Close-Up is a feature that spotlights films now playing on MUBI. Busby Berkeley's The Gang's All Here (1943) is showing December 25, 2017 - January 24, 2018 on MUBI in the United States.
Busby Berkeley makes no attempt to hide, or even downplay, the glorious Technicolor fabrication of The Gang’s All Here. From its very first scene, as an apparent bit of dramatic action is revealed to be an elaborate stage production, which then, in turn, detaches from the platform and enters the audience, the wall between illusion and actuality comes joyously crumbling down. From there, the crowd of spectators become themselves part of the show—we’re all part of the show when it comes to this 1943 musical comedy, accepting and delighting in its escapist frivolity.
Favoring overt exaggeration and artful indulgence over any semblance of realism, Berkeley engages a gleeful composition of color, music, dance, calculated choreography, and exotic, albeit superficial, fascination. And yet there’s a story developing amongst the cascade of formal extravagance. In the lavish Club New Yorker, wealthy businessman “A. J.” Mason is indulging in some lighthearted merriment with his reluctant partner Peyton Potter, who frets as much about what his disapproving wife might think as A.J. simply couldn’t care less. Joining the duo is Mason son Sgt. Andrew J. Mason, Jr., an enlisted Army man with some time to kill before getting shipped off to the South Pacific. The high-spirited Andy takes a liking to one of the chorus girls, Eadie Allen, who, between shows, does double duty at a nearby USO canteen. She resists his advances to start, but right on cue, she acquiesces, and just as predicted, the two fall madly in love. The rest, as they say, is history, but not without the obligatory added drama. It seems Andy is semi-betrothed to Vivian, a childhood sweetheart, and to compound the romantic fix, with Eadie, Andy has been going by the name Pat Casey, lest she discover the prominence of his family name. So, when war hero Andy is given a furlough, both Eadie and Vivian anxiously await the return of their respective suitor, who just so happens to be the same person.
Now, this whole scenario is far less scandalous than it may sound, and it’s all presented in classic Hollywood’s supremely comfortable fashion. Besides, true to form when it comes to Busby Berkeley, The Gang’s All Here isn’t especially concerned with its ostensible plot anyway, taking its sweet time to move things along and populating the set-up with broad, no-muss-no-fuss characterizations. Played by craggy gravel gut Eugene Pallette, described at one point a “mountain goat,” A.J.’s role is to provide the influence and affluence needed to arrange a war bond garden party in Andy’s honor, subsequently bringing everyone together to compact the narrative and launch a few foolish antics, happy accidents, and comic misunderstandings. Alice Faye’s Eadie is a rather mild sort, playing the reserved temptress and love-struck dreamer with the same degree of limited conviction (perhaps contributing to her disengagement, Faye was pregnant during production and this would, in fact, be the second-to-last film she made for nearly two decades). As Vivian, Sheila Ryan likewise assumes her role without much gusto, and like clean-cut James Ellison as Andy, she was not the first choice to begin with; Ryan replaced an injured Linda Darnell while Ellison stepped in only after Don Ameche was unavailable (an in-joke about Ameche nevertheless remains). Despite these temperate performances, though, The Gang’s All Here never skips a beat. If the characters are relatively trifling, it’s because we know them so well as standard, serviceable types, and for the most part, that’s OK.
Infinitely more distinct—at least in terms of visual pomposity and persona prominence—there is the side character of Dorita, a Brazilian sensation played with “Tutti-Frutti” verve by Portuguese star Carmen Miranda. Befitting the theatrical revue that launches The Gang’s All Here, though hilariously out of sync with the rest of the film proper, Miranda’s presence, and the corresponding presence of South American tropes throughout, was seen as a way to placate the burgeoning export relationship between Hollywood and its neighbors south of the border (this during a time when European shipments were severely restricted). The impact on the film is a cornucopia of produce-laden production numbers, exaggerated motifs (phallic bananas that sent censors into a tizzy), and ample opportunity for the colorfully cartoonish Miranda to dress in a flamboyant wardrobe of outlandish attire, serving up a platter of ethnically-based comedy along the way: placing lipstick smears on awkward Potter (“ketchup from a Brazilian tomato”) and stumbling over her linguistic hurdles (spilling “the cat out the beans”).
Forgiving what would now likely be seen as a manifest cultural stereotype and sexual objectification (combining the two, Dorita is dubbed a “South American savage”), The Gang’s All Here means no harm. Jumping to virtually wall-to-wall music—compositions by Harry Warren and a recurrent appearance by no less than Benny Goodman—the film was a carefree remedial treatment for a war-weary public, with audacious innuendo and dazzlingly surreal musical numbers (the “Polka Dot Polka” is a humdinger). One of Eadie’s songs laments a soldier far from home, adding a perfectly portioned dose of wartime relatability and sober reality, but generally, as seen later at the party, when the scheming briefly threatens to turn the punch sour, the whole thing starts swinging again in no time and the solution, wrapped up with ridiculous simplicity, makes room for a wholly gratifying optimism and a candy-colored denouement.
The Gang’s All Here is an exuberant prism of invention, exercising stunning cinematography by seven-time Oscar nominee Edward Cronjager (here shooting Berkeley’s first in Technicolor) and Academy Award-nominated art direction by James Basevi, Joseph C. Wright, and Thomas Little. It’s everything one expects from Busby Berkeley, whose background in the Army (arranging military parades), led to an illustrious career on Broadway, then to Warner Bros. in the 1930s, where he exulted the potential of early sound cinema. By 1943, he was at MGM; recently fired from Girl Crazy, he was on loan to Fox when he commenced The Gang’s All Here with producer/song writer William LeBaron, then filling in for Darryl F. Zanuck, who was in Europe as part of the war effort. There were disagreements over budgetary matters, as cost-cutting gripped the entire nation, but the film was still exceptionally expensive, and, fortunately, Berkeley could make the most of whatever he had to work with.
Attempting to keep his military base a secret, Andy describes it as a place where the “ocean sings you to sleep.” It’s a quixotic evocation, but in a Busby Berkeley movie, it’s also something that seems entirely possible. Aboard the Staten Island Ferry, as music fills the air, Eadie asks Andy if he hears the orchestra. “Yeah,” he responds, “where’s it coming from?” A slight, self-conscious moment, but just the sort of scene that highlights Berkeley’s natural predilection for the stylized and the spectacular. With amazingly involved musical sequences and impossibly-staged set-pieces, he enlarges and expands his perceptive canvas; from a kaleidoscopic rotation of bodies to disembodied singing star heads, The Gang’s All Here has it all. Berkeley was here to put on a good show, to choreograph a torrent of props and people and craning cameras, stopping the story dead if necessary (there is more music than plot for the first 20 minutes or so) and filling in the rest with snappy vaudeville patter and saccharine sweetness that is sweetness all the same. Berkeley and company strive for nothing more than what they have achieved, making a film that doesn’t endeavor to become anything other than what it is. And that, for a few diverting hours—as welcome now as they were then—is sheer entertainment.