It opens with a disembodied head singing “Brazil,” then makes its way through Benny Goodman vocalizing, through chorus girls brandishing gigantic phallic bananas, past Carmen Miranda in a variety of peculiar hats, beyond Alice Faye stuck inside a kaleidoscope and more disembodied heads floating through space. What is it? Why, it’s Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here (1943), and it’s probably the most outrageous of all World War II musicals. In some ways, it represents the full flowering of Berkeley’s particular genius—and in incredibly saturated Technicolor, no less—even while being one of his lesser efforts as concerns the nonmusical portions of the film.
For all the genius on display here, there’s also a remarkably dull mistaken-identity plot that isn’t helped by the necessities of what was called “victory casting.” That basically meant that most of the male talent available was somehow off dealing with the war effort, leaving behind a rather uninspiring collection of performers who functioned as moderately attractive department-store dummies in movies like this one. James Ellison was actually one of the better of such actors (which speaks volumes about the others), but was completely unsuited to the musical film. He doesn’t even try to sing—and we’re talking about a movie where Benny Goodman warbles a couple of tunes. No matter, there’s still some OK campy comedy from fun folks like Carmen Miranda, Eugene Pallette (who sort of sings), Edward Everett Horton (who also sings) and Charlotte Greenwood. And there’s Alice Faye looking far too smart, as always, to be in this sort of film.
The real point, of course, are the Berkeley musical numbers and these do not disappoint. From the “Brazil” opening to the outrageousness of the big bananas in “The Lady with Tutti Fruiti Hat” (with its astonishing pop-art final image), Berkeley is the master of controlled insanity. It’s no wonder that this film in particular became a huge hit with the youth market in the early ‘70s (when I first saw it, at least a third of the audience was dressed like Carmen Miranda, which was at least festive). When the film gets to its incipient psychedelic climactic number, the kind of surrealism achieved is simply like nothing else from the era—or from any other, come to think of it.