HomeMoviesBusby Berkley Biopic: How an Independent Filmmaker Acquired the Rights
Busby Berkley Biopic: How an Independent Filmmaker Acquired the Rights
March 17, 2023
The legendary choreographer’s life is a cautionary tale of Golden Age Hollywood, and as the duo behind the planned new film tell IndieWire, they’re ready to give the film the treatment it deserves.
Bring up Golden Age Hollywood filmmaker Busby Berkeley, and most people conjure up the elaborate, kaleidoscopic dance numbers in films like “Dames” and “Footlight Parade,” sung by Ginger Rogers. “We are in the money” at the height of the economic depression in “1933 Gold Diggers” or his winding camera pierced between the dancer’s legs in such hits as the Oscar-nominated “42. street” (1933).
The three-time Academy Award nominee (for Best Dance Direction) credited Berkeley’s musicals with saving Warner Bros. from financial ruin before becoming a key player in Arthur Freed’s unit at MGM, where he helped launch the careers of many stars, including Rogers. Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney and Gene Kelly. Behind the scenes, Berkeley’s life was darker and often tragic – surrounded by scandals and numerous violations of the law.
Arguably, Berkeley’s journey as a Hollywood artist is the untold story that “Babylon” wasn’t — and it coincides with some of the most beloved movies of all time and the rise of two of the most famous brands in Hollywood history, Warner Bros. and MGM.
After decades of development hell, when several filmmakers tried to bring Berkeley’s colorful history to the big screen – before “Rocky” – producers Chartoff and Winkler wanted to make a biopic, and songwriters Alan Menken and David Zippel (“Hercules”) a stage production, more recently and the producer of “La La Land”. Marc Platt and star Ryan Gosling tried to set it up at Warner Bros.—an unlikely duo acquired the rights.
Los Angeles-based Lake/Major Productions, headed by a husband and wife historian, writer, critic, and filmmaker Wade Major (“Schlock: The Secret History of American Movies”) and producer Kristi Lake (2020 Oscar-nominated live-action short “Refugee”) has acquired worldwide theatrical and screening rights to Berkeley’s unreleased memoir “Girls, Glamor and Glory” and rights to “The Busby Berkeley Book,” which Berkeley. Co-authored with Jim Terry and film historian Tony Thomas. But it was a long and arduous quest that required obsessive detective work and a deep love of the subject.
Joan Blondell in the 1933 film Gold Diggers
Major’s Hollywood roots go back to his father, the drama coach Robert Wade Major, a Berkeley contemporary and colleague, who taught actors how to speak for their interlocutors in the late 20s. Rita Hayworth’s father was a dance instructor at her father’s acting school when Berkeley directed musical numbers for Samuel Goldwyn before heading to Warner Bros. Major didn’t just read about these stories, he grew up on them.
“My father and Busby Berkeley lived strangely parallel lives,” Major told IndieWire. His father was born in 1892; Berkeley was born in 1895. Her father died in 1978, while Berkeley died in 1976. Both served in World War I in France. Both worked in theater and then went to Hollywood. Berkeley was married six times and Major’s father was married five times. “They’re both tangled up with Jack Warner,” said the major. “It’s part of my family’s DNA. Buzz’s life is a cautionary tale of Hollywood in the Golden Age. Buzz’s work that he brought to the screen was an MGM musical, and in his life it was a Warner Brothers noir.”
“La La Land”
In 2017, Majors discovered that Jeffrey Spivak’s biography Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley had dropped and grabbed it. But Major was still missing a vital link to the Berkeley story. “We realized we needed Buzz’s voice,” he said. “Historically, he’s been defined by everyone else who talks about his movies and his life. We wanted to give him a chance to define himself.”
A telling clue at the end of the biography revealed the existence of Berkeley’s memoir. “That was the first time I heard about Girls Glamor and Glory,” said Sgt. “It came out in 1997 when Berkeley’s widow, Etta, died. And when they cleaned out his things, they found a typewritten copy of the memoir in his garage. It was sold at auction in 2011 and belongs to a collector.”
As Major continued to search for another source for Berkeley’s voice, he found a copy of the out-of-print 1972 “The Busby Berkeley Book” co-authored by Thomas and Terry Berkeley. While the Warner Archives has compiled short documentaries as extras on various Berkeley DVD releases, “there’s nothing comprehensive or thorough,” Majors said.
So the filmmakers pressed on and approached Steve Cox, who co-wrote a book with Terry about Larry Fine from The Three Stooges. A dead end. But Major and Lake kept looking. “I didn’t know if Terry was still alive,” said Major. It turned out that he lives in a house. “We have been able to contact his estate and family.” When they met, Major was shocked to be handed a copy of ‘Girls, Glamor and Glory’. Not only that: Terry owned the rights. “That was the bomb. Berkeley gave him all the rights to direct a show or film, an agreement made while he was still alive. This was the great discovery; it was like finding the Holy Grail.
Terry suffered from advanced dementia and died last summer, six months after his 90th birthday.
By his own admission, Berkeley lived a hard life. “One of the questions we always had was why were the memoirs never published?” said Major. “His voice is extraordinary. He sees his life and career through rose-colored glasses, but sees that between the lines lies pain and the burdens of business: failed marriages, a codependent relationship with a domineering mother who was a former silent actress, alcoholism, womanizing and run-ins with the law. It contrasts with these spectacular escapist musicals he’s put on screen that are so defining of the highs and lows of this business. That’s what makes for a great story to tell.”
With stage and screening rights to “Girls, Glamour, and Glory” and “The Busby Berkeley Book,” Major has written the screenplay (he has written several unproduced screenplays) and is looking to direct, finance and package the film. movie. “The pieces are starting to come together,” he said. “We are not going to jump the gun. We do this methodically and correctly.”
When Major approached then-ATT-owned Warner Bros., home to Berkeley’s MGM and Warners films, the studio wasn’t interested. While Majors acknowledged that HBO Max could be a good home for the project, in my opinion Busby Berkeley defined the big screen experience. It would be a disservice to his legacy to put his biography on TV, acknowledging that movies are dead.”
When it comes to the Majors, indie filmmakers need to step into the void left by the studios in the market. “Not a week goes by when someone doesn’t say, ‘Why don’t they make movies like this anymore?’ – He told. “We all know what they mean: ‘The Godfather’ or ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ or ‘Forrest Gump’, old movies made for studios that no longer make or release them. There is no shortage of material: studios don’t want to play the role of middleman to connect the material to the audience that wants to see it. There’s an opportunity to fill that void, bypass wasteful spending, and connect those audiences.”
Therefore, the major chooses the independent path. It already has a North American distribution deal with indie Picturehouse, whose CEO Robert Berney is known for such wide-ranging independent theatrical films as “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “The Passion of the Christ.” The aim is that the completed biographical spectacle will be shown in cinemas only widely.
“He had to convince backers and investors that it could happen,” Berney said by phone. “He wants to take the film outside the studios and make it big. The theatrical market for wide films is strong.”
Following: Lake/Major’s other projects include a documentary adaptation of Sunday Times writer Paul Benedict Rowan’s Making Ryan’s Daughter, which chronicles the stormy production of David Lean’s ill-fated 1970 epic in remote western Ireland. Documentary filmmaker Charles de Lauzirika, who told the behind-the-scenes secrets of the filming of “Blade Runner”, “Twin Peaks” and “Alien 3”, directs.