he made more musicals, which he did in rapid succession. In 1933 alone, he made 42nd Street, Footlight Parade and Gold Diggers of 1933. Over the years, the hit songs from Berkeley’s movies included “Lullaby of Broadway,” “We’re in the Money” and “I’ve Got Rhythm.”

But something happened in 1935 that cast a very dark shadow over Busby Berkeley’s shining career. A very heavy drinker, Berkeley was the driver of a car that crossed lanes, hit a car head on, killing three. Witnesses said they smelled liquor on him. He was tried for second degree murder. Juries were hung – twice. On the third try, Berkeley was acquitted, but many speculated he was freed because he cried that he was the sole support of his poor old mother – a mother he lived with until she died, a fact that caused gossipy tongues to wag, questioning his sexuality.

And yet he was married. Much married. Six times. All to little-known showgirls and starlets. He was also engaged a couple more times – including once to the very voluptuous blonde Carole Landis. But she was still technically married and her estranged husband sued Berkeley for alienation of affections. The case was dismissed and the engagement broken, thanks to Berkeley’s mom. She didn’t think Carole was good enough for her boy!

A segue is needed here. Carole Landis was herself a fascinating, tragic character. Married six times in her short 29 years, she was quite the sex kitten. She hit it big playing what we think of as the Raquel Welch role in the original One Million Years B.C. Then she became movie mogul Daryl Zanuck’s daily lover (his “4:00.”) When she told him no more, he stopped giving her decent movie roles. But the real tragedy happened when she fell head over heels in love with Rex Harrison in 1948. They called him Sexy Rexy, though he was married. Rex was also known in Hollywood as a truly terrible, cruel human being. When he refused to leave his wife for Carole, she took handfuls of Seconal. Rex found her dead slumped body the next day and didn’t call an ambulance – just his lawyers. He later lied to the coroner saying she was a family friend and he had no idea what would make her kill herself. He also destroyed a suicide note she left for him. His career slowed significantly, but we know he pulled himself out of his slump with My Fair Lady. Some years later, one of his six wives (Rachel Roberts) also killed herself over Sexy Rexy, depressed that he left her. Swell guy.

And back to Busby Berkeley. He was nominated for three Oscars in the 30s, but didn’t win, they say, because of that little thing about killing three people. He left Warner Brothers in 1939 and joined MGM to make Mickey Rooney-Judy Garland movies (Babes in Arms and Strike Up the Band) even though Berkeley and Garland hated each other. Berkeley was notoriously torturous on the set with what Rooney later called “exhausting rehearsals.” Garland called him a “monster.”

But then Berkeley’s beloved, controlling mother died in the 40s, causing Berkeley to attempt suicide. He lived, but was committed to a mental institution for a while. While he later made a couple of decent Gene Kelley movies (For Me and My Gal and Take Me Out to the Ball Game) plus a well-reviewed John Garfield film (They Made Me a Criminal) life was never the same.

He may have made joyful, glorious movies, but Busby Berkeley was a sad, miserable man. He drank heavily, he killed three people in a drunk driving accident, he had tax troubles, plus issues with his tyrannical mother, women problems and treated people abusively. Andre Previn called him a “madman” and Ann Miller said “He didn’t care about anyone. He lacked compassion.” As the New Yorker magazine politely put it, “He led less than a charmed life.”

But you can still see remnants of his work. In Disney’s Beauty and the Beast cartoon, watch the teacups and kitchen utensils sing and dance to “Be Our Guest.” They copied Busby Berkeley. Or take another look at The Big Lebowski, where the Jeff Bridges character has a psychedelic dream. That too mimics Busby Berkeley.

Busby Berkeley saved Warner Brothers and he made magical movies. He was a legend. But that’s one legend I’d never want to be.

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