World War II was a buoyant time for the cinema industry, particularly in America. In order to forget the horrors which were ripping the world apart audiences flocked in their thousands each week to see the latest film releases which, before the 1950s and dawn of the television era, were one of the western world’s main forms of escapism. If, before the advent of modern mass media, radio was considered the best way – in relative terms – to receive the most up-to-the-minute news and information, then cinema was the pre-eminent mode of entertainment and diversion from the harsh reality of everyday life.
Never ones to miss an opportunity the governments of both the USA and UK also saw the medium of film as an ideal tool for propaganda, and a way to boost morale amongst those at home as well as the troops abroad. During the early years of the 1940s, with their government’s encouragement, Hollywood and Britain produced an endless stream of upbeat fantasies, humorous dramas and over-the-top musicals to meet public demand. Films like the magical Thief of Bagdad (1940), Noel Coward’s comedy / drama This Happy Breed (1944) and the Judy Garland vehicle Meet Me in St. Louis (1944), kept audience’s spirits high when all around them was, quite literally, crumbling.
Amongst such films from this period however, one stands out even today as the prime example of what these movies stood for and the way in which they accomplished their aims. What the zippy, technicolor extravaganza The Gang’s All Here (1943) may lack in subtlety, it more than makes up for with its head-on attack on the senses and sheer unbridled fun and optimism. From the earliest days of the Hollywood musical – particularly those which featured the dance arrangements of the legendary Busby Berkeley – what there was of a story-line was usually only there as a means of connecting one mesmerising dance sequence with the next. The plot of The Gang’s All Here – which proved to be one of the last films Berkeley would direct – is basic in the extreme, revolving around a love triangle between Sgt. Andrew J. Mason, Jr. (James Ellison), his childhood sweetheart Vivian Potter (Sheila Ryan) and New York showgirl Eadie Allen (Alice Faye). Things become complicated when Andrew is called up to serve in the South Pacific, with both girls believing that he’s in love with them, only to be settled amicably for all concerned after he returns from the war as a decorated hero. As said however what plot there is, is only there to introduce the musical numbers most of which highlighted the wit and pure joie-de-vivre of Berkeley as a director and choreographer.
During its early years, Berkeley was one of the most groundbreaking filmmakers working in Hollywood, probably doing more than anyone to bring fun and escapism to the masses by promoting dance through the medium of film. Though not a dancer himself, Berkeley knew what looked good on screen and how to bring extravagant dance numbers to life in a way which had never been seen before, or since. As far back as the racy pre-code comedy Palmy Days (1931) – which was one of the earliest films on which he worked as a choreographer and which highlighted many of the stylistic elements which would later become his trademarks – Berkeley had been staging innovative dance sequences and montages to spice up otherwise formulaic and often prosaic comedy’s and light dramas.
Born in Los Angeles in November 1895, Berkeley served as a field artillery lieutenant in World War I during which time he was involved in the organisation of parades, his experience with which would later become evident in his work on film. Many aspects with which he would become intrinsically linked – rows of dancing girls, moving in geometric patterns with military precision – can be linked back to his years in the army and conducting of soldiers on the parade ground. However it was probably the endless streams of healthy, smiling, young women – all seemingly the same with their bobbed hair and rosebud pouts – as much as anything else which became synonymous with Berkeley. His famous chorus lines in films such as Dames (1934) and Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935) became the stuff of Hollywood legend and provided an early platform for many who would go on to become major stars such as Joan Blondell and Gloria Stuart.
The Gangs All Here was the ideal showcase for Berkeley’s prodigious talent, his bevies of beautiful girls and Hollywood favourite Alice Faye, whose melodious tones and glamorous looks were tailor-made for the role of the film’s leading lady Eadie Allen. It was also the perfect vehicle for the big band leader and composer Benny Goodman and his band who provided various numbers for the swinging, upbeat soundtrack, as well as several of Hollywood’s best loved comedians. The rotund character player Eugene Pallette made an appearance, as did the ubiquitous Edward Everett Horton – in the role of highly strung businessman Peyton Potter – an actor who had frequently appeared as the uptight stooge to Fred Astaire in several of RKO’s famous musicals of the 1930s. The gangly, rubber legged actress Charlotte Greenwood – known for her show stopping high kicks, and who had worked with Berkeley over a decade previously in the aforementioned Palmy Days – played the perfect foil for Horton’s character as his kind hearted wife with a mischievous twinkle in her eye.
These factors aside, the film will go down in cinema history for the appearance of one person – the marvel who was Carmen Miranda. Though only featuring in a supporting role, the woman affectionately known as ‘The Brazilian Bombshell’ steals every scene she is in. A singer, dancer and actress who, due to her phenomenal public popularity, would become the highest paid entertainer in Hollywood and top female tax-payer in America in 1945, is something of an acquired taste when viewed today. The overt ‘campness’ of her trademark broken English and gaudy, over-the-top style of dress may appear blatant to today’s audiences, but in the more innocent era of the war torn 1940s, this uninhibited exuberance was welcomed, and even encouraged.
Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha was born on the 9th February 1909, in Marco de Canaveses, Portugal. When little more than a year old her parents emigrated to Brazil, where the young Miranda’s talent for song and dance led to her being discovered by composer Josué de Barros, who later helped record and promote Miranda’s first album with the German recording label Brunswick in 1929. Fame followed in her adoptive country of Brazil where, throughout the 1930s, she would become the countries most popular singing star. It was this success which led to her starring in several films for the countries flourishing film industry, and which in turn brought her to the attention of Hollywood. The early 1940s saw an explosion in the film capital of exuberant feature films, with lush musical numbers perfectly suited to the larger-than-life Miranda.
Having, after her initial arrival in America, starred in various shows on Broadway, Miranda was went to Hollywood where she signed a contract with MGM in 1940. Over the following five years she would feature in eight films alongside such major players as Betty Grable, Kay Francis, Don Ameche and Cesar Romero. Though an accomplished performer, it was as much her colourful costumes and in particular her flamboyant headwear which made her stand out from the crowd in many of her films. Whilst still in Brazil she had worked in a shop where she learned to make hats, a passion which would later become one of her most recognisable traits. Capitalising on her exotic looks and adopted South American roots, her most lavish head-ware often consisted of little more than baskets of ripe fruit piled high upon her head. With this in mind it seems only appropriate that one of the song and dance numbers with which she would become most closely associated, played heavily on this feature, and gave rise to the name by which she would become best known, ‘The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat’.
Despite featuring a number of prominent musical numbers – including the wistful and sentimental songs ‘A Journey to a Star’ and ‘No love, No Nothin’ sung by Faye, The Gang’s All Here will be best remembered for the sheer madness and theatricality that is ‘The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat’.
The showpiece, which runs for over seven minutes – an extended period for a musical number in a film, even by Hollywood’s standards – encompasses everything for which Berkeley had become well known. Seemingly taking place in a New York club, once the music starts it’s clear to the viewer that the scope of what’s now playing out in front of them could never take place within the confines of a theatre or nightclub stage. Taking place on an imaginary tropical island peopled with multitudinous scantily clad chorus girls and with the effervescent Miranda at the centre, it’s the copious bananas of all shapes and sizes which caused most stir amongst audiences and critics, and controversy amongst the censors. The not so subtle erotic double meaning of these ‘phallic’ objects was pounced upon by The Hayes Office – the arbiters of moral decency – who forced Berkeley to make major changes in the way the dancers held the objects, before they allowed the scene to be passed. That said, the massive props, as well as the oversized personality of Miranda, made this segment in particular, and the film as a whole, one of the most memorable and enjoyably carefree musical productions to ever hit cinema screens.
Filmmaker’s (both in-front of and behind the camera) are often so intrinsically representative of the period in which they practiced, that it’s hard to think of their resultant work being made at any other time. Berkeley summed up his belief in this, saying, ‘In an era of breadlines, depression and wars, I tried to help people get away from all the misery…to turn their minds to something else. I wanted to make people happy, if only for an hour’. With The Gang’s All Here, he and his co-workers archived this with an effortless style which would live on after they, and the war which raged around them, had long been confined to the annals of history.