During the Great Depression, movie audiences were thirsty for all manner of film diversions — and spectacle was something they sought constantly. The 1930s equivalent of spectacle was much different than the explosion-heavy expectation we have today, though. Throughout that era of film, one of the most popular forms of big-screen splendor came in the work of Busby Berkeley.
Berkeley came to Hollywood by way of Broadway and was known for making dance numbers that were divorced from the reality of the rest of the film, fantasy scenes that couldn’t be contained by the physical restraints of the movies. His works include Footlight Parade, The Golddiggers of 1933, and 42nd Street. Each film utilized absurd amounts of dancers and overhead shots that were patently arranged in geometric patterns.
You may be understandably thinking that dance numbers don’t seem like the sort of fare that would inspire the work of George Lucas. But you’d be wrong.
To get us to Star Wars, the easiest path might be the “Anything Goes” sequence in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. Willie Scott — played hilariously by Kate Capshaw — begins the film with a Chinese language version of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes in one of the most deliciously preposterous sequences in any of the Indiana Jones films. After doing a few dance moves in the main room of Club Obi-Wan, Willie takes her troop into a massive, glittering warehouse for the rest of their Busby Berkeley-style dance number. It makes perfect sense for an Indy picture, as they were set at the height of Busby Berkeley’s popularity, and the space where the dance number takes place divorces itself from the rest of the club, just as Berkeley would have wanted. But Star Wars smuggled in Berkeley’s inspiration in its own ways, utilizing Sy Snootles almost every time.
Sy Snootles first appearance in Star Wars came famously in Return of the Jedi, and no matter which musical number you see her perform in — “Jedi Rocks” or “Lapti Nek” — it’s a Star Wars version of a musical number. Jabba’s palace is the perfect place for one that makes little sense, and the repulsive character of Jabba the Hutt is well served by it.
But the biggest Busby Berkeley influence can be seen in the season three episode of The Clone Wars titled, “The Hunt for Ziro.”
Sy’s dance number in the palace of Gardulla the Hutt shares a number of direct shots and dance moves with the Berkeley-inspired Temple of Doom number. It’s a fun homage to both Indiana Jones and Busby Berkeley all at the same time.
But this might not be the most bizarre Berkeley inspiration in Star Wars. That honor goes to Aaron Allston, Star Wars author and fellow film nerd. In his last book, X-Wing: Mercy Kill, the Star Wars universe’s only intelligent Gamorrean, Voort “Piggy” saBinring, plays the role of a dancer in an equally elaborate number (as a distraction) during an important Wraith Squadron mission. I asked Aaron about it before he passed away, and he was also inspired by the Temple of Doom.
Busby Berkeley served as choreographer and director for dozens of films through the decades. If you’re interested in sampling his style of grandiose choreography and filmmaking, Footlight Parade, 42nd Street or any of the Gold Diggers films might be your best bet. They’re films that every well-rounded film aficionado should see and share with the whole family.
Availability: Most of Busby Berkeley’s films are available on DVD and Blu-ray, as well as instant streaming for a small rental fee on Amazon and iTunes.
X-Wing: Mercy Kill is still in print from Del Rey in the Legends line of Star Wars fiction.
You can also follow him on twitter at @swankmotron.