Busby Berkeley, by his own admission, didn’t much know his left foot from his right when it came to dance. A strange confession from one of the most famous choreographers in movie history. But not so strange when one recalls that, what is remembered most from Berkeley’s famous musical production numbers is not so much “dance”, but the highly organized movement of large numbers of (mostly) female figures moving through abstract backgrounds followed by the constantly moving camera frame.
Berkeley was not a trained dancer. He supposedly got his ideas/eye for movement from running large order parade drills of troops as a second lieutenant during the First World War. A small time theater actor, this led him to becoming a choreographer on Broadway and then was brought to Hollywood by Samuel Goldwyn to stage the musical numbers in the Eddie Cantor movie, Whoopee! (1930). (Whoopee! is a wonderful slice of pre-code, that is a subject for future research.) Yes, it is a little more involved than that, but . . . this finally brings me to Berkeley’s Technicolor extravaganza The Gang’s All Here, (1943) which I recently watched for the first time.
Fired from the production of Girl Crazy, after continual conflicts with Judy Garland, MGM loaned Berkeley out to 20th Century Fox. Fox head, Darryl Zanuck, gave Berkeley almost complete freedom to do what he wanted in his first color film. He would take full advantage of it, as far as the studio would let him.
The Gang’s All Here is considered “ground zero”, according to one writer (Glenn Erickson, I think), for camp enthusiasts. Maybe so, but I was rather let down the first time through the movie; but I am not really all that enthused by camp. I will say that I enjoyed it much more the second time, as I mostly ignored the story and just let the images and music wash over me. Additional viewings may be needed to fully appreciate The Gang’s All Here. Another viewing will have to wait though, as the DVD is back with Netflix.
Like a lot of Berkeley’s films, from 42nd Street and the Gold Diggers of 1933 (both 1933) on, The Gang’s All Here is a “let’s put on a show” film. Most, if not all songs and dance numbers are in the context of the show. This being a World War II film, it’s, “Lets put on a show to sell war bonds!” Show, is what this film is all about. And boy, once it starts, it rarely lets up for long.
Beginning at the top with a gargantuan production number: “Brazil”/”You Discover You’re in New York”, that looks like it might be taking place at the landing pier, of a disembarking ocean liner. I say, “might be”, since the film opens with the floating head of Aloysio De Oliveria on a black background, crooning the first song, “Brazil.” It is not until after several minutes of complicated business and Carmen Miranda singing and shaking her booty, that the camera finally pulls back to reveal a curtain, the stage and floored seating. We’re in a nightclub. A nightclub the likes that never existed outside a movie set.
It’s all quite a production–but you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
But what’s the storyline, you may ask? Well the plot is something probably no one much talks about when referring to The Gang’ All Here; but essentially, it’s boy (on leave soldier, Sgt. Andy–James Ellison) meets girl (showgirl, Eadie–Alice Faye), they fall in love, he leaves for war, she pines for him, he returns, there are complications that magically evaporate just before the end and everybody’s happy, happy. I hope that I did not spoil it for you.
Actually, “the story” is what, initially, kept me from fully getting into the movie. Sgt. Andy is something of a jerk. He pretends to be a poor, naive soldier on leave in the big city while he woos honest Alice, when he is in fact something of a playboy about town and the son of a Wall Street fat cat (Eugene Pallette)–all of this, while he’s unofficially engaged to his childhood sweetheart and daughter of next door neighbor (Edward Everett Horton) another wealth Wall Street fat cat. To top it off, he gives her the name of someone else and begs her to write to him. Okay, so he’s kind of a heel. That could work right? Well maybe,if Berkeley invested much of anything into it, it might. It all appears mostly just tossed off. Of course, James Ellison as Sgt. Andy has all the appeal of a damp dishrag–nice teeth and hair and a voice that would be perfect for an anonymous radio announcer. I imagine he would have been fine selling Lux Soap & Chasen Sanborn Coffee in between studio announcements. Fox was pretty well-known for casting weak males leads opposite their big female stars in what were considered “Women’s Pictures”. And musicals definitely aimed at the ladies. It’s just that a good spine of a story is something for an audience to invest in and for the rest action to hang from–and this one is pretty weak in that department. Anyhoo, we do get Alice Faye singing a couple of nice ballads: “Journey to a Star” and “No Love, No Nothin’.” The comic stylings of Pallette, Horton, loose-limbed Charlotte Greenwood and above all Carmen Miranda are actually, pretty equal in importance. Oh, and Benny Goodman and His Orchestra are pretty aces too.
So, enough about the plot. What about “The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat”? The title of this entry. Well, it is the most famous number in the movie; but to describe or to try to analyze it would take far too long. I will say nothing more, except that it again features Carmen Miranda (She sure could get away with some sexual innuendo that nobody else at the time seemed to be able to.) and not the top lined Alice Faye. Any Freudian musings about bananas and strawberries I will leave to you. Watch for yourselves.
The thing with Berkeley is that he keeps reminding you that you’re watching a movie. The people who do not like musicals because they are not “real”, will definitely not go for Busby. I have never understood that particular criticism. First of all, a film/movie is not “real.” It’s a movie and a movie creates its own “reality.” This is a point I tend to make over and over again. Oy, I am getting in too deep and will dig myself a hole that will be hard to climb out of. So . . .
“The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat” takes place in the same nightclub as the opening piece. Berkeley creates these outlandish, outsized visual concepts that can only be created in a film. They exist purely for the visual, aural or if you prefer–sensual pleasure they create. I won’t argue for surrealism. I somehow don’t believe Berkeley thought in those ways, but he did let his imagination fly and on this film, he was more or less allowed to do so.
The finale of The Gang’s All Here (all plot threads are magically and happily resolved) begins with a rather goofy ode to the polka-dot that evolves into something all together strange and kaleidoscopic melange of color and image (Damn. I really don’t know how to describe it. Just watch.) and concludes with truly bizarre reprise of “Journey to a Star.” Hold on to your hats.
I told you so.
This was not the last film Busby Berkeley directed, but it was the last time he would have the studio budget and the relative freedom to do what he wanted. He directed two more films: the low budgeted, Cinderella Jones in 1946 for Warners and the turn of the century, baseball musical, Take Me Out to The Ballgame, with Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra for MGM in 1949. In the latter Kelly vetoed pretty much every big scene idea of Berkeley’s. He directed the film but Kelly and Stanley Donen created all of the choreography. He continued to direct choreography for some MGM musicals until his last film credit, Jumbo in 1962.
I will leave you with this image taken from the finale. The horror of the singing, floating head of Eugene Pallette.
A quick addendum: I forgot to rhetorically ask: Just how much “dancing” did you detect in the above clips?