Busby Berkeley—that iconic director of impossibly elaborate musical numbers—was never as good when he directed entire films as he had been early on when someone else handled the non-musical parts of the movies. He just seems to have had no real sense of what to do when the music stopped. That said, his wartime musical comedy The Gang’s All Here (1943), his first Technicolor film and last big musical in the true Berkeley sense, is almost pure pleasure. Its campy kitsch quality carries into a lot of the non-musical scenes and its production numbers are among the best—and most outré—he ever did. In the early 1970s—when interest in Berkeley was at its height, thanks in part to him coming out of retirement to stage a revival of No, No, Nanette on Broadway—screenings of The Gang’s All Here became an “event.” In fact, the first time I saw the film—at midnight in a packed theater—a good portion of the audience (not me) was in full Carmen Miranda drag and the response was little short of electrifying.
What people remember most about the film is Carmen Miranda’s big “Lady in the Tutti Fruiti Hat” number. That’s easy to understand, since it’s impossible to forget, thanks to its scantily clad chorus girls waving giant phallic bananas about in various Berkeley geometric patterns. There is, however, more to it than that. It starts with the film’s startling first image of a disembodied head singing “Brazil,” which then leads to a huge production number with Carmen and Phil Baker, which, in typical Berkeley fashion, preposterously takes place on a New York nightclub stage. From that point, Berkeley’s creativity rarely lets up. While the centerpiece is certainly the “Tutti Fruit Hat” number, the film’s big climactic number—an almost psychedelic outburst of kaleidoscopic imagery that probably scared the Technicolor company to death—is in some ways even more striking. And that’s not even mentioning the … interesting experience of hearing Benny Goodman sing.
While there’s not much to be said for the sappy plot involving Alice Faye and “Victory Casting” (the desirable actors all being at war) of male lead James Ellison, when the music stops, most of the film wisely centers on the agreeable comedic antics of Carmen, Eugene Pallette, Edward Everett Horton, Charlotte Greenwood and Phil Baker. It’s all lightweight stuff meant to be wartime entertainment (that’s also how the censors let those bananas get past them) and it works surprisingly well even today. Plus, there’s always something amazing from Berkeley right around the corner.
The Asheville Film Society will screen The Gang’s All Here on Tuesday, June 26, at 8 p.m. in the Cinema Lounge of The Carolina Asheville and will be hosted by Xpress movie critics Ken Hanke and Justin Souther.