Saturday, March 5, 2011

The Gang’s All Here (20th Century-Fox, 1943)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2011 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

Charles and I watched a videotape of the 1943 musical The Gang’s All Here — which I wanted to show him because of the high-camp aspects of Carmen Miranda’s performance and the splendors of Busby Berkeley’s dance direction (also very high-camp). Our roommate started denouncing it — saying it was one of Alice Faye’s worst films (well, it was her last starring vehicle for Fox, and she was about 10 years too old to be playing the part of a showgirl who falls for soldier James Ellison, who was billed ninth even though his character was supposedly the male lead) — but that’s not why anyone would want to watch The Gang’s All Here today. You watch it for Miranda (who sang a bit of the song “Brazil” at the beginning with a great deal of soul and beauty completely missing from her fractured-English vocalism elsewhere in the movie), for Berkeley (especially his two big spectacular numbers, “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat” — in which his chorines wave surprisingly phallic bananas in Miranda’s general direction, and which ends with the famous scene of Miranda’s bahiana hat literally extending itself to the sky in an aureole of bananas — and “The Polka-Dot Polka,” in which the neon violins of “Shadow Waltz” from Gold Diggers of 1933 reappear as pink neon hoops), for Benny Goodman (even though he attempts to sing two songs in this film — “Minnie’s in the Money” and “Paducah” — and as a singer, he was a great clarinet player) and for the whole overripe character of 20th Century-Fox’s Technicolor (Edward Cronjager was the cinematographer and Natalie Kalmus the color consultant).

I’d still like to see a CD reissue of Miranda’s Brazilian recordings — the snippets heard from them on the Bananas Is My Business telecast suggest they would hold up very well (much better than her singing in her films) — as it is, The Gang’s All Here just reinforces the impression I got from the Bananas documentary, that Hollywood took a singer of rare and beautiful artistry and turned her act into a sick joke. — 10/16/95


The film was The Gang’s All Here, the 1943 musical made by 20th Century-Fox and directed by Busby Berkeley (and retitled The Girl He Left Behind for British release) — his only project for that studio — which I’d just bought on commercial DVD in a sumptuous transfer that really did justice to the overripe Technicolor cinematography by Edward Cronjager. The Gang’s All Here actually came about because of Judy Garland, who had made three hit musicals — Babes in Arms, Strike Up the Band and Babes on Broadway — with Mickey Rooney as her co-star and Berkeley as director, and MGM accordingly assigned them to work together on the 1943 version of Girl Crazy. Berkeley lasted long enough to shoot the big number, “I Got Rhythm,” which was supposed to end the film (and remains its most spectacular sequence), but then Garland, who couldn’t stand his intense discipline and taskmaster working methods, pulled a diva act and got him fired from the film and replaced with Norman Taurog, an altogether gentler director who’d been especially noted for his ability to work with children since directing the hit film Skippy (1931) with Jackie Cooper.

MGM thus had a choice with regard to Berkeley: either pay him his contract salary for doing nothing or loan him out. At the same time 20th Century-Fox producer (and former RKO studio head) William LeBaron was preparing a big musical that would team Alice Faye, Carmen Miranda, Phil Baker (real-life host of the radio quiz show The $64 Question, though that isn’t mentioned in the film and a sequence showing Baker hosting his show was filmed but not used in the final cut) and Benny Goodman and his band, and so MGM sent Berkeley to Fox for the film. What resulted was a 103-minute extravaganza in which one tends to forget about Alice Faye (she gets to sing two songs, “A Journey to a Star” and “No Love, No Nothin’,” though Judy Garland — her again! — sang them with even more beauty and emotion when she recorded them for Decca, a rare instance of Garland during her MGM contract years recording songs from a non-MGM film) and her boring love interest, James Ellison (it’s a measure of the unimportance of his role that he’s billed ninth) and instead one’s dazzled not only by Carmen Miranda’s over-the-top production numbers but the sheer marriage-made-in-heaven aspects of teaming her with Busby Berkeley.

The film opens at a waterfront where a ship called the S.S. Brazil is being unloaded — well, actually it opens with the disembodied head of singer Alyosio de Oliviera singing the Ary Barroso song “Brazil” in Portuguese (it was in Carmen Miranda’s contract with Fox that each of her films had to contain at least one number in Portuguese) shown as a pinprick in an otherwise dark screen much like Wini Shaw’s head at the beginning of the “Lullaby of Broadway” number in Gold Diggers of 1935, and as in the earlier movie Oliviera’s head grows larger and fills the screen until the lights come up and the waterfront scene is shown as Miranda takes over the song. We see the ship unloading sacks of sugar and coffee, and a man at the docks receives a bag of coffee and says, “I’m rich!” (it was in the middle of World War II and there are a number of gags involving rationing) before Berkeley’s camera pulls back and reveals that the “waterfront” is actually a stage set in the New Yorker nightclub.

Berkeley seemed to take a perverse joy in this gag — the idea that his numbers are being staged in a normal-sized nightclub or theatre when in fact they took up acres of space, platoon-sized choruses and distances that could be traversed only by the crane-mounted camera of which he was so fond — and then the film (written by Walter Bullock from an “original” assemblage of clichés by Nancy Wintner, George Root, Jr. and Tom Bridges) starts introducing its principals: Edie Allen (Alice Faye) is a showgirl at the New Yorker and also works at the Stage Door Canteen nearby, where Benny Goodman and his orchestra (playing themselves, and since the musician’s union was striking the record companies then this film preserves the sound of a Goodman orchestra that didn’t record commercially) also entertain. Army sergeant Andy Mason (James Ellison) drops by the New Yorker and runs into his father, Andrew Mason, Sr. (Eugene Pallette) and his dad’s attorney, Peyton Potter (Edward Everett Horton at his screaming-queeniest, which makes it hard to believe the later plot developments that he actually has a wife — played by Charlotte Greenwood, of all people! — and a grown daughter, Vivian, played by Sheila Ryan after the originally-cast Linda Darnell pissed off studio head Darryl F. Zanuck by marrying cinematographer J. Peverell Marley). Andy is engaged to marry Vivian, whom he’s known since they were kids, but he’s instantly smitten with Edie, to whom he gives the false name “Sergeant Casey” and whom he manages to talk into a date before he ships out the next day.

He leads her to think he’s only being sent to a camp in Florida, but he’s really going into combat in the South Pacific (even though he’s in the Army and the stereotype of the U.S. military in World War II would have you believe that the Pacific war was fought exclusively by the Navy and the Marines), and about 40 seconds’ worth of montage footage later he’s a bona fide hero, with a medal to prove it, and he’s on his way home. Since Andy has explicitly told his father not to throw a big private party in his honor when he gets home, his dad instead decides to throw a big public party, hiring the entire cast of the New Yorker’s floor show to perform in his rose garden and making the show a benefit for the war effort — the price of admission is the purchase of a $5,000 war bond. During the rehearsals the partner of star dancer Tony DeMarco (playing himself) gets hay fever — she’s allergic to the roses — and once Tony sees Vivian he’s immediately smitten with her, makes her his new dance partner and ultimately agrees to take her back to New York with him, thereby getting her out of Andy’s hair and ultimately paving the way for the pairing-off of Andy and Edie.

There are a few amusing complications — including the passing back and forth of Mason a.k.a. “Casey” and some light-hearted suspense over the consequences when Edie and Vivian discover their respective servicemember boyfriends are the same person — but the plot of The Gang’s All Here is even less the point than it is in most musicals. What makes this film great is the sheer serendipity of the teaming of Berkeley and Miranda, the master and mistress of over-the-top, and the superb numbers Berkeley (working in three-strip Technicolor for the first time — his first film, the Sam Goldwyn/Florenz Ziegfeld production Whoopee!, had been in two-strip but during the intervening 13 years he’d worked exclusively in black-and-white) came up with exploiting his Brazilian bombshell as well as the capabilities of color. The number everyone who’s seen this film remembers is “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat,” the ultimate tribute to Miranda’s famous bahiana headdresses (she adopted this trademark after watching the poor women of Bahia, Brazil carry home their purchases of fruits and vegetables by balancing them on their heads) which is set on a tropical island and features an astonishing scene in which the Berkeley chorines each have huge prop bananas (the things are as large as they are!) which they move in a wave-like motion and hold at waist level in an astonishingly phallic image for a Production Code-era film. (The Code office nixed the number originally because the girls were holding the bananas at hip level, so Berkeley moved them to waist level and for some reason that was considered O.K.)

The finale to this number features Miranda posing against a painted backdrop with a huge array of giant bananas in the sky which Berkeley matches to Miranda’s actual headgear, so her “tutti-frutti hat” seems to be extending into infinity; not surprisingly, when the Cento Cedar Cinema in San Francisco ran this film for nearly a year in 1974-75 (they ballyhooed it as a rediscovery of a film previously thought lost — which I rather doubt — and no doubt drew all the queens in San Francisco’s Gay community), that final image of Miranda’s fruit-bedecked headgear crashing through the frame and seemingly taking over the entire universe was the one they picked for their ads. The other numbers Berkeley concocted for this film are almost as spectacular, including the finale, “The Polka-Dot Polka,” which features the deathless line in Leo Robin’s lyric in which Alice Faye sings that “the polka dance, the polka dance, the polka dance is gone/But the polka dot, the polka dot, the polka dot lives on” — and Berkeley proves it by having his chorines manipulate giant pink neon rings and polka-dot like discs (one sequence is filmed in reverse so the polka-dot discs appear to rise from the floor into the chorus girls’ hands — a making-of documentary included in the DVD revealed the girls were really dropping the discs; if I hadn’t seen that I’d have assumed it was shot as we see it with wires lifting the discs into the girls’ hands), leading to a final scene in which each of the characters appears as a solarized image against a blue field, singing one line apiece of “A Journey to a Star” (even Eugene Pallette gets to croak out a line of the song) as we fade out.

The Gang’s All Here remains an utterly astonishing movie even though there are limits in Berkeley’s talents that also show through — for one thing, he’s clueless about how to film a big band; Benny Goodman’s numbers are charming (except for Goodman’s regrettable decision to sing on both his big features, “Minnie’s in the Money” and “Paducah” — as I’ve commented before on this film, as a singer Goodman was a great clarinet player — and the fact that Goodman’s most interesting music in this film, a lovely big-band version of “Soft Winds,” a piece commonly heard only by a Goodman small group with guitarist Charlie Christian and vibist Lionel Hampton from three years earlier, is used only as underscoring for dialogue) but the best idea Berkeley can come up with to make them visually interesting is to have Goodman’s musicians leave the bandstand and assemble on either side of him like the marching bands jazz bands grew out of. There’s nothing here comparable to the dynamic number featuring Goodman from a much cheaper movie, The Powers Girl, he shot just before this one (its director, Norman McLeod, staged a spectacular jitterbug sequence in the rain which captures, far better than anything in The Gang’s All Here, just what the excitement over big-band swing was all about), or the artful filmic treatment directors H. Bruce Humberstone and Archie Mayo gave Glenn Miller’s band in their two 20th Century-Fox films, Sun Valley Serenade and Orchestra Wives, respectively.

The making-of featurette included in the DVD made some curious claims about Berkeley’s career, including saying he left Warner Bros. in 1939 because they wouldn’t raise his salary — on the TCM documentary Busby Berkeley: Going Through the Roof (a marvelous title that encompasses both his love of overhead shots and the over-the-top character of his productions) we were told that Berkeley actually took a pay cut when he switched from Warners to MGM and what lured him to make the move was the promise of bigger budgets for his numbers — and also saying that he was neither a dance nor a choreographer, and that when any serious dancing was needed (like the marvelous male tap trio in “Lullaby of Broadway” from Gold Diggers of 1935 or the great jitterbug sequence here between Charlotte Greenwood and Charles Saggau) he had to have an assistant do it. But it didn’t matter whether or not Berkeley could choreograph dancers — not when he was so expert at choreographing a camera.

Charles commented during “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat” that the number “looked like an LSD trip,” and indeed after having been forgotten for years Berkeley’s work had a revival in the late 1960’s, along with quite a few avant-garde works from 1930’s and 1940’s Hollywood that had finally found their audience, including films that had flopped originally like the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup and Walt Disney’s Fantasia. And it’s nice to know Berkeley was still alive when his work was rediscovered (he died in 1976), and he was aware of it — though the one thing that incensed him in his later years was whenever anyone assumed, based on watching his films, that his numbers had been shot with multiple cameras and said so in person or in print. It had always been a matter of professional pride with Berkeley to shoot these elaborate extravaganzae with only one camera. The revival of interest in Berkeley’s work in the late 1960’s got him the job directing a Broadway stage revival of No, No, Nannette in 1970 (with his great star from the Warners days, Ruby Keeler, coming out of retirement to play the lead), though he was drinking heavily and by the time the show opened Berkeley was little more than a figurehead, promoted as a way of getting nostalgia freaks into the theatre.

I’d quarrel with the statement on the making-of DVD that The Gang’s All Here was Berkeley’s last really great film — it was certainly the last film that reflected so much of his personality (and the last for which he was both overall director and dance director) but there were some pretty astonishing numbers yet to come, including the Esther Williams aqua-fests as well as the marvelous dance of Ann Miller against a field of disembodied musicians’ hands in Small Town Girl — and our recent viewing of the 1939 film They Made Me a Criminal with John Garfield and the Dead End Kids showed that Berkeley could be surprisingly effective as a “straight” director of a film that didn’t involve music or dance at all. (I’d also quarrel with the featurette’s statement that no other musical director was as creative with a camera crane; what about Vincente Minnelli?) Still, Busby Berkeley was one of those “names” that became associated with a particular type of film — just say the words “a Busby Berkeley number” and just about anyone with any familiarity with classic Hollywood at all will know instantly what you mean — and The Gang’s All Here fascinates not only for the sheer audacity of its conception (which must have got very burdensome after a while; maybe Berkeley fell into alcoholism because of the constant pressure he was under to top himself in each new film) but for its revisits of some of the concepts from his earlier movies now that he had a chance to work in color.

The making-of DVD makes a big to-do about how the film reunited Berkeley with Darryl Zanuck, who’d signed him to Warners in 1932 before leaving that studio a year later, but probably the reunion that meant more to Berkeley was with his favorite songwriter, Harry Warren, whose melodies always inspired him more than any other (in his later days at Warners Berkeley would turn down songs by other writers and insist that his producers hire Warren again) — and it also reunited him with Benny Goodman, with whom he’d worked in the 1937 film Hollywood Hotel. (Goodman bio-discographer D. Russell Connor called Hollywood Hotel “the band’s — and any band’s — best film,” probably because it was the only movie that used the greatest of Goodman’s bands, the one with both Harry James and Gene Krupa as regular members — but purely as a movie The Gang’s All Here has it all over the previous Goodman-Berkeley collaboration due to color, a bigger budget and a stronger cast.) — 3/5/11