One look at the cover of the 1940s Busby Berkeley musical The Gang’s All Here, which features a collection of pretty people smiling against a colorful background, and anyone can tell in an instant exactly what kind of film it will be. This is the kind of film where the plot and the script matter much, much less than the costumes, sets, and songs, all of which possess an electricity which is positively unstoppable. However, as inconsequential as a film such as The Gang’s All Here can be, it’s that very inconsequentiality which comprises its very appeal.
Scattered among the many musical numbers, dance sequences, and elaborate costumes which go on for days, The Gang’s All Here contains something of a threadbare plot involving a song-and-dance girl named Edie (Alice Faye) who finds herself smitten with departing soldier named Andy (James Ellison), who is about to be shipped out of New York. The two fall in love unbeknownst to either of them that Andy has been promised to the well-to-do Vivian (Sheila Ryan). Added to the mix is Dorita (Carmen Miranda), an exotic songstress who tries to keep Edie from finding out Vivian’s connection to the man she loves.
The cheese factor is alive and well in The Gang’s All Here with the film coming off as formalist as can be. The studio trappings are more than evident, with New York never looking as fake and cardboard as it does here, and a number of real-life entertainers playing themselves. Meanwhile, the movie’s comedy never feels anything but hollow and flat and includes jokes such as a woman grabbing a cat thinking its a ringing telephone as well as a seemingly endless series of Miranda failing to fully grasp common American sayings. There’s an incredibly “boy meets girl” schmaltz to the film, with said boy snapping his finger and smiling wide when he gets an idea which brings forth nothing but good-natured laughter and eye-rolling. In the end, the filmmaker’s penchant for the visual and the musical surpasses any allegiance to plot as evidenced by choosing a musical number instead of an actual resolution for the story.
A film as enjoyably disposable as The Gang’s All Here is nothing without stellar production values. The film features more musical numbers than actual lines of dialogue and most of the characters are so interchangeable it doesn’t even matter what anyone’s name is. However, as throwaway as all the numbers make the film feel, it’s still hard not to admire, and at times be genuinely wowed and astonished by, the level of craftsmanship that goes into some of these sequences. Miranda’s standout number with the bananas is genuinely impressive and the kind of showstopper movies like these were known for. The film also serves as a testament to the glory, power, and wonder of Technicolor with its lavish colors which pop off the screen in ways only that specific era was able to capture. Finally, great surrealist features turn up in a few of the numbers, which proved surprisingly ahead of their time in their beauty and execution, especially for a frothy, throwaway musical comedy from the ’40s. These surrealist touches also serve in paying tribute to Berkeley for a visual master whose creative eye remained unmatched.
Everyone lends the right kind of charm and apple pie likability to their “roles,” which truthfully come off more like caricatures than actual characters. Faye and Ellison make for an appealing couple, enough so that you root for them to get together, even though there is never any doubt that they won’t. They don’t hold a candle to Miranda, however, whose buoyant personality was never better served than it is here.
The beauty of The Gang’s All Here is that it’s the kind of film where you can get completely lost to the point where nothing in the real world can find or touch you. These are the kinds of movies which are positively brimming with hopes, dreams, and the vivacity of life, which most of society has forgotten to embrace. Some time back, The Gang’s All Here was selected for preservation by the National Library of Congress. The move may seem questionable to some, given how in the past, such honors went to the likes of Citizen Kane and Gone with the Wind. Yet the film’s selection greatly speaks to the importance of these kinds of films and what they represent: the glowing power and allure of the movies.
The release of The Gang’s All Here comes complete with two commentary tracks. The first one features Dr. Drew Casper, an expert in the golden age of Hollywood, who looks at some of the film’s ideology, while in the second, historians Glenn Kenney, Ed Hulse, and Farran Smith look at the film from more of a fan’s perspective.
There’s a great profile of Berkeley called Busby Berkeley: A Journey with a Star, in which many of the filmmaker’s career milestones are highlighted. The real treat, however, is Alice Faye’s Last Film: We Are Still Here which is a candid one on one conversation with the legendary actress.
A piece of fluff if there ever was one, The Gang’s All Here is a flimsy, yet wholly enjoyable testament to the escapism of classic Hollywood.
The Gang’s All Here is now available on Blu-ray from Twilight Time.