Yes, We Have No Bananas: ‘The Gang’s All Here’

[Originally published in Movietone News 29, January-February 1974]

I was particularly looking forward to this film for two big reasons. The picture, recently revived by a New York distributor who claims to have reopened a Technicolor lab to obtain a genuine oldfashioned imbibition-dye print, offers the combined interest of showing us Berkeley both working in color and directing a musical all the way through. Would this be the flowering of his art, for which his decade of choreographing and directing black-and-white production numbers at Warners had served him as apprentice years? Only a few of those Thirties musicals—most notably the Lloyd Bacon–Berkeley Footlight Parade—had any sort of allover rhythm to them, and one could otherwise always feel the terrible jolt whenever Berkeley left off and the “story” director picked up the narrative. What a treat it would be to see Berkeley doing his stuff from beginning to end in a sustained narrative laced with chromatically spectacular production numbers!

The film started off living up to hopes/expectations: A disembodied head singing “Brasil” (sic) surrounded by the pure black that only real Technicolor, using a dye-transfer rather than grain-emulsion process, could achieve. The camera cranes slowly towards the head, bringing it up to full-frame, then slowly begins to crane back, now revealing parallel sets of golden bamboo lengths raked against it. The shot continues, swooping and swirling through a number of different sets, always providing some sort of incredible principle of continuity to carry us from one situation to the next. It goes on and on, probably lasting as long as those stunning four-minute opening shots of Ophuls’s La Ronde and Welles’s Touch of Evil, eventually careening wildly back to show us quite incidentally that we’re not really in dreamland watching that phantasmagoric face hurtling at us out of the abyss, nor are we at dockside watching Carmen Miranda sporting the world’s second-largest cornucopia hat (the world’s largest one appears half an hour later, at the conclusion of the “Lady in the Tutsi-Fruitsi Hat” number, where she sprouts enough bananas to keep Chiquita in business for a year), but instead we’re in a nightclub, and all of these carryings-on are simply part of the show.

As the opening sequence ends, one returns one’s eyeballs to their sockets and leans back with a happy sigh, feeling secure in the anticipation of lots more of that Berkeley magic, that peculiar manipulation of movement and forms that utterly disregards any sort of realistic system—particularly narrative realism. Berkeley’s done it again, he’s taken us on a little trip through dreamland, performing all sorts of tricks, slides, juxtapositions, and rhythms that could never in a million years be created either on stage or anywhere else but in a camera or perhaps in the mind of the world’s most extravagant dreamer, and then he’s concluded it by suggesting nonchalantly that he’s simply reporting what the folks in the nightclub were watching on stage.

And now we’re ready for the test: what’s he going to do with the narrative? Will he cram it full of the vitality, invention and genius of his production numbers? The answer, alas, is negative. For the most part, the film suffers from direction as lackluster as the worst of the Forties musicals (and the worst I know is another Fox production, Down Argentine Way, which doesn’t have Berkeley’s production numbers to save it). It also suffers from utterly charmless acting that lacks any of the naïve enthusiasm of the Thirties Warners musicals. Jimmy Ellison as the juvenile lead sounds like a radio actor narcissistically enamored of the sound of his own voice, and his attempts to register thoughts and emotions physically never make it out of the province of fleapit eye-rolling and palm-smacking. Alice Faye walks through the film like a zombie, Benny Goodman radiates enough embarrassment to blanket not just himself but everyone involved in the film, and even such a workhorse pro as Eugene Pallette, in a supporting comic role, sweats his way through his scenes with uncontrolled, unconvincing, and mystified bluster. Carmen Miranda, apparently untroubled by anything, including lack of direction, simply goes wild and does whatever strikes her fancy at any given moment.

If Berkeley was indeed on the set while the “rest” of the picture was being shot, there’s no way to tell it. One could speculate that he was discouraged by a script of monumental insipidness, a script that has no center of interest or focus or reason or cleverness, a script totally devoid of the sense of urgency that animated the Warners musicals and allowed them to develop a sense of progressing pace. Shopworn as it may be in terms of plot, the show-must-go-on formula works very efficiently as a rhythmic structuring device. All the audience has to supply is lots of suspension of disbelief, and the structural logic, if well realized by the director, does the rest.

This film, however, has no logic at all anywhere but in the production numbers. At best, it’s a revue masquerading as a musical, capitalizing on the presence of La Miranda, Alice Faye, and Benny Goodman, scarcely even trying to thread them together. In addition to its other defects, it contains some of the most jarringly bad and arbitrary cutting I’ve ever seen, and the camerawork is listless and pedestrian—exposing the iron hand of Natalie Kalmus, daughter of the inventor of the Technicolor process and jealous protectress of its integrity who was notorious for her insistence on flat, even, non-modeling lighting, and who exercised virtually dictatorial powers over cameramen who used the Technicolor cameras. In her secret heart, nothing counted much except the vibrancy of her colors, and all lighting had perforce to further her obsessions. She found a particularly willing ally in the Fox front office, which demonstrated throughout this period a strong predilection for pictorial simplicity, colorization verging on the garish, and an uncluttered supersharp image. With all those things working against him, perhaps Berkeley simply gave up in despair. In any event, it’s very obvious that he didn’t give a damn, and consequently just let the studio machinery go unchecked to grind out that part of the picture in the most perfunctory and mechanical way possible, so that he could devote his imagination and energy—and lots of the studio’s money—to the production numbers.

The film actually contains only two genuine Berkeley-style sequences. The first, the “Lady in the Tutsi-Fruitsi Hat” number, forms what might be the quintessential stretch of filmed Berkeleyiana, one that, in a sense, helps explain the reasoning behind all the others. In his Thirties numbers, Berkeley always begins by stylizing his chorines into a set of interchangeable and indistinguishable dolls. Even when he gives them lines, as in The Kid from Spain, they maintain an absolute adherence to mechanical execution of his orders, speaking their words in rigidly syncopated singsong. Ordinarily, of course, they don’t have speaking parts, instead confining their contributions to their uniformly pretty faces and legs, which Berkeley objectifies and simplifies into completely impersonal and dehumanized patterns, those patterns that are his stock in trade.

When I say Berkeley objectifies his dolls, I don’t mean to suggest that he makes sex objects of them in the current understanding of the term. In my understanding of the term, at least, a sex object is someone with whom one wants to have sex but nothing much else. But allowing for such rare exceptions as the marvelous bit in the “Pettin’ in the Park” number from Golddiggers of 1933 in which Dick Powell happily applies a giant can opener to Ruby Keeler’s tin bodice, one almost never sees any suggestion of participatory sexuality in Berkeley. Instead, there is a constant reduction of pretty girls—or rather parts of pretty girls—into patterns so sexually anodyne that one would have to have a rather bizarre psychosexual makeup to be tickled pruriently by any of it. Indeed, the very fact of Berkeley’s compulsive patternization and the complete interchangeability of his ingredients suggest to me an urge to arrange his girls and to dehumanize them to a point where he is in total control, where there can be no spontaneity whatsoever on their part, and where there is no participation whatsoever on his part with them as people.

Now I don’t mean for a second to knock Berkeley for that. As an artist he has the right to use his materials however he wants. The way he uses his materials, of course, expresses his artistic vision as well as the psyche underlying that vision. And both of those phenomena fascinate me as a viewer because of the utter uniqueness and brilliance of Berkeley’s best work, and because of the strange and elusive dread and withdrawal that underlie its surface charm and control. We get direct glimpses from time to time of that dread when it comes out in the open in Berkeley’s miniplots—the “Lullabye of Broadway” number from Golddiggers of 1935, where the girl concludes the number and her life by falling suddenly off the penthouse, pushed off by the ecstatic crowd with whom she has just danced. But I think that dread and withdrawal permeate Berkeley’s work, and I think that the “Lady” number in The Gang’s All Here probably explains it more clearly than anything else.

The sight of a hundred banana-costumed girls brandishing a hundred eight-foot bananas is, in itself, quite enough to make any audience scream in outraged, joyful disbelief at the very impossibility of its execution in the uptight Forties, and the sight of the conceit alone is enough to emblazon the picture forever upon the memory. But once Berkeley starts moving those girls and their bananas in even, undulating rhythms, the boggled imagination breaks down into helpless acquiescence: from here on, anything goes.

A hundred sweet, pretty girls, all innocently swinging their giant pricks in perfect wavy rhythm as Berkeley’s camera flies around capturing different angles—that’s more than any mind can take. But the capper comes at the climax of the number, when a dozen or two banana-wielding chorines form a circle around another group of girls lying in a typically Berkeleyian circular open-leg formation on the ground, and begin dipping their bananas in and out of center, forming a figure that looks like a sea anemone closing up but also not unlike a disembodied gigantic fantasy vagina—a vagina made up of turgid pricks belonging to that dozen or two pretty girls. Even the most primitive extrapolation here suggests that Berkeley has some rather curious notions about womankind, and it seems to me reasonable to assume that he projects women as somehow androgynous creatures whom it’s best not to mess with too much. If that’s the case, it’s easy to see how he would be inclined towards the sort of extreme formalism, disembodiment, and even dehumanization he so regularly practices in his work, all signs of withdrawal from his actors as people.

These characteristics are all pushed to their most extreme point in the concluding production number, which begins in a rather undistinguished way but soon proceeds to a stunning display of superformal dismemberment and abstract choreography as he turns countless legs into kaleidoscopic designs. The legs often become so removed from their owners through his stylization that we can scarcely—if at all—make them out as legs. Here at last we see Berkeley using Technicolor as a distinct creative tool, manipulating lighting and color modulation to turn his kaleidoscopic fantasy into a dazzling tour de force that would have been a gray mess in black and white. And next he neatly glides into the film’s closing conceit, disembodied heads floating out of the blue at us to recap the film’s theme song, then to line up as a sort of weird constellation that brings us back to the film’s floating-head opening. This closes a sort of stylistic circle that actually might be a way of telling us not to look for anything human in the film beyond the very vision of the artist who so carefully manipulates his and our fantasies and so carelessly lets the more traditionally realistic parts of the narrative fall with a resounding thud by the wayside.

Copyright © 1974 R C Dale

THE GANG’S ALL HERE (1943)
Direction: Busby Berkeley. Screenplay: Walter Bullock. Cinematography: Edward Cronjager. Technicolor Consultant: Natalie Kalmus. Editing: Ray Curtiss. Music and lyrics: Leo Robin, Harry Warren. A 20th Century–Fox Production.
The Players: Alice Faye, James Ellison, Charlotte Greenwood, Eugene Pallette, Edward Everett Horton, Phil Baker, Carmen Miranda, Benny Goodman, Dave Willock.