Director: Busby Berkeley
Screenplay: Walter Bullock
Starring: Alice Faye, Carmen Miranda, Phil Baker, James Ellison, Sheila Ryan, Charlotte Greenwood, Edward Everett Horton, Tony De Marco
Producer: William LeBaron
Running Time: 103 min
BBFC Certificate: U
A lot of the gaps in my classic movie watching can be found in the musical genre. I’m a huge fan of music and a huge fan of films, but putting the two together doesn’t always gel for me. I love the more subversive, quirky examples of the genre (Frank Oz’s Little Shop of Horrors is a particular favourite), but I often struggle to get into the traditional entries. I guess a lot of it is down to the fact that the music isn’t always to my tastes, although I find myself drawn to show tunes from time to time as there were always plenty of them playing at home in my youth. The general campy ridiculousness of suddenly bursting into song mid scene was something that used to rub me up the wrong way though, especially as a teenager.
In recent years I’ve grown to appreciate the excesses of Hollywood in the golden ages though and I’d like to think my tastes have widened considerably. I finally popped two musical cherries early this year in fact, with my first Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers film, Top Hat, which I loved, and my first Busby Berkeley film, 42nd Street, which I enjoyed more than I thought I would too. These successful steps forward helped sway my decision to take a screener of one of Berkeley’s later films The Gang’s All Here, released as part of Eureka’s superlative Masters of Cinema series, and below are my thoughts on it.
I’m not sure I need a paragraph to sum up the plot of The Gang’s All Here. Somewhere in amongst 103 minutes of singing and dancing, army Sergeant Andy Mason (James Ellison), who is assumed to be marrying the attractive daughter (Sheila Ryan) of family friends the Potters, falls for showgirl Edie Allen (Alice Faye). Soon after, he is posted in the Pacific though. He wins a medal for his efforts before being sent back home and in the meantime, timed with his return, his father Andrew Mason Sr. (Eugene Pallette) talks Edie’s boss into rehearsing and performing their latest show at the Potters’. Of course this brings both of Andy’s sweethearts together under one roof – whatever shall he do?
He doesn’t have to do much to be honest, as Berkeley’s film is not concerned with plot so threads are barely tied up with a simple sentence or two. Flimsy doesn’t even begin to describe the narrative. It’s proof that it’s not just today’s blockbusters that are throwaway efforts primarily concerned with spectacle. In fact the scripts of today’s studio pictures seem like Shakespeare compared to this (in terms of plot at least – the dialogue is occasionally quite sharp).
But does this matter?
Well, no to be honest. So long as you realise from the offset that the film is basically just a string of dance numbers, you’re in for a good time. First and foremost are the dance sequences themselves and presumably that’s the only reason you’d pick up a Busby Berkeley movie anyway. There are a huge amount of them here, although they aren’t all quite as extravagant as you’d expect. Many of them are actually fairly subdued by the director’s standards, often busy and lively, but not always too elaborate, with a number of solo and duo performances thrown in too. The opening number, ‘Brazil’ (a song which I recognised from Terry Gilliam’s film of the same name), the famous ‘Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat’ and the film’s finale are all prime examples of typical Berkeley excess though. ‘Tutti Frutti Hat’ in particular is full of crazy props (giant bananas), dozens of dancers creating shapes viewed overhead with the camera swooping all over the place on a crane. It’s utterly bonkers, but that’s the beauty of it.
Speaking of beauty, this was Berkeley’s first full colour film and by God does he make the most of it. It may be garish and quite tacky by today’s standards, but there’s so much bold and brazen use of colour that it’s a tremendous sight to behold and pops off the screen in this HD restoration.
The film has quite an infectious energy too. In between the dance numbers it’s largely farcical comedy with quick fire lines coming from the game cast. These lines can be hit and miss and a couple of the performers aren’t all that charismatic, but the lanky Charlotte Greenwood is always fun to watch. Also, Carmen Miranda is mildly offensive but lively enough as the Brazilian Dorita, the chief comic relief.
It is pure fluff of the highest order, taking flimsy to another level, but has plenty of music and dance to keep you entertained. There are only two ludicrously extravagant classic Berkeley numbers, but the less gaudy moments are still pretty showy by everyone else’s standards. It’s also one of the most colourful films I’ve ever seen so is a visual feast even if there’s very little beneath it’s glitzy veneer.
The Gang’s All Here is out on 22nd September in the UK on Blu-Ray, released by Eureka as part of their Masters of Cinema Series. This is proof why old classics are as well served by the Blu-Ray format as glossy modern releases, because this looks mightily good in High Definition. You need the rich palette available on Blu to capture the ludicrously colourful visuals on display here. The transfer is great too with only the slightest sign of age in one or two moments. I noticed a couple of slight grain issues in some of the most colourful sequences, but they were very minor glitches in an otherwise beautiful transfer. The soundtrack comes through nicely too which is especially important for a musical of course.
There are a nice handful of extras too. There’s a feature commentary with critics Glenn Kenny and Farran Smith Nehme alongside film historian Ed Hulse. There’s a 20 minute documentary, ‘Busby Berkeley: A Journey with a Star’, a deleted scene and the customary trailer. Plus of course you get the usual Masters of Cinema booklet, which are always worthwhile additions to the package.