Tuesday, July 4, 2006

Busby Berkeley Dreams

The Gang's All Here
(Busby Berkeley, USA, 1943, 35mm, 103 mins.)

I haven't seen you in ages
But it's not as bleak as it seems
We still dance on whirling stages
In my Busby Berkeley dreams

-- "Busby Berkeley Dreams" (Stephen Merritt, Magnetic Fields)

A mixed bag usually denotes a product of mediocre quality. Well, The Gang's All Here may be mixed, but the strengths so outnumber the weaknesses that a few seem necessary to keep this thing tethered to the Earth.

Weak spots start with the leads: Alice Faye (showgirl Edith), James Ellison (soldier Andy), and Sheila Ryan (Andy's childhood sweetheart, Vivian). The latter two are bland, while there's a world-weariness to Faye's performance, which adds interest, but doesn't really work for the part. With her womanly figure and deep voice, she seems too matronly for a young buck like Andy. On "No Love, No Nothin'," her voice drops so low, she sounds like Nina Simone. Not a bad thing to be sure, just out of place.

The supporting cast, however, provides the character lacking in the leads. First, there's the middle-aged trio of frog-voiced butterball Eugene Pallette (The Lady Eve) as Andy's father, towering high-kicker Charlotte Greenwood (Oklahoma!) as Vivian's mother, and prim-faced Frank Capra favorite Edward Everett Horton (Arsenic and Old Lace) as her father--the ideal foil for the real star of the movie.

That person is, of course, Carmen Miranda (showgirl Dorita), for whom the phrase "force of nature" was invented. Granted, the Brazilian Bombshell's singing is so-so and her acting is telenovelas-style broad (her dialogue consists entirely of malapropisms), but her dancing is a treat. And she trips the light fantastic in some of the silver screen's highest platform heels (according to Kenneth Anger, she stored her cocaine in them). The golden pair in the opening sequence make Dorothy's ruby slippers seem dull in comparison. As for her elaborate costumes, they must be seen to be believed, but my favorite was the green and purple butterfly ensemble.

So that's the cast, i.e. a mixed, but mostly sparkling bag. As for the plot, it's a bit of fluff about how wealthy Andy falls for working class Edith just before he's posted to the Pacific. The main reason to catch this technicolor extravaganza is for Berkeley's jaw-dropping dance sequences.

Now often described as "psychedelic," I find it hard to believe this stuff was ever considered commercial, since that word has come to mean safe, sanitized, boring. These numbers are anything but. To quote Anger (Hollywood Babylon II), "He made surrealistic, voyeuristic, erotic musical dream fantasies which made eyes pop and pricks stand up around the world."

Miranda's "The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat" is the best known bit--and for good reason--what with all the organ grinders, tiny monkeys, and dancers toting giant phallic bananas. It's a blast, but so are the other set pieces, including one with kids in polka dot outfits ("The Polka-Dot Polka") and a spooky one for which the chorines have traded in their big bananas for neon hula hoops ("Shadow Waltz").

David Thomson (A Biographical Dictionary of Film) goes on to add, "He [Busby Berkeley] was daring enough to give us unalloyed cinematic sensation, as in the imperceptible plot of The Gang's All Here, which contains in its opening sequence one of cinema's most breathtaking traveling shots and, at its conclusion, the endlesslessly erectile banana routine--lewdness has never been as merry."

As if all that weren't enough to send The Gang's All Here into the stratosphere, it boasts Benny Goodman and his Orchestra, closes with disembodied heads singing "A Journey to a Star," and begins with "Brazil," one of the most strangely enchanting songs of all time. (Also, one of the 20 most covered--by everyone from Liberace to Wire.) Modern viewers are likely to be more familiar with the 1960s version by Geoff and Maria Muldaur in the Terry Gilliam film, but Ary Barroso penned "(Aquarela Do) Brazil" decades before. In The Gang's All Here, the head of Aloysio De Oliveira sings the samba first before tossing it to a full-bodied Miranda. And we're off!

Some people say I dress too gay,
But ev'ry day, I feel so gay;
And when I'm gay, I dress that way,
Is something wrong with that?

-- "The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat"
(lyrics Leo Robin, music Harry Warren)

The Gang's All Here, in a new 35mm print, plays the Northwest Film Forum July 7-13, Fri.-Thurs. at 7 and 9pm (Sat. and Sun. at 3 and 5pm). The opening night screenings are FREE for members. The NWFF will also be screening 42nd Street (July 14-16) and presenting Chris Jeffries' "Kaleidoscope Eyes: Songs for Busby Berkeley." Jeffries will be performing new songs for dance sequences from Berkeley films July 20-23 and 27-30. The NWFF is located at 1515 12th Ave. between Pike and Pine. For more information, please click here. You can also call 206-329-2629 for general info and 206-267-5380 for show times.


  1. Unrelated to the film, that is my favorite Magnetic Fields song, EVER.

  2. On a song related note I also love The Soul of Carmen Miranda by John Cale which begins:
    Since the soul of Carmen Miranda had captured the mind of man
    Dismissed with her generation for the price of a can-can

  3. Nice! I hadn't heard that before. As for Stephen Merritt/the Magnetic Fields, I think "Busby Berkeley Dreams" may be my favorite, too. I'm also quite fond of "Papa Was a Rodeo." I just may attach it to another review someday. :-)
    For those who aren't familiar with "69 Love Songs" (from whence these songs sprung), here's a link to the AMG review: