Thursday, July 31, 2014

Busby Berkeley finally goes off the deep end

FXM Retro showed The Gang's All Here earlier today. It's on the schedule again tomorrow morning (August 1) at 6:00 AM

James Ellison plays Andy Mason Jr., a man about to be shipped off to World War II. He's actually the son of wealthy businessman Andrew Mason Sr. (Eugene Pallette), so he's got the money to be able to spend his final days of furlough at swanky places like the Club New Yorker, where the proprietor puts on outrageous musical numbers. It's in one of these musical numbers that Andy Jr. meets Edie Allen (Alice Faye). He immediately falls in love with her, and finagles his way into spending the night with her going around New York, during which time she ultimately falls in love with him. However, he's quasi-engaged to the girl next door, Vivian Potter (Sheila Ryan), except that "next door" means similarly wealthy parents (Edward Everett Horton and Charlotte Greenwood). So Andy Jr. gives Edie a fake name.

Andy goes off to the Pacific theater. Time passes, and he wins a medal for some heroic action, which also gets him furlough in the US. Mr. Mason gets the idea of having a party for his son, but since his son doesn't want any stag parties, Mr. Mason decides to get together with Mr. Potter and have a big benefit ostensibly honoring his son but having it raise money for war bonds. Mr. Mason knows that his son enjoys the Club New Yorker, so the original plan is to have the benefit there, but it's closed for renovations while the talent is putting together a new show. So Mason and Potter invite the cast up to their estates, with the expectation that they'll do their extravagant musical numbers in the backyard for a garden party. Of course, Messrs. Mason and Potter have no idea that Potter's daughter and star of the show Edie are both in love with the same serviceman, and that he's going to be the guest of honor....

The plot of The Gang's All Here is threadbare, and really in service of the musical numbers which take up the bulk of the proceedings. And boy are those musical numbers outrageous. The first of the two really big production numbers is "The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat", which has Carmen Miranda as that lady:

That hat is nuts, and gets used for an even more outrageous sight gag at the end. And the banans on the hat aren't the only ones. There's a long line of chorus girls holding giant bananas as tall as the girls themselves, gentle undulating them in Busby Berkeley-like patterns. In fact, Berkeley not only designed the numbers, he directed the whole movie.

The other big production number is the finale, and if get to the end of "The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat" at about the half-hour mark of the movie and think youv'e seen everything, wait until the end. The finale includes elaborate water fountains lit by gentle pastel colors; a mass dance of children doing the polka; neon hoop polka dots that look like they could have been recycled from the neon violins in Gold Diggers of 1933; cardboard-looking dots that are a nearly vomit-inducing combination of hot pink on one side and olive drab on the other; kaleidoscopic Alice Faye; and the entire cast of the movie appearing as disembodied heads. Yikes.

As for the cast, when they're called upon to act as opposed to doing musical numbers, they're OK. Ellison, Faye, and Ryan are all pleasant to look at. Miranda is typically ditzy. And the three parents get to have all the funny moments, which nicely separate the musical numbers. Benny Goodman also shows up to play a clarinetist leading a band. Sounds familiar.

I don't think you can mistake The Gang's All Here for truly great cinema. But boy do those outrageous musical numbers make the movie interesting. The Gang's ALl Here has been released to DVD before, although I'm not certain if it's still in print since the TCM Shop lists it as "On Order".

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