Tuesday Editor’s Pick: The Gang’s All Here (1943)

by on April 18, 2012Posted in: Editor's Pick

Playing Fri April 20 thru Thurs April 26 at 1:00, 3:10, 5:20, 7:30, 9:40 at Film Forum [Program & Tix] [Find on sale at Amazon]


Film Forum presents a brand new 35mm restoration of cinematic genius Busby Berkley’s first foray into Technicolor. There’s been a lot of grumbling about the DVD releases of this classic – described by The Movie Guide as “like a male hairdresser’s acid trip” – so color us relieved that its being returned to its full glory.

Glenn Kenny insists the restoration is “a honey” and implores you:

You should totally go see it. It’s an absolutely staggering piece of work, filled with amazing imagery (of which the above “ordinary” shot is but one example), and contains what’s probably my favorite single shot in all of Hollywood cinema, the incredibly graceful crane shot starting with the view of a nude statue in the Greek style and ending with Benny Goodman finishing a verse of “Paducah.” It’s a fun picture to see with a crowd, in a real celluloid projection, so do catch it this way if you can.


Richard Brody for The New Yorker:

It’s no surprise that Busby Berkeley’s most visually eruptive musical, “The Gang’s All Here,” is a wartime movie. Although its Berkeley’s first color film, its opening is as black as death, and the riotous palette that follows evokes both dreams and hallucinations. The chirpy action involves no greater aggression than Carmen Miranda’s lipsticky kisses, but the story, about the hectic romance of a solider headed for combat and a lonely showgirl, gives rise to wonders of erotic delirium (complete with gigantic bananas). Berkeley’s signature scans of serried ranks – whether of chorus girls on a beach or of Benny Goodman’s suited-up swingers – have a free, vertiginous swoop reminiscent of slow-motion aeronautics. At the moment that bebop and Abstract Expressionism were coming to the fore in New York, those Hollywood hysterics reflected, in gaudy kaleidoscopic paroxysms, the conjoined chaos of sex and death that defied direct representation in any art form.



Pauline Kael in 5001 Nights at the Movies:

Busby Berkeley’s own special brand of kaleidoscopic fantasy, turned into psychedelic surrealism by the electric reds and greens of 20th Century-Fox’s color processing. Those who consider Berkeley a master consider this film his masterpiece. It is his maddest film: chorus girls dissolve into artichokes; there’s a banana xylophone; and, for the song “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat,” Carmen Miranda appears in platform wedgies on an avenue of giant strawberries.

Don Druker for the Chicago Reader:

Busby Berkeley’s most audacious film (1943)—an exploration of the possibilities of movement and color that moves into the realm of pure abstraction. The sexual symbolism is at its most blatant (what can you say about a film that features 60 girls waving gigantic bananas?), and Berkeley’s tendency to disembody reaches its apotheosis when the heads of all the principals float about on a field of amber and gold.



Miriam Bale for The Reeler:

Lavish femininity meets phallic worship in the movie’s memorable banana dance with Carmen Miranda. It’s sex scene as extravaganza, with a cast of dozens. No one got away with more than Berkeley. Through actually mounted on a crane, the tilting, lurching camera throughout the film feels personally (and drunkenly) held by Berkeley himself. Floating heads, red mouths disassociated from bodies and brown dimpled knees move through the screen not just kaleidoscopically but with the same tight control over bodies, textures and colors as if a ballet (though one appropriately garish for the movie house).


Melissa Anderson (reviewing it alongside Cobra Woman), for the Village Voice:

A luscious, lysergic double bill of summer camp. In Berkeley’s 1943 Technicolor freak-out, the plot—soldier Andy is engaged to the gal next door but falls for melancholy showgirl Edie—is a mere addendum to the increasingly baroque musical numbers. Gang is the apotheosis of fruitiness: Miranda’s Dorita singing and samba-ing to “The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat,” a chorus of curvy beauties performing a near obscene synchronized number with giant bananas, prissy perennial second banana Edward Everett Horton cutting loose with Carmen. All the players in this overstuffed extravaganza, including a crooning Benny Goodman and an impossibly leggy Charlotte Greenwood as a jiving Westchester matron, give jaw-dropping turns as, in the words of one character, “tenderized ham.” But it’s Miranda’s show, whether she’s embellishing American slang (“You are here to kick up some more heels, huh?”) or popping out from a cornucopia of leafy produce for her first song and dance.



Andrew Sarris, also for The Village Voice:

“The Gang’s All Here” is nothing less than Busby Berkeley’s “Lola Montes,” the ultimate expression of a very graceful talent at work on often witless material. Miranda’s messy malapropisms reduce me to the helpless laughter of the village idiot. Her parrot’s beak countenance awes me with its aggressive assertion of its own irresistible attractiveness. All the monstrousness of showbiz self-confidence is concentrated into any one of her frantically uncharming routines. And yet I joined whole-heartedly in the applause for the bananas number, the phallic outrageousness of which is even more startling today. What is good about Carmen Miranda’s numbers is that Busby Berkeley, far from being horrified by the as he should be, is actually inspired by them to do some of his best work. The link between Berkeley and Miranda, like the link between Max Ophuls and Martine Carol, is strong enough to forge a chain of stylistic conviction through the film as a whole.
The plot of “The Gang’s All Here” is less than nothing, and everyone connected with the movie knew it. The geniality and high spirits of the style are everything and everyone connected with the movie felt them. Yes, I like “The Gang’s All Here,” and I think it’s good. Not all of it, and not everyone in it, but enough of it to make the screen glow.



Keith Uhlich for Time Out New York:

Bananas, bananas everywhere! Choreographer-director Busby Berkeley’s senses-boggling musical is probably best known for “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat,” a highly suggestive centerpiece that, once seen, is never forgotten. Future camp icon Carmen Miranda sashays her way around a stage filled with palm trees, monkeys and 60 chorines who lift and lower gigantic yellow produce in geometric tandem. It’s the kind of sequence conceived to make your mouth go permanently agape, and the dementedness doesn’t end there.

Berkeley made this thrillingly crazed concoction, his first in color, while he was on loan to 20th Century Fox after a particularly fallow period at MGM. It feels like a creative purge, with an incidental plot—nightclub hostess (Alice Faye) wooed by already-engaged GI (James Ellison)—stringing together a series of spectacular-spectacular! set pieces. Time and again, you can’t believe what you’re witnessing: Berkeley’s camera swoops and soars at seemingly impossible trajectories through crowds of extras; Miranda models an expansive fruit headdress; Benny Goodman and His Orchestra perform a hilarious novelty song that encapsulates the film’s fuck-it-all nature (“Paducah, Paducah, / If you wanna, you can rhyme it with bazooka”). But nothing can prepare you for the literally kaleidoscopic finale, which includes a gaggle of synchronized showgirls, contains eye-searing imagery that anticipates everything from The 5,000 Fingers of Dr. T to Tron and, scariest of all, features the disembodied head of corpulent character actor Eugene Pallette croaking the movie’s swoony love ballad, “Journey to a Star.” No jaw left undropped, eh, Busb?


Dave Kehr for the New York Times:

The giant bananas, rising and falling in phallic waves in the film’s most famous production number, “The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat,” are once again bright, screen-burstingly yellow. And the fluorescent colors — the hot pink, radioactive red and throbbing purple — are back in much of the full force that defined the brash look of Fox musicals (as opposed to the art-directed tastefulness of MGM).
Berkeley had been enduring a dull period at MGM when Fox borrowed him for “The Gang’s All Here,” and his built-up resentment against MGM’s conservative aesthetics exploded in several audaciously conceived and boldly executed production numbers. The opening one lasts six minutes and is covered in only two shots, as Berkeley keeps the visuals evolving through constant camera movement rather than editing. This remarkable sequence, set to a medley of the standard “Aquarela do Brasil” and a new song, “You Discover You’re in New York,” by Leo Robin and Harry Warren, evolves through three distinct levels: a wholly abstract environment that proceeds from a dot (which grows into the face of a singer) and a series of lines (which become the hull of a boat), as the undefined space evolves into a New York dock, wheresugar, coffee and Miranda’s gigantic hats are being unloaded from the S.S. Brazil. A pull back reveals that this vast scene is supposedly happening on the tiny stage of a New York nightclub, suggesting that the extravagant spectacle is taking place entirely within the fevered imaginations of the club patrons: no New York stage short of the Hippodrome could possibly have accommodated it.
And on it goes, with Berkeley’s choreography — of dancers and camera, moving together in close concert — constantly violating the limits of physical reality and common sense. With only a couple of assists from optical effects, the sequences are presented in real time. (One of the pleasures of this new transfer is that that it is sharp enough to reveal Berkeley’s chalk lines on the soundstage floor, laying out the marks that the dancers and camera operators had to hit at exactly the right moment. When the finale, a curious blend of a nostalgic song called “The Polka Dot Polka” and the ballad “A Journey to a Star,” takes off into a play of pure geometric shapes, close observers will notice the live electrical wiring running off the neon hoops held by the chorus girls.) The visual effects were not a creation of the film lab (or, as it would be today, the computer animation department) but an ingenious application of practical mechanics. Where a contemporary movie like “Speed Racer” has the frictionless facility of a video game, “The Gang’s All Here” seems like an ingeniously designed vintage pinball machine: a triumph of mechanical engineering, not electronics.



John McElwee for Greenbriar Picture Show:

The Gang’s All Here is the World War Two experience I’d like to have had, dressed in tailored uniform (resplendent!), cruising service canteens where Benny Goodman plays nightly and Alice Faye serves donuts, brief repair to South Pacific climes for handily won and bloodless combat, then return home, as does James Ellison, “covered with medals.” Here’s a Fox musical that’s escapism in its most delirious sense — engaging the enemy can wait, we’ve got a war bonds show to put on! Shows like The Gang’s All Here convinced my generation that WWII was a pipe, allies having knocked out Germany/Japan between jitterbug contests. Watch and be persuaded that maybe all of life was better then, just never mind iron lungs, oxygen tents, polio still waiting to be cured, and such harsher 40’s realities. The Gang’s All Here ignited 70’s camp-fires partly because this was how we assumed life was in parent days. Wiseacre youth at revivals figured old-time director Busby Berkeley knew not real meaning of enormous bananas his chorus brandished, unintended sexual subtext only we could divine (how readily moderns assume naïveté on the part of past filmmakers). Then there’s Carmen Miranda and Technicolor, both registering vibrancy beyond even what buffs imagined.

It’s seldom you see a purple station wagon with wood side paneling, but there’s one in The Gang’s All Here I’d proudly drive. Changed times dictate women shun a coat like Carmen Miranda’s from which four chinchilla heads dangle, but … them were the days. Little (no, big) things I notice are live oxen pulling a sound stage cart during outsized number The Lady In The Tutti-Frutti Hat. Did they dine at Fox’s commissary? The Gang’s All Here is rife with dialogue Eugene Pallette calls Jukebox, enforced gaiety wherein everyone laughs as punctuation to everyone else’s line. Notice how aggressive male suitors are in WWII pics? Limited leave time and urgency to couple quickly made for courtship approach just 2011’s side of sex harassment. Is this further fuel to distance PC inoculates from old Hollywood? James Ellison starts on relentless gear with Alice Faye and ratchets up from there. Did this sort of technique ever work in real life? (certainly not for me). Part of getting in Gang‘s groove is acceptance of … no, revel in … societal rules we abide being violated with brassy gusto (big yes to those chinchilla heads!). Biz-benefits of this war included soundstage doors wide opened to veterans whose acts were so old as to seem new again. Charlotte Greenwood’s high-kick dance is spotlighted as if it had never been done before, and Edward Everett Horton gets close to star turns he’d enjoyed at RKO in the thirties. EEH and Eugene Pallette are, of all things, likeable Wall Street lions getting up a mansion rally to sell bonds. Pallette looks enormous even by relaxed modern standards, his scarlet-flush, rolling perspiration, and involuntary coughs suggesting a player ready to collapse under intense Technicolor lighting.


Glenn Kenny for MUBI:

“Camp,” “psychedelic,” “surreal;” all these terms invariably come into play in Busby Berkeley’s 1943 musical The Gang’s All Here. The camp aspect is mostly incarnated in the larger-than-life form of Brazilian-born entertainer Carmen Miranda, and the iconic image of her head sprouting a bumper crop of bananas; although the political sensitivities of the day inhibit the untrammeled delight that camp connoisseurs took in Miranda in the ‘60s, when Gang was often revived as a somewhat gayer iteration of “the ultimate trip.” “Psychedelic” came in through that door as well, naturally; this was the first Berkeley musical to present his elaborate, unstuck-in-space musical production numbers in glorious Technicolor. “Surreal”? Not so much. Or maybe just small-s surreal. Berkeley’s visions are, among other things, uniquely American, having more to do with the fantastic gigantism of Winsor McCay, expressed to the most eye-popping effect in popular comics series “Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend” and “Little Nemo in Slumberland,” than the lonely, sometimes erotically charged landscapes of di Chirico and Ernst. Of course, both of McCay’s series were about life in dreamworld, and the capital-S Surrealists spent much of their creative time there themselves.

An instance of genuine disorientation in Gang is perhaps not so deliberate. (That’s assuming the aforementioned instance was deliberate, I know.) A penultimate musical number, the pretty much out-of-nowhere “Polka Dot Polka” (one imagines songwriter Leo Robin and Harry Warren on laughing gas as they conceived it), replete with what look to be purple neon hula hoops, starts giving way to near-complete abstraction as Faye, sheathed from the neck down in what appears to be a football-field sized gown, starts a back-and-forth circular motion that leads into a literally kaleidoscopic interlude, in which all recognizable human forms seem to disappear. Soon enough another tune begins to swell, and we are treated to the sight of the disembodied head of Eugene Pallette on a blue tablet, thrusting his face forward and bugging out his eyes as he gives gravel voice to the final chorus of “A Journey To A Star.” His disembodied head is soon joined by those of the rest of the film’s characters, all of whom are now star children or something, one might guess. But the sight of Pallette is pretty hard to shake. Andre Breton might not have approved. But he would certainly have been…disoriented.


Marilyn Ferdinand for Ferdy on Films:

If the movies had not had Busby Berkeley, they certainly would have had to invent him. The medium of film was made for visual dazzle, and nobody dazzled them like this spectacle-loving director and choreographer. I can just imagine him as a boy, twisting the end of a toy kaleidoscope he had just received for his birthday, lifting his eye above the spyhole, and visualizing the room around him cracking and tumbling in on itself in gay abandon. Indeed, in The Gang’s All Here, a late entry in Berkeley’s oeuvre and his first film in Technicolor, the final hallucinatory musical number, “The Polka Dot Ballet,” breaks into a kaleidoscopic image that prefigures the psychedelia of the 1960s. Berkeley weaves some of the most over-the-top musical routines of his career into his soldier boy-meets-chorus girl story.
The solid cast, led by the luminous Miss Faye, takes delight in the comic moments that serve as just a bit more than matchbooks fitted under the off-kilter legs of Berkeley’s fever dream. Alice Faye could sing the Federal Register and bring you to an emotional peak. She has three numbers in this film, all forgettable songs made memorable by her delivery, particularly “No Love, No Nothin.” She’s a fabulous movie star whose shine has faded considerably over the years. It’s a shame. She deserves to be better remembered.
But, of course, the screaming star of the show is Berkeley’s choreography. Believe it or not, “Tutti-Frutti Hat” is a more traditional number for Berkeley. When he reaches the final production number, he passes through the looking glass. He begins with Faye performing “The Polka Dot Polka” among a group of dancing children dressed in polka-dotted clothes. Almost ominously, Faye sings “The polka is gone, but the polka dot lives on.” We then watch the chorus girls slip in and out of neon circles and then move like a synchronized swimming team with gigantic polka dots as props. Berkeley runs their movements in reverse at one point, a favorite trick of musicals directors. Just when we think the acid trip is over, he has the diembodied heads of all the principal actors appear one at a time in the middle of a polka dot singing the movie’s signature love song, “A Journey to a Star,” starting hilariously with the bullfrog voice of Pallette. We learn that Faye and Ellison are together when we see them in the same polka dot at the very end. In this way, Berkeley cleverly avoids the cliched final clinch, while turning the entire cast into his version of the night sky to parallel the song lyrics. This is not a good musical, but it is still a must-see. You won’t really believe it until you see it for yourself.


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