Jeffrey Spivak on Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley | Interview
Busby Berkeley’s biographer goes behind the scenes to chronicle a tortured life in old Hollywood.
Busby Berkeley lived his life on the edge, rising higher and falling lower than the cameras that captured his iconic “top shot” dance kaleidoscopes and underwater routines. South Side native Jeffrey Spivak—who by day works as a technical writer for Loop investment firm Wolverine Trading— has published Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley (the University Press of Kentucky, $39.95), the first comprehensive biography of the dance director, who died at the age of 80 in 1976. Spivak spoke with me by phone from his home office in Gurnee.
This is your first biography. Is it your first book?
Not technically. I wrote a book that came out in 1996 about the XTML programming language, which is as dry as it sounds. Not at all Hollywood show business, glamour, girls, anything like that.
Did you come across anything in your research suggesting why no one had ever written a biography of Berkeley before?
Not really. As I was writing the book proposal, I wanted to see what literature had been available for Busby Berkeley and it turns out there were just a couple of titles that came out in the ’70s. One is called The Busby Berkeley Book, which is a big, beautiful coffee table book with beautiful photographs from his movies, but it’s not a biography. And there was another book, called The Genius of Busby Berkeley, which I have, which was a very limited release. But there was no biography, and I knew for a fact that my publisher, the University Press of Kentucky, likes to go after subjects that have not been covered by somebody else. Berkeley was a perfect fit: I liked the guy, and I liked his movies, so that gave me a head start.
With all of the classic Broadway and movie stars that make appearances, and all of Berkeley’s grand visions and narrow escapes, it seems inevitable that someone would turn your book into a biopic.
Well, I’m on the hunt now, talking with Hollywood people with the hope that someone will film Berkeley’s life story. Todd Haynes did a great job with that period in [HBO miniseries] Mildred Pierce. Of course Martin Scorsese would be great, too. Would I write the screenplay? I’ve never done that, either. I’d hand it over to someone who really knows screenplay writing. All I ask is that I get credit: “This is a film based on the book by me.” And a nice percentage. [Laughs]
What did you learn from studying someone else’s life so closely?
It’s somewhat of a cautionary tale, in that he was responsible for his own downfall. He married indiscriminately and once said that he couldn’t remember the names of all of his wives. He lived high on the hog and, man, was really in the depths of despair during his lowest points. If I learned anything, I won’t follow in his footsteps.
You open the book with a quote from Buzz: “In an era of breadlines, Depression, and wars, I tried to help people get away from all the misery.” Was working on these films, creating these spectacles, an escape from himself?
Probably, because he was the king of the world when he was on the set with his own unit. He was never happier than when he was [when he was] working. The finished products he delivered to the theaters in the ’30s [brought] the same relief he felt himself when he was on the set, creating. Off the set, he was a terror to himself, and to those poor women he married. [Laughs]
His penchant for the ecstatic and the extravagant in times of hardship feels particularly relevant to today. Do you feel there are parallels between his era and ours?
Only in that the word “depression” gets tossed around a lot these days. I wouldn’t say Busby Berkeley was a cure-all for the Depression woes of the 1930s. [It’s said] that audiences wanted their entertainment pure back then. I counter by using Berkeley as an example, by saying, “No, adult audiences wanted their entertainment impure!” He loved looking up the spread legs of swimmers, while a girl swims up, in the middle of the frame, with a leering grin on her face.
Maybe not in terms of who references his style, such as the Coen Brothers have, but is there someone today with a similarly unique vision of dancerly filmmaking?
There’s a million great cinema-makers and great photographers and great eyes, great visions, but there’s nobody like Berkeley. Anytime you see a top shot, people think, “That’s supposed to be Berkeley.” Or [when someone says], “Do a dance number à la Busby Berkeley,” you know exactly what they’re talking about.
In your foreword, you thank Jonathan Rosenbaum “for setting the record straight about a Busby Berkeley rumor I heard.” What was the rumor?
It was rumored that some numbers, most specifically the “Going to Heaven on a Mule” number from the film Wonder Bar, which was very racist—I mean, it’s a blackface number directed by Berkeley and it features Al Jolson dying and going up to heaven where pork chops are growing on the trees and the watermelon slices are as tall as your eye. Really. “Hey, we in ’da heavenly lan’!” and I’m not kidding. It’s eliminated from most DVDs that feature the work of Busby Berkeley. Anyway, I’d heard that that it was so racist that they snipped the scene entirely from prints that were released in theaters in the South. That’s where Jonathan Rosenbaum comes in. I think his grandfather used to own a lot of those theaters, so I asked him specifically, about any case, not just with Busby Berkeley, but any case, where racist numbers were actually snipped out in sensitivity to Southern audiences. And he forcibly told me, No, he didn’t know anything about that.…Yes, you wince, and I actually take Berkeley to task in the book. I don’t kiss his butt, as you know. It’s hard to believe that they got away with that kind of stuff back then. It’s racist and inflammatory and very prejudicial.
Buzz and Judy Garland were quite the toxic combination.
When [Berkeley] went to MGM, Babes in Arms, Babes on Broadway, those “Let’s put on a show!” films were tremendously popular. In fact, Babes in Arms made more money [in 1939] than The Wizard of Oz, which was released the same year. They worked together well but, in the end, Berkeley was a tough tyrant, a taskmaster, a pain in the ass, and he yelled on the set. Judy became frail and was on pills and losing her hair. By the final collaboration they were going to work on, Annie Get Your Gun, he was eventually let go, and so was Judy. To his credit, with all of my research, I could not find Berkeley saying a bad word about anyone that he worked with. Judy had great things to say [about Berkeley], too, but then she didn’t. They like you one minute, and then they don’t. It’s Hollywood. It’s show business. I tried to paint with equal brushes, both sides.
He must’ve known that he couldn’t make enemies and still accomplish these numbers.
Again, to Berkeley’s credit, he never complained about the financial resources that were or weren’t involved in his musical productions. He worked within the studio system, he claimed all his films made money and, to an extent, he was exactly right. They all turned a profit. There was no real money-loser. He was an employee to the very end, never up-and-started his own production company, or started making his own pictures, with his own money.
I found it interesting that he never put much work into learning the particulars of dance.
He knew what he didn’t know. MGM, Warner Bros., they had their own people who taught the girls to do the steps. He was fast on his feet, and sometimes you need that kind of bluffing to get your foot in the door. It served him well and it carried him all the way into Hollywood.
What’s your fondest memory of the research process? Any happy accidents?
Two years ago, when I was still working on the book, the Music Box Theatre [offered] a miniature Busby Berkeley film festival every other weekend. Even though I’d seen the films many times, I wanted to see them on the big screen, in 35-millimeter [film projection], the way audiences did back in the day. One day I was there, I was watching Footlight Parade and that gigantic, “By a Waterfall” number that Berkeley had done, and my cell phone starts vibrating, right in the middle of that number. Afterwards, I checked to see who it was and I had a voicemail from Debbie Reynolds! She’d called right in the middle of the Busby Berkeley film. I’d contacted her because she had worked with Berkeley, and I wanted to get some stories from her, which paid off really nicely. That was one of the wildest coincidences. I’m just a kid from Chicago and here’s Debbie Reynolds, calling me! Maybe someday I’ll get used to it. [Laughs]
Is there a next book?
It isn’t official, of course, until a contract is signed, but I’m looking at Lee Marvin as a next subject, another great guy who doesn’t yet have a definitive biography.
Why Lee Marvin?
If you’re going to write about somebody, you’d better at least like them at the beginning. You may hate them later, [Laughs] but you have to live with them a long time and overturn some rocks. Lee is the kind of guy that I could live with. I love his movies. He’s badass, and his drinking makes Busby Berkeley look like a teetotaler. [Laughs]
Buzz is available now for purchase and download.