A veteran of World War I, Berkeley got his start as a choreographer conducting synchronized marching drills for over 1000 artillery men. That military ethos carried over into his Broadway and Hollywood careers and Berkeley developed a reputation as a whip-cracking task master in service of what Mickey Rooney dubbed his "alcoholic perfectionism." Berkeley was often cruel in pursuit of the perfect shot: composer André Previn recalls Berkeley dressing-down a chorister on the set of Million Dollar Mermaid by shouting, "Goddammit you silly bitch, can't you dance any faster?"
Infamous for his drinking habits, Berkeley was arrested numerous times for driving under the influence, the most serious of which resulted in him being charged with three counts of second degree murder after his roadster slammed into another car on a winding Los Angeles road. He was acquitted after three trials. And while he was married six times, he most significant woman in his life was his beloved and ever-present mother, the aptly-named Gertrude. Their co-dependence was such that, after her death at the age of 81, Berkeley attempted suicide.
Of course, for all of his personal failings, Berkeley dreamt and realized some of the most lasting images in musical cinema with films that included 42nd Street, The Gang's All Here, and Gold Diggers of1935 which features the breathtaking sight of 56 grand pianos being played in unison up and down a spiral staircase. Berkeley's ideas shaped our very notion of what a camera can do and what a musical can be.
The work shifts in tone as Berkeley mellows with old age. Billed as his triumphant return to Broadway, Berkeley was largely a figurehead director of successful 1971 Broadway revival ofNo, No, Nanette, and he spent his final working days in New York giving inscrutable television interviews and talking of show-doctoring Hair, a musical he saw as boring and lacking the requisite glitz and girls of a true Broadway hit. Spivak's Berkeley has many layers, but he leaves us with the image of a lovable old grandpa, proud of his life's work, but amnesiac when it comes to the accompanying tragedy.