The Gang’s All Here
Director: Busby Berkeley / Script: Walter Bullock / Editing: Ray Curtiss / DoP: Edward Cronjager / Music: Hugo Friedhofer & others
Cast: Alice Faye / Carmen Miranda / Phil Baker / Benny Goodman / Charlotte Greenwood / Edward E. Horton
In order to break the rules, it helps if you know what they are at the outset; better still, if you were one of those responsible for drawing them up in the first place… If you’re esteemed cine-choreographer ‘Busby’ Berkely and the year is 1943, then the months ahead will see you break more than a few…
First, a little context. 1943 saw the Allies making moves in North Africa, Italy and The Pacific. The American public had gone all-in on this ‘Crusade for Civilisation’, with virtually every community making sacrifices, in order to tip the scales towards ultimate victory. By ‘43, the national mood was pivoting towards a realisation that this would be a long-haul, with no easy victories.
Hollywood was no exception, producing a string of morale-boosting pot-boilers, to keep things ‘ticking over’, until its biggest (male) stars came home. So many actors and crew members had signed-up to do their bit (and bolster their macho credentials in-turn), that it’s a wonder that anything got made at all.
Twentieth Century Fox, a studio that’d flourished under the guiding hand of Darryl F. Zanuck, was no different to its contemporaries, in tailoring its output to this bleaker mood. One of his production executives – William LeBaron (‘LeB’) – had been tasked with starting-up a unit within Fox devoted solely to producing musicals; the genre was enjoying a mini-renaissance, providing escapist fayre to an audience keen to forget their privations. Once Zanuck left the studio for war-work in Europe, LeB was free to develop projects in a ‘while the cat’s away’ attitude, if Gang’s is any guide.
So then, to ‘Busby’ Berkeley (‘BB’); a visionary character who’d choreographed a string of hit musicals for Warner Bros. in the Thirties; each one more ambitious than the last. Forget the War: before all that, the country had had to crawl out of a painful economic depression and the movies – particularly musicals – gave succour to a people desperate for better lives. When the war came along, it gave many their first decent incomes in years. Berkely then left for MGM and the promise of new horizons, but a difficult shoot with Judy Garland on Girl Crazy (never was a title more apt), led him to move-on again: to Fox and LeB’s warm embrace. After all, here was a musicals production office seemingly treading water. LeB attached his new wünderkind as Director (his first feature-length gig) to a project then in pre-production. Gang’s would shoot throughout much of ‘43, aimed at a Christmas release.
The result, is an impish, delicious, subversive mess of a film that gives a hearty two-fingers to the Censor, The War and budget restrictions (the cause of eventual tension between LeB. & BB). Rather than sketch-out the plot for you (don’t trouble yourself, it’s as flimsy as gossamer), let’s consider the highlights.
It opens with a crooning – though disembodied – head (get used to this; you’ll be seeing more of these) before tracking into a quayside scene as both coffee & wide-eyed passengers unload from the good ship SS Brasil. The widest eyes belong to latin bombshell Dorita (Carmen Miranda (‘CM’)) who launches into a rendition of ‘You Discover You’re in New York’, assisted by her band (that’s handy) and various walk-ons. By now, BB’s camera has pulled back enough to reveal that we’ve been in a giant night club all along and have been merely gawping at the spectacle along with the equally stupefied punters. It’s a mind-bending warm-up for the set-piece that would arguably seal CM’s place in cinema history: ‘The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat’. Here, BB’s regular troupe of showgirls frolic with giant papier-mâché bananas; thrusting them from their midriffs, only because the censor shuddered at BB’s earlier, stiffer idea…
The crane lets the camera swoop like a hawk as the mesmeric routine plays-out, only to settle on an indelible final shot of CM wearing her (soon-to-be) signature fruit-laden turban and standing beneath a matte painting of a banana bunch which, as we pull back, is revealed as a giant fan of bananas fixing her image forever.
The score & songs are what you might expect of the period, with Benny Goodman and his band lobbing in a couple of spirited numbers, alongside the usual lush strings arrangements for the big dance numbers. It’s all above average stuff but didn’t blow my socks off – but then we’re not here to listen; we’re here to drown in oversaturated colour. Other highlights? Charlotte Greenwood kicking-up her heels to unexpected heights. The delightful bi-play between her and her on-screen husband Mr. Potter (Edward E. Horton). Then Horton’s own routine with a laser-focused Dorita, as she seeks investment advice.
Actually, that last point helps us understand another of the film’s themes. We look at the size of Potter’s house & gardens and we’re led to believe that we could live someplace like this ourselves, if we ‘invest in the US’. As if the audience needed further persuasion, tickets for the film’s gala ending, held in Potter’s Wacky Wonderland of a backyard, cost $5k a piece and it looks to be a sellout, with all proceeds going towards War Bonds. It’s saying ‘look at all these beautiful people and their exclusive shindig’. It’s saying ‘work hard enough and you could be here next year. Or maybe the one after that.’ Above all, it’s saying ‘Buy Your War Bonds on Leaving This Theater’.
Ironically, CM was America’s highest paid star in 1945 and needed no advice on that score, from anyone.
The film climaxes with a surreal sequence in which Eadie Allen (Alice Faye) celebrates winning sole rights to wooden-top James Ellison, by singing about, err, Polka Dots, before BB succumbs to the fever-dream that’d been threatening all along. He dresses his girls as extras in an episode of Flash Gordon and has them perform an intricate ballet whilst holding aloft circular neon tubes. Because, Polka Dots, right?
BB’s last flourish? The clincher to send open-mouthed cinema-goers into a cold December night? He gets the main cast members to sing Allen’s signature number ‘Journey to a Star’ but only show their disembodied heads, floating in a constellation of ‘stars’, geddit? It’s certainly a brave choice to end with.
Although this trippy embarrassment of riches made money, the audience for BB’s style was waning. By the time of its release, that ‘long haul’ I mentioned earlier, was beginning to bite. Two years-in, the War had brought a new reality to America’s heartlands. As film-makers returned home, many changed by their experiences, so a grittier realism would hold sway. BB himself, would never scale such heights again; Gang’s marked his creative high-watermark and he would end his career directing shows on that most disposable medium: television.
The Gang’s All Here, is one of those films you can’t shake off. Yes, it’s a meringue of a film that verges on flimflammery. Yes, it has little plot worthy of the description, but it remains as riveting to watch now as it did over seventy years ago. Feeling low? Give this a go before schlepping over to the drinks cupboard…
Ee’s not Sergeant Mason! Ee’s Sergeant Craazy!
Triple Word / Score: Bonkers / Impish / Glorious / Nine