Set during World War II, Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here (1943) has a plot so flimsy you barely notice it. There’s a love triangle between Alice Faye and two much less charismatic actors (Sheila Ryan and James Ellison). Then, for no real reason, there’s a big, big show to perform on the lawn of a ritzy estate. There are even-flimsier sub-plots: an all-work-and-no-play businessman (Edward Everett Horton) discovers his inner party-animal, while his upper-crust wife (Charlotte Greenwood) relives her secret show-biz past. Oh, and there’s a lovable Latin bombshell (Carmen Miranda) with a taste for older men. That’s the “plot.” But surprisingly, it’s pretty wonderful movie.
There are films like this that take themselves seriously and those are hard to watch, but this is all gorgeously cartoonish. The Gang’s All Here doesn’t have much story because it doesn’t want or need it; it’s about color, energy and imagery. Like the flip side of a Marx Brothers movie, Gang replaces wild vaudeville comedy with equally wild song and dance. Busby Berkeley choreography is always phantasmagoric, but here, in Technicolor, it’s even more mind-blowing: Carmen Miranda shimmies in a boa of bulbous red strawberries; chorus girls caper with colossal yellow bananas; Alice Faye sings an ode to dots in ballroom of waltzing, polka-dotted children; dancers’ bodies morph into Technicolor kaleidoscopes; and actors’ disembodied heads float through saturated dream-scapes. It’s friendly, suggestive and weirdly abstract. The dull little love story that punctuates all this weirdness just gives you a little time to catch your breath between audaciously crazy production numbers.
Though some top-shelf character actors (Eugene Palette, Edward Everett Horton, Charlotte Greenwood) add great flair to the proceedings, the movie has two genuine stars, Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda. And as movie star types, they are diametrically opposed. Miranda is all sparkle and movement and cheerful sexuality. She flirts with delirious enthusiasm and so joyfully delivers her malapropisms that they become contagious. In one of many baroquely-costumed musical numbers, she wears a purple turban decorated with multicolored butterflies. Bright butterflies are the perfect emblem for the tiny, but indomitable actress. Outside of the aforementioned Marx Brothers, I’ve never seen a performer with so much energy. And if Carmen Miranda is a red-hot upper, Alice Faye is the reverse – cool, blond and melancholy. Faye isn’t an exciting performer, but she has a placid charisma. Singing romantic songs in a dreamy contralto, her time onscreen time has a poignant lullaby quality. The two actresses don’t share much screen time, but the difference between the sleepy Faye and the raucous Miranda is pronounced and delightful as we alternate between them throughout the film. It’s like the delicious contrast between two complementary colors.
Despite all the feverish gaiety, The Gang’s All Here does have a few intriguingly grounded moments. Most noticeably, Faye sings a beautiful song “No Love, No Nothing” about the loneliness of a woman waiting for her soldier to return. Simply and elegantly, the song charts the physical and mental isolation of the girl left behind. Later, when Faye discovers the soldier she loves is engaged to another, she passionately berates him for merely toying with her while she’s put her life on hold for him. Everything is happily sorted out in the end, but these affecting moments suggest an unexpected regard for female loneliness during wartime.
However, it’s the film’s astonishing ending that suggests its most heartfelt philosophy. Here the movie’s cavalier approach to plot is made definite; any concern with genuine storytelling is gleefully tossed aside –a few problems that are solved, such as that of the love triangle, are dispensed with so easily and quickly, that their status as genuine problems is totally undermined. Other loose ends, such as that of a married businessman smitten with Carmen Miranda, aren’t addressed at all. Instead, we get a vast, multilayered production number beginning with Faye’s musical ode to the polka-dot and ending with the disembodied faces of the cast floating through wide expanses of bright color. Not only are the plot’s loose ends left flapping, but the cast’s faces have become untethered from their bodies. At this point, the film seems to embrace a crazy kind of Hollywood Zen, exhorting us to enjoy the bold, sensual display without clinging to any particular meaning or outcome.