Starring: Alice Faye, Carmen Miranda, James Ellison
Director: Busby Berkeley
The gang might have been all there, but you wonder if Busby Berkeley was when he made this remarkable psychedelic soufflé of a musical, which sees America on a wartime footing (the film was released in 1943) but still finding time to drink cocktails and dance the Uncle Samba. The action centres around the Club New Yorker, with its specially imported South American showgirls and apparently infinite stage. Chorine Edie (Alice Faye) – who prides herself on assiduously comforting the troops – is pursued by GI on leave Andy (James Ellison) who seems to have forgotten that he already has a childhood sweetheart, who in turn harbours a desire for the showbiz life. There’s only one way this can all be resolved, of course, and that’s by putting on an all-singing, all-dancing gala War Bond Garden Party in a studiobound Westchester mansion, how else?
In his witty accompanying notes, David Cairns makes a tongue in cheek comparison between Busby Berkeley and Luis Bunuel. He has a point, because whether intentionally or not, The Gang’s All Here seems to dissolve cinematic narrative even more radically than The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. The plot is perfunctory, with the supposed key players – Ellison’s ha-ha-hahing, clench-jawed love pest and Alice Faye, who was suffering from morning sickness during the shoot and who looks thoroughly down in the dumps as a result – going through the motions somewhere in the background, while the foreground becomes a free-for-all of scene-stealing turns, most noticeably Carmen Miranda’s “Brazalian tomata” Dorita, always strutting around with something unlikely on her head.
Rolling her eyes, flashing her teeth, talking a mile a minute in her own private variety of Spanglish, and looking like a trashy souvenir doll come to life, Miranda lights up the screen whenever she appears. She achieves her apotheosis in the famous – or infamous, take your pick – musical number “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat.” Here she rocks a bonnet made out of bananas, plays a banana xylophone, and cavorts with a bunch of bathing beauties who skip around with giant banana phalluses, and some extremely plump strawberries too. Watching it, you’ll wonder if someone has slipped something in your pina colada. But no, it’s just Busby, going to places most other people only reach by taking LSD.
“Tutti-Frutti Hat” is garish and silly beyond words, but its achieves its own kind of plastic beauty. And there are several other musical numbers almost as stunning, as well as plenty of comic business and a cast of delightfully clownish characters, in particular the lanky, jitterbugging Mrs Potter (Charlotte Greenwood). It’s all enormously endearing, and if you have an itch for kitsch, this will satisfy it. It ends with a whirl of disembodied heads. Of course it does.
The HD transfer has a touch of grain on grey or off-white backgrounds, but overall the loud-as-an Hawaiian-shirt 20th Century-Fox Technicolor has a real pop to it, as well as plenty of crispness, and Berkeley’s floaty set-ups, with the camera dancing around the performers on a crane, have an exhilarating sense of depth and movement. The disc comes with a 19-minute featurette which surveys Berkeley’s strange career (amazingly he couldn’t dance a step himself), including his golden years at Warners. There’s also a very informative audio commentary which explains, among other things, how the film’s Latin flavour was due to the government’s Good Neighbour policy (as European markets closed down, the US sought to reinforce its ties with South America), and how the movie became a favourite of the New York gay scene when it was revived in the 1970s. We also learn that Berkeley allegedly almost clonked Carmen Miranda on the head by accident during the opening scene with one of his beloved crane shots.