|Busby Berkeley aged 75|
The Murder Trial of Busby Berkeley:
Busby Berkeley was born November 29, 1885 in Los Angeles, California to a stage actress mother and actor father. Although he began his creative life as an actor, after World War I, Busby started directing the dance scenes of several 1920’s Broadway musicals. He created his mark by removing the idea of traditional female sexuality and the female form and focusing on the geometric patterns chorus girls could create. Busby’s first major film effort was in the Eddie Cantor musical ‘Night World’ (1932) and he soon progressed into creating more complicated and lavish productions, such as, in ‘Gold Diggers of 1933’ (1933) and ‘Footlight Parade’ (1933).
Berkeley was at the height of his career after the success of popular films, ‘Dames’ (1934) and ‘Wonder Bar’ (1934) and the opening of his new film ‘Gold-diggers of 1935’ (1935) when the fateful night occurred. It was the night of the 8th of September 1935 and Busby was attending a party held by Warner Brothers production chief William Koenig in Pacific Palisades. Anxious to make an appointment with bandleader Gus Arnheim which was scheduled the next day, he left the party early and still very much affected by alcohol.
What happened next is unclear, but witnesses testified that Berkeley who was driving down the Roosevelt Highway at high speeds, changed lanes suddenly and crashed head-on into a car and collided with another. This resulted in the death of two people, caused severe injuries to five others – with one later dying from the wounds - and left Busby badly cut and bruised.
As Busby was in the public eye and a popular and productive commodity for studios, he had to be protected. Therefore, to defend the legendary choreographer against second degree murder charges there could be only one contender, the brainy and equally legendary Hollywood lawyer Jerry Giesler. Giesler had become notorious in Hollywood for successfully defending big stars against a wide assortment of legal charges. He would later be the lead in the Errol Flynn rape case, defend Robert Mitchum against illegal possession of drugs charges and be involved Charlie Chaplin’s paternity case. He was known for his crafty and outlandish style of conducting questioning and proving points.
|Giesler (right) with Errol Flynn (centre)|
|Giesler with Charlie Chaplin|
Giesler would have to pull out all the tricks for Berkeley’s trial, with the big issues proving what in fact caused the crash. Was it alcohol as some police and witness reports claim or was it, as his defence team asserted, due to problems with his front tire and the dangerous nature of the stretch of road? However, the jury believed the defence with two trials resulting in a hung verdict and acquittal in the third.
|Busby Berkely arriving at the first trial brought in on a stretcher|
Although the case is legally closed, many have questioned the verdicts and the influence of the studio system in achieving them. The main issue has been the question of ‘drink driving’. How could a jury believe that Berkeley with a history of alcoholism, who had just left a party was not intoxicated, an idea that was collaborated by several witnesses and policemen. Some sources have attributed this to the power of studio heads and even concluded that bribery was involved. However, none of this has been proven and, even though he was acquitted, it can be said the accident had a major impact on the life of Busby and his success as a director.