Sunday, July 31, 2016

THE GANG'S ALL HERE: Blu-ray (2oth Century-Fox 1943) Twilight Time

Claptrap and calamity hinder Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here (1943) from becoming more than a psychedelic footnote in the canon of truly great musical entertainments. The claptrap comes from Walter Bullock’s screenplay, so full of inconsistencies that it is ever in danger of toppling into a messy heap of glossy mayhem. The calamity arises from the fusion of Busby Berkeley’s usual flare for staging his numbers with military precision; his style clashing with the more robust gaudiness of 2oth Century-Fox’s musicals from this vintage. The Gang’s All Here is ‘trippy’ and I suspect this is part, if not all of its charm. The rest of the pleasures to be had derive chiefly from its two female stars; Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda; each, a radiant presence for very different reasons: also, the hallucinogenic and inadvertently Freudian musical numbers staged by Busby Berkeley – a peerless master in maneuvering his camera through this labyrinth of scantily clad chorines, creating vertiginous displays of arms and legs all rearranged. Berkeley vacillates in this, his first movie musical expressly designed for the lushness of 3-strip Technicolor; indulging in intricate and befuddling exhibitions of spandex-attired ‘space vixens’ balancing neon-lit hula hoops (that sparked and gave everyone minor shocks), and other fresh young faces in island attire, coddling, contorting and caressing some very phallic bananas.
It’s an A-1 mash-up of art meets super kitsch as only Berkeley’s uninhibited creativity could evolve when given free rein to explore the infinite possibilities. Berkeley always said his best ideas were born in a cool bathtub… undoubtedly, given the water-logged cutaway nature of almost all of them readily on display herein; the discombobulated array of heads floating in a black ether during the film’s opener, Aquarela Do Brasil or the incongruous and very forced kaleidoscopic effect  - heads again - this time rotoscoped in a panacea of ever-changing shapes and colors to cap off The Polka Dot Polka and ballet; children decked in 19th century finery – top hats and floor length skirts, and adult women in lurid hues of body-hugging  stretch-ware. What a folly and a startle to see so much good talent turned to Technicolor gumbo by Berkeley’s unwieldy voyeurism.  If not for its two iconic stars at the helm, The Gang’s All Here would be a real misfire or worse – an epitaph to Berkeley’s otherwise trend-setting career.
First: to Alice Faye, luminescent as the nightclub chanteuse, Edie Allen; one of Darryl F. Zanuck’s irrefutable glamor gals. Interestingly, the film’s score does not favor Faye so much as it gets parceled off, bits going to Carmen Miranda and the undisputed king of swing, Benny Goodman. Faye does get two ballads – her forte; the rather lazily nondescript ‘No Love, No Nothin’ and the infinitely more melodic ‘Journey To A Star.’ Faye’s personality shines through, and not just in these songs – doling out equal portions of kittenish enthusiasm and sassy sex appeal. It’s an interesting blend, to be sure, and so rarely – successfully – achieved in the movies; a girl in a woman’s body who knows her own mind, isn’t afraid to use it, but equally naïve enough to be ‘the one’ any man would kill to take home to mother. The story of how Faye rose to prominence at Fox is almost as intriguing as the rather perplexed way she took her exit; walking out of the screening of 1945’s Fallen Angel, after realizing Zanuck had left some of her best scenes on the cutting room floor to favor costar, Linda Darnell; tossing her keys to the guard at the gate and adding “Tell Mr. Zanuck he knows what he can do with these!” Faye’s Fox tenure had begun ridiculously modeled on MGM’s platinum Venus, Jean Harlow. Despite this inauspicious start as a Harlow clone, Faye would come into her own in a string of highly profitable Fox musicals made throughout the mid-1940s. Along with veteran Betty Grable, she canonized the Fox studio-bound musical of this rarified vintage, even warbling the Oscar-nominated ‘You’ll Never Know’ from perhaps her most fondly recalled contribution, 1943’s Hello Frisco, Hello.
It wasn’t all joy galore; Faye, fighting off Zanuck’s advances and his verve to recast her as ‘another Jean Harlow’ – then the reigning box office sexpot. Faye began as nothing better than a chorine, gradually landing a plum spot as a singer on The Fleischmann Hour (1932-1934) with wildly popular radio personality, Rudy Vallee and His Connecticut Yankees. Her deep whiskey voice made her immediately identifiable. Alas, an erroneous alienation of affections suit brought by Vallee’s wife put a premature end to her early radio career. But by then she had already been chosen to replace temperamental star, Lilian Harvey in the movie version of George White’s Scandals (1933), Alice’s voice, if not her presence, was so well known by the public, it catapulted the picture onto a sizable success. Faye was not particularly pleased with her early start in pictures however; her head dipped in a bottle of peroxide, her eyebrows thinned, given the brash demeanor of a twenty-cent tart in films like She Learned About Sailors (1934) and Every Night at Eight (1935). At this point, Zanuck did an about face with his new leading lady; a new buildup ‘au naturel’ (or, at least as ‘au naturel’ as the glamor mavens in Hollywood could conceive back then); Faye looking more herself than a Harlow knock-off and winning the hearts and minds of a generation in picture after picture. Zanuck tested Faye’s new look in several Shirley Temple movies; Temple, then, the biggest box office draw, rumored to have accused Faye of kicking her down a flight of stairs on the set of Poor Little Rich Girl (1936). Nevertheless, from this moment on, Alice Faye would be given star billing in the movies she appeared.
In Hollywood, as in life, timing is everything. The Gang’s All Here falls right in the middle of Alice Faye’s legendary streak at Fox, her first marriage to singer, Tony Martin in 1937 lasting barely three years, despite their whirlwind romance on the set of Poor Little Rich Girl. Her second marriage, to radio star, Phil Harris, would take a lifetime to evolve. As early as 1936, Zanuck entered into negotiations with MGM’s L.B. Mayer for the loan out of Jean Harlow to appear in Fox’s biggest movie to date, In Old Chicago (1938). Tragically, Harlow died of uremic poisoning at the age of 26; the industry’s formidable loss, but ironically, Alice Faye’s gain, cast in In Old Chicago and practically running off with the show, despite playing opposite Fox’s prettified he-man, Tyrone Power. With her second marriage to Harris solidified – if never entirely sanctified by Zanuck - film work became less important to Faye, who discovered wife and motherhood far more richly satisfying than any part Zanuck could offer her. By the time The Gang’s All Here went before the cameras Faye’s impatience with the system had worn thin. She was one of the studio’s highest paid and most highly prized assets; yet, increasingly discontented.
Earlier, she had incurred the ire of the real Fanny Brice by aping her style in a loose biopic, Rose of Washington Square, and, along with the public, thought herself hopelessly miscast in the title role as Lillian Russell (1940) for which Zanuck ordered Faye to gain weight to play the Wagnerian-sized singer, then forced her to submit to being strapped into ultra-form fitting corseted costumes. Faye was also displeased by Zanuck’s more proactive endeavors to advance Betty Grable’s career at the expense of her own. Although she bore no ill will towards Grable, Faye deeply resented Zanuck’s sudden loss of interest in her own career. Thus, The Gang’s All Here would mark Faye’s penultimate appearance in a Fox musical, her acrimonious departure leading to an ‘unofficial’ blacklisting that kept her off the screen for well over a decade. To any other actress, this might have led to some very bitter times. However, Faye was arguably ‘done with’ Hollywood long before it had finished with her. Alongside her husband, Phil Harris on his popular radio hour, Faye played the doting wife; the program later rechristened The Phil Harris-Alice Faye Show, and quite enough to fill this artistic gap.
The other great performer in The Gangs All Here is undeniably Brazilian bombshell, Carmen Miranda (born Maria do Carmo Miranda da Cunha); that electrifying stage presence featured in the ensemble stage smash, Streets of Paris, who helped to popularize (some say, bastardize) the iconography of the ‘Latina’, invariably hailing from Brazil, Portugal, Argentina and/or Mexico. Miranda’s appeal lay in her charmingly fractured English, an accent thicker than her platform sandals, idiotically exotic and often floral attire, capped off by a mind-boggling array of elaborate headdresses, sporting everything from miniature lighthouses and umbrellas to an increasingly lopsided bowl of fruit. The oversized turbans, hoop earrings and other jewelry became legendary overnight; Miranda’s style mimicked, though never duplicated (except for Mickey Rooney’s ribald transformation into ‘la Miranda’ for the ‘show within a show’ in 1941’s Babes on Broadway – even more ironic because Miranda herself coached the diminutive Rooney through his deliciously wicked lampoon).  The image Fox helped to solidify for Carmen Miranda would prove something of a dead end to her movie career; repeatedly cast as the fun-loving, if fiery, gal on the side; like Lena Horne at MGM, inserted into movies starring somebody else, merely to take full advantage of her colorful sex appeal and playful mismanagement of a lyric. “Ah…that’s the kind’a music I like it…it talks to my skin!”
In many ways, Miranda’s appearance in Down Argentine Way (1940) dovetailed perfectly into President Franklin Roosevelt’s ‘good neighbor policy’ toward Latin America. Increasingly, however, Miranda was ill-received in her native Portugal where her fame steadily eroded under the adoption of America’s farcical impressions of her exotic heritage.  Nevertheless, in Brazil, her adopted nation, Miranda’s reputation was galvanized as a goodwill ambassador abroad. But by 1946 the bloom of her exoticism had quietly worn off. Increasingly, it became clear Miranda could not ‘star’ in a picture, needing ‘straight’ performers to play off. Zanuck allowed her contract to lapse. She was quickly picked up by MGM for two quaint Jane Powell programmers, A Date with Judy (1948) and Nancy Goes to Rio (1950).  And although both movies were successful at the box office, neither reinvigorated Miranda’s movie career. But her last act came much too soon. As a popular nightclub entertainer, she readily appeared as a guest on the talk show circuit and variety hour programs of the mid-fifties. On Aug. 4, 1955, Miranda felt ill prior to appearing on The Jimmy Durante Show, falling on one knee during her live performance and mentioning, with a fanning hand, she felt a little out of breath. She would die later that same evening; ruled as a heart attack until it was later discovered in an autopsy she was pregnant and had likely died of pre-eclampsia -- a pregnancy-related condition characterized by high blood pressure and kidney malfunction. She was only 46 years old.
Looking back on Carmen Miranda now, miraculously, time has not withered nor even diminished her appeal; those sparkling eyes full of unbridled happiness; that impossibly broad and heavily lip-sticked mouth, sounding out an impossible array of half-fractured syllables and pseudo-Portuguese flimflam in swing tempo with the Latin beat of her Bando da lua serenading on all sides. She exudes a sort of fanciful exuberance, her sheer joy as an entertainer, utterly infectious and instantly appealing. At the writing of this review I can almost hear her ‘cuanta le gusto-ing’ in my head with a chica-chica-boom-chic for good measure. And if she never went beyond being a cameo performer, then what a cameo performer she was; a sizzling mania in tinkling jewelry, spouting Anglo-Portuguese fireworks to a samba, and easily towering over the rest, despite her relatively short physical stature – barely 5 feet. Taking a cue from Down Argentine Way, The Gang’s All Here opens with a Carmen Miranda spectacle; the more traditional ‘Aquarela Do Brasil’ perfectly segueing into ‘You Discover You’re In New York’ to set the proper tone in merriment and magic.
Our story begins in earnest with Sergeant Andy Mason (James Ellison) arriving at New York’s hottest nightclub to sample a bit of the wild side of Broadway before being shipped off to war. Against the strenuous objections of his stogy father, Andrew (Eugene Palette), Andy gets involved with nightclub singer, Edie Allen (Alice Faye). Meanwhile, Andrew’s friend, Peyton Potter (Edward Everett Horton) becomes entangled with the nightclub’s other knockout performer, Dorita (Carmen Miranda). Peyton is a stuffed shirt whose wife (Charlotte Greenwood) and daughter, Vivian (Sheila Ryan) think him respectable. Anyway, Andy gets sent to the front lines during WWII, but returns a hero several years later; only now - inexplicably engaged to Vivian, leaving Edie with a broken heart. Dorita decides to help the confusion along by revealing Peyton’s flirtations with her at the café to Mrs. Potter who, in turn, demands to know what in the world is going on. All of this loveable nonsense doesn’t quite add up and it is made even more confusing by the fact Busby Berkeley frequently interrupts the romantic comedy to insert lavishly appointed production numbers that have absolutely nothing to do with the story.
The most successful of these intrusions is undoubtedly Carmen Miranda’s ‘The Lady in the Tutti-Fruitti Hat’; a garish tropical routine complete with organ grinders and their monkeys, a spate of plastic palm trees lazily swaying in the breeze of an off-camera fan, and, a bevy of artificially tanned Fox contract beauties, forming geometric patterns in the studio-bound sand; Berkeley capturing the magic from his craned camera aerial perch in the rafters overhead.  There are really only two ways to look at The Lady in the Tutti-Fruitti Hat; either as a lot of fun or as a wan ghost flower of Berkeley’s more elaborate work committed in B&W over at Warner Bros. throughout the 1930s. In point of fact, it is a little of both; Fox keeping Berkeley’s request for a hundred chorines down to less than fifty, and skimping on the ‘coverage’; Berkeley maneuvering his camera back and forth in slow-mo as the chorines raise and lower their bananas over their heads. Carmen Miranda is the treasure of this moment, using the bananas as a xylophone as she warbles the captivating Harry Warren/Leo Robins’ lyrics. “Americanos tell me that my hat’s too high, because I will not take it off to kiss a guy. But if I ever take it off to say, aiy-aiy, I dood that once for Johnny Smith and he is very happy with the lady in the tutti-fruitti hat!”  The Lady in the Tutti-Fruitti Hat ran into considerable clashes with the prevailing censorship (the sight of island girls hugging gigantic bananas unduly suggested as deviant fetishism best left to the imagination).
Nothing else in The Gang’s All Here tops The Lady in the Tutti-Fruitti Hat. For its sheer audacity and execution, nothing even comes close. The other numbers are a mostly uneven affair. Carmen Miranda’s other splashy tune, ‘You Discover You’re In New York’ – accompanied by Tony De Marco and her own Bando Da Lua is truncated; Miranda barely given a chance to samba as Berkeley’s camera zig-zags around patrons in this Hollywoodized Manhattan hot spot. Alice Faye’s romantic ballad ‘A Journey to A Star,’ is first sung aboard a ship, Berkeley wisely resisting to deviate from Faye’s luscious visage for even a moment. But he frequently finds reasons to leave Benny Goodman awash in a sea of faces as his orchestra contribute two of the better musical moments to the picture; ‘Minnie’s in the Money’ and ‘Paduka’; Berkeley again going for ‘crowd shots’ of the various couples ‘cutting a rug’ on the dance floor. Less promising on every level is the fractured amalgam of styles thrust into The Gang’s All Here’s elephantine finale. It begins promising enough with Faye’s sultry warbling of the playful ‘Polka-Dot Polka;’ Faye, looking ravishing in costume designer, Yvonne Wood’s spotted ensemble, surrounded by a delightful gaggle of children in their ‘gay nineties’ formal attire.  The tune, bouncy to a fault, leads into one of the most bizarre disconnects in all musical history; a display of cat-like vixens wrapped from horn to hoof in snug-fitting spandex, each clutching a neon hula hoop changing color with the proscenium. These hoops miraculously morph into giant wafers as the girls continue to rotate them overhead. Seemingly unable to escape from the delirium he has created, Berkeley merely dissolves into a forced perspective of a kaleidoscopic vision of Faye’s head swirling in a sea of rotating color wheels; the entire cast’s disembodied faces dangling in a firmament of twinkling stars for the reprise of ‘A Journey to a Star’.
The Gang’s All Here is often cited as a stellar example of ‘luscious’ escapist entertainment. If ‘mindless’ is what you desire, then I suppose this musical fits that bill nicely. But it must be stated co-star, James Ellison is a thoroughly ineffectual leading man; handsome enough in a sort of non-descript brawny way, though without the A-list personality to make those looks count for anything more than window-dressing. Character actors, Eugene Palette, Charlotte Greenwood and Edward Everett Horton are wasted; great comedians with precious little to do except act befuddled and pretend they have not already figured out where all this lunacy is headed. Carmen Miranda rescues the plot – such as it is – but only momentarily in the very brief sound bites she appears outside of singing a song. Perhaps wisely, Zanuck has parceled Miranda off to a purpose: to splash across the screen like a sunburst before setting in the backdrop. Too bad, there is precious little going on in the foreground of Walter Bullock’s mangled screenplay. There is no focus to the piece outside of its ‘sheer entertainment value’; a sort of Vaudeville routine that occasionally outstays its welcome but is salvaged from inducing absolute tedium by the inclusion of several memorable musical sequences – and one truly awful one. Yet, when all is said and done, The Gang’s All Here resonates as an exercise in gaudy excess rather than starlight and magic.
Resident restoration expert, Robert A. Harris has gone on record, stating “I'm never quite certain how to relate to the Fox three-strip Technicolor films, as they no longer provide anything close to the original look of Technicolor. And that concept needs to be taken a step further, dependent upon what efforts have been used to try to help what elements that do survive.” Alas, it is begrudgingly for certain, Twilight Time’s new Blu-ray of The Gang’s All Here is one of biggest disappointments of the season. What ought to have been a big and splashy, robustly colorful extravaganza has been distilled into a rather mediocre readdressing of some tired old surviving Eastman stock that has decidedly seen better days. In the mid-70’s, Fox famously junked all of their archival materials in favor of these inferior ‘preservation’ masters, simply to cut down on the amount of space the old film library was taking up in their non-air-conditioned vaults. Rumor has it, the elements were loaded onto a barge and unceremoniously dumped off shore, but that may be an apocryphal tale. Whatever the case, no satisfactory elements have survived in the interim, leaving The Gang’s All Here a very faded memory of its original opening night glory.
I have spent many a day burning in effigy the executive brain trust responsible for this 1970’s purge. Those unaware of how vibrant original 3-strip Technicolor can look need only have a gander at some of the spectacularly gorgeous hi-def transfers being done over at Warner Bros. on Gone With The Wind, The Wizard of Oz, Meet Me In St. Louis or She Wore A Yellow Ribbon to make the comparison, while shedding a few pang tears for The Gang’s All Here on Blu-ray. Under the circumstances, could it have been better in 1080p? Apparently so. Again, I defer Robert Harris’ comments about “a glorious surviving dye transfer print” via a mid-70’s reissue of the movie in “blazing three strip” by Eric Spilker. Mr. Harris goes on… “If you're ever serious about seeing the film properly, the experience is attainable.” Okay, so now I am even more disappointed by Fox’s mismanagement of assets that are on tap but were incongruously never utilized – or even considered, for that matter – for this hi-def parceling off to third party distributor Twilight Time. At this point I can only sincerely speculate as to why Mr. Spilker’s archival elements were not even inspected for a new scan to Blu-ray.
Overall, I don’t have issues with this disc’s sharpness or contrast, though neither ever rises to the level a real re-alignment of 3-strip Technicolor would have yielded. But it’s good – if not great. Again, color is the real issue here; saturation and density – and for a movie so utterly dependent on the brilliant hues of Technicolor, this one left me flat, flat, flat! Age-related artifacts have been cleaned up; no real damage, dirt or scratches to speak of, and that’s a good thing. The audio is presented in 2.0 mono DTS and sounds adequate, if not remarkable. Better is Twilight Time’s isolated musical score and a new audio commentary from Glenn Kenny, Ed Hulse and Farran Smith Nehme. TT has also ported over the old Drew Casper commentary, plus the featurette: Busby Berkeley: Journey to a Star, and Alice Faye’s promo shot in the twilight of her own career – ‘We Still Are’, plus a deleted scene and original theatrical trailer. Bottom line: I sincerely wanted to get excited about this release.  It ought to have been better. Realizing that it also could have been better has left me pining for a studio mantra that is not merely ready to settle for baseline competency. But then again, it wouldn’t be Fox! Not good, folks. Regrets!
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)


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