Bring up Golden Age Hollywood filmmaker Busby Berkeley, and most people conjure his staging of elaborate, kaleidoscopic dance numbers in such films as “Dames” and “Footlight Parade,” Ginger Rogers singing “We’re in the Money” at the height of the Depression in “Gold Diggers of 1933,” or his sinuous camera weaving through dancer’s legs in such hits as Oscar-nominated “42nd Street” (1933).
A three-time Oscar nominee (for Best Dance Direction), Berkeley’s musicals were credited with saving Warner Bros. from financial collapse before he became a key player in Arthur Freed’s unit at MGM, where he propelled the careers of numerous stars, including Rogers, Judy Garland, Mickey Rooney, and Gene Kelly. Behind the scenes, Berkeley’s life was darker and often tragic — beset by scandal and numerous brushes with the law.
Arguably, Berkeley’s Hollywood artist’s journey 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 the two most storied brands in Hollywood history, Warner Bros. and MGM.
After decades of development hell, as numerous filmmakers tried to bring Berkeley’s colorful story to the screen — pre-“Rocky,” producers Chartoff and Winkler wanted to make a biopic, songwriters Alan Menken and David Zippel (“Hercules”) were interested in a stage production, and more recently, “La La Land” producer Marc Platt and star Ryan Gosling tried to set it up at Warner Bros. — an unlikely duo landed the rights.
Los Angeles-based Lake/Major Productions, headed by the husband-and-wife team of historian, author, critic, and filmmaker Wade Major (“Schlock: The Secret History of American Movies”) and producer Kristi Lake (2020 Oscar-shortlisted live-action short film “Refugee”) have acquired worldwide stage and screen rights to Berkeley’s unpublished memoirs, entitled “Girls, Glamour and Glory,” along with rights to “The Busby Berkeley Book,” which Berkeley co-authored with Jim Terry and film historian Tony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 deeply held love for the subject.
Major’s Hollywood roots start with his father, drama coach Robert Wade Major, a contemporary and colleague of Berkeley’s, who in the late ’20s taught actors how to speak for the talkies. Rita Hayworth’s father was the dancing instructor at his father’s acting school when Berkeley was staging 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 said during a recent interview with IndieWire. His father was born in 1892; Berkeley was born in 1895. His father died in 1978, while Berkeley died in 1976. Both served in World War I in France. Both worked in theater, then came to Hollywood. Berkeley married six times, and Major’s father married five times. “They both tangled with Jack Warner,” said Major. “It’s part of my family’s DNA. Buzz’s life is a cautionary tale of Hollywood in the Golden era. Buzz’s work, what he put on screen, was an MGM musical, and what he lived in his life was a Warner Brothers noir.”
In 2017, Majors discovered that the biography “Buzz: The Life and Art of Busby Berkeley” by Jeffrey Spivak had fallen out of option and grabbed it. But Major was still missing a vital link to the Berkeley story. “We realized that we needed Buzz’s voice,” he said. “Historically, he has been defined by everyone else, people who talk about his movies and his life. We wanted to give him a chance to define himself.”
One telling clue at the end of the biography revealed the existence of Berkeley’s memoir. “That was the first time I had heard about ‘Girls Glamour and Glory,’” said Major. “In 1997, it appeared when Berkeley’s widow Etta died. And when her things were cleared out, they found a typewritten signed copy of the memoir in her garage. It was sold at auction in 2011 and belongs to a collector.”
As Major kept looking for another source for Berkeley’s voice, he found a copy of the out-of-print 1972 “The Busby Berkeley Book,” which Thomas and Terry wrote with the cooperation of Berkeley. While the Warner Archives has put together short documentaries as extras on various Berkeley DVD releases, “there’s nothing comprehensive or thorough,” said Majors.
So the filmmakers did some sleuthing and reached out to Steve Cox, who co-wrote a book with Terry about Larry Fine of The Three Stooges. Dead end. But Major and Lake kept looking. “I didn’t know if Terry was still alive,” said Major. It turned out he was living in a home. “We were able to connect with his estate and family.” When they met, Major was shocked when they presented him with a copy of “Girls, Glamor, and Glory.” Not only that: Terry owned the rights. “That was the bombshell. Berkeley gave him all the rights to stage a show or movie, an arrangement made when he was still alive. That was the great discovery; it was like finding the Holy Grail.”
Terry had advanced dementia and died six months shy of his 90th birthday last summer.
By Berkeley’s own account, he led a tough life. “One of the questions we always had was why the memoirs were never published?” said Major. “His voice is extraordinary. He sees his life and career through rose-colored glasses, but you see there is pain between the lines and the toll the business takes on him: the failed marriages, a co-dependent relationship with a domineering mother who is a former silent actress, alcoholism, womanizing, and tangling with the law. That’s in contrast to these spectacular escapist musicals he put on the screen that are so definitive of the highs and lows of this business. That’s what makes it a great story to tell.”
With the stage and screen rights in hand to both “Girls, Glamor, and Glory” and “The Busby Berkeley Book,” Major has written a screenplay (he has written several unproduced scripts) and is seeking to direct, finance, and package the movie. “The pieces are starting to come together,” he said. “We will not jump the gun. We will do this methodically and do it right.”
When Major approached then ATT-owned Warner Bros., which houses Berkeley’s MGM and Warners films, the studio was not interested. While Majors admitted that HBO Max might be a good home for the project, “to my mind, Busby Berkeley defined the big-screen experience. It would be criminal to his legacy to put his bio on TV, acknowledging that movies have died.”
As far as Majors is concerned, indie filmmakers need to step into the void the studios have left in the marketplace. “Not a week goes by when someone doesn’t say, ‘Why don’t they make movies like that anymore?’” he said. “We all know what they mean: ‘The Godfather’ or ‘Lawrence of Arabia’ or ‘Forrest Gump,’ old movies made for studios that are not making or releasing them anymore. There’s no shortage of material: The studios don’t want to play the role of middleman to connect that material with audiences who want to see it. There is an opportunity to fill that void, bypassing wasteful overhead, and connect those audiences.”
That is why Major is taking the independent route. He has already lined up a distribution deal for North America with indie Picturehouse, whose CEO Robert Berney is known for such wide-release independent theatrical films as “My Big Fat Greek Wedding” and “The Passion of the Christ.” The goal is for the completed biopic spectacle to hit theaters exclusively in wide release.
“He needed to convince backers and investors that it could be done,” said Berney on the phone. “He wants to take the film outside the studios and go big with it. The theatrical market for wide-release films is strong.”
Up next: Lake/Major’s other projects include a documentary adaptation of Sunday Times writer Paul Benedict Rowan’s” Making Ryan’s Daughter,” which recounts the tumultuous production of David Lean’s ill-fated 1970 epic in remote western Ireland. Documentarian Charles de Lauzirika, who recounted the behind-the-scenes filming of “Blade Runner,” “Twin Peaks,” and “Alien3,” will direct.