The Gang’s All Here (1943) Directed by Busby Berkeley.  Alice Faye, Carmen Miranda, Phil Baker, Benny Goodman and his Orchestra (103 min).

The Gang’s All Here is a film that has threaded through our family film-going history.  I don’t remember seeing it as a kid, nor do I remember seeing it in college, when reissues in 1972 and again in 1978 capitalized on the hallucinogenic qualities of Berkeley’s most bizarre choreography.  It firmly lodged itself into the family dynamic during the many showings on the original AMC (then American Movie Classics) which specialized in the 20th Century Fox films that I’d never seen on local Cleveland television.  My daughter fell deeply in love with it, particularly with the flamboyant Carmen Miranda.

The film is a confluence of 40s concerns, WW II bond-selling patriotism, the exotic iconography of Good Neighbor South American Policy, surreal visuals courtesy of Busby Berkeley, swing music provided by Benny Goodman and his orchestra and nostalgia for the Victorian youth of mid-20th century grandparents.  The plot is a mere whisp, a put-on-a-show backstage musical and an accelerated wartime courtship.  What moves it into the realm of the unforgettable are the musical numbers and any time Miranda is on the screen.

So, we watched it.  We videotaped it.  We saw it on the big screen whenever possible, including a dye-transfer Technicolor 16mm print at the Columbus, OH, film festival, Cinevent (now the Columbus Moving Picture Show) Moviediva, Jr., reviewed it for this website two decades ago.  She definitely got what was magic and what wasn’t.  “The only horrible part is the main actor (James Ellison).  He is so boring, he has no oomph in him, he looks like a joke next to Carmen Miranda, who is the best.”  It’s not hard for a middle schooler to home in on the highlights, “Busby Berkeley’s banana scene is stupendous.  Carmen plays a banana xylophone, and you’d never imagine how bananas sound…I love this movie, as will anyone who loves Ladies in Tutti Frutti Hats.”

And now, I’ve seen it again, after many years!  One thing that leaps out is not only that James Ellison is boring, but that he is one of those aggressive jerks who will not take “no” for an answer.  He bullies Alice Faye’s character into going out with him, and then lies to her about his identity.  This is a terrible foundation for a lasting relationship, yet old movies are full of this character.  From a 21st century perspective, one has to ask, why has this “no means yes” style of male courtship been so vital to the history of Hollywood movies?   Perhaps, in the age of #metoo, it will finally stop.  It ruins the movie in a very particular way for me.  Phil Baker, a popular radio star of the day, also has zero on-screen charisma, but his part is considerably more benign.

The film continues to fascinate, in spite of the dull sections devoted to the romance, because of the music and Berkeley’s choreography.  The film begins and ends with singing disembodied heads, floating in a dark background. “The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat” has lines of chorus girls’ hands patting sand in front of other chorus girls’ bare feet.  Giant bananas descend into a ring of giant strawberries and Carmen Miranda’s turban elongates to the height of a movie sound stage.  Her high, high platforms shoes are a special effect in themselves.  They were designed and made by Ted Saval…many years ago, his granddaughter wrote and told me so!  It was not only later aficionados of the camp aspects of this number who appreciated its excess.  The New York Times wrote, “Mr. Berkeley has some sly notions under his busby.  One or two of his dance spectacles seem to stem straight from Freud, and if interpreted, might bring a rosy blush to several cheeks in the Hays Office” (Gil-Montero 150).  As, I’ve often noted before, censors have no imagination.

But the final number, The Polka Dot Polka morphs into another dimension entirely.  It starts out with Alice Faye singing about courtship in the 1880s, surrounded by a chorus of polka dancing children dressed in polka dot attire.  As much as I love the way Carmen says, “Ay-yi!” that’s how much I love the way Alice sings, “By cracky” in this number.  Eventually, dancers in unitards will twirl gigantic neon polka dots, until the screen fragments into the sections of a kaleidoscope completely reconstructing bodies, colors, shapes.  Wow.

“I built a great kaleidoscope—two mirrors fifty feet high and fifteen feet wide which together formed a V design.  In the center of this I had a revolving platform eighteen feet in diameter and as I took the camera up high between these two mirrors, the girls on the platform below formed an endless design of symmetrical forms.  In another shot, I dropped from above sixty neon lighted hoops which the girls caught and used in their dance numbers” (Thomas and Terry 153).  Coupled with his love of majestic swooping crane shots, engineered with Edward Cronjager, the cinematographer, these imaginative numbers are unique in the history of film.  Often imitated, never surpassed.

All you ever need to know about “The Polka Dot Polka”

Carmen Miranda was known as The Brazilian Bombshell.  A night-club entertainer, radio star, and Brazil’s biggest movie star in the 1930s, she was already famous throughout Latin America when producer Lee Shubert came to Rio specifically to see her act and hired her to do a specialty number in the Broadway show, Streets of Paris. She insisted that her Brazilian orchestra, the Bando da Lua accompany her, in part because she knew she would need an authentic sound to compliment her act, but also because one of the musicians, Aloysio de Oliveira, was her long-term boyfriend, although they never married. (He begins the film, his disembodied head singing the opening song).

Miranda took her self-appointed role as good will ambassador to the United States very seriously, and she considered it a duty to bring Brazilian music and culture to the United States. She was shocked to discover, when she returned to Brazil after her first movie, that upper crust Brazilians considered her too Americanized, and her representation of South American culture insulting. Stung by a roasting in the press and a come-back performance that was received in icy silence, she signed a long-term Hollywood contract with 20th Century Fox and rarely returned home.

Part of her countrymen’s disapproval was, because like Elvis Presley, Carmen Miranda gave a white face to black music. The samba that she loved, and the samba musicians she befriended were part of the Brazilian underclass. She adopted the costume of the Afro-Brazilian women who sell food on the streets of the province of Bahia. The towering headdress, the bangles, the frilly blouse, and the intoxicating samba rhythm were interpreted simply as “Brazilian” by North Americans, unaware of the nuances of her image. She pretended not to speak English well and was a participant in the development of her image—one that some Brazilian fans interpreted as a sellout.

This turban worn by Miranda was displayed in the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s “Camp” Exhibition in 2019.  

Carmen Miranda was an instant success in the movies. Her fruit and flower laden turbans, sky high platforms, brief tops (which could not show cleavage or bellybuttons, according to the Production Code) and swirly skirts were imitated and parodied everywhere. And, toned down somewhat, turbans and platform shoes became a 1940s fashion uniform. She is considered to be the originator of the platform shoe, created for her in Brazil in 1934 to boost her 5-foot stature. Ferragamo, the Italian shoe designer was seemingly inspired by her, as was the American shoe company, Delman, which sold colorful platform sandals at Bergdorf Goodman’s.

Because of a WW II leather shortage, these chorus girls wear different shoes.  Photo from Chierichetti

And while Miranda dominates the screen whenever she appears, Alice Faye is magnetic in a different way.  Her throaty voice, her refusal to be perky or cute, and her towering rolled hairdos rivalling Miranda’s turbans are endlessly watchable.  Faye is another popular player of the era not much revived today. David Shipman describes her as “blonde, cuddly, shapely and kind—almost bovine…she was no great shakes as an actress, but hers is the supreme example of an amiable temperament caught by the camera.” She was born Alice Jeanne Leppert in the Hell’s Kitchen section of NYC in 1915 and left school at 14 to become a chorus girl. While hoofing in George White’s Scandals, the star of the show, Rudy Vallee, heard her sing and gave her a weekly song on his radio show, as well as a spot touring with the band. 20th Century Fox filmed the show in 1934, and when Vallee’s co-star walked off the set, the studio gave her the lead (over the objections of George White) but with the endorsement of Vallee, whose wife named her co-respondent in her divorce from Vallee that year. In the 1930s, she was a more Jean Harlow-esque blonde, but as the decade progressed, her rough edges softened. After her marriage to singer Phil Harris in 1941 (he’s now mostly remembered as the voice of Baloo the bear in Disney’s Jungle Book) she began losing interest in her career and retired from the screen in 1945. She had four children with Harris, and they stayed married until his death in 1995, she died in 1998.

This is one of the many photos of Alice Faye from my movie star scrapbook collection.  She was pregnant with this child during filming of “That Night in Rio,” and pregnant with her second child during “The Gang’s All Here.” She definitely hides behind large handbags and picture frames in this film.

Faye and Miranda became friends during of That Night in Rio.  In an interview later in her life, she said of Carmen she was “a pixie…and like a little doll, wonderful, very beautiful outside and inside” they thoroughly enjoyed the settings, the fabulous outfits, the music and all the trappings Hollywood could offer, “we loved our clothes.”

The wardrobe in The Gang’s All Here was designed by Yvonne Wood, designing for Carmen for the first time.  She had a similar issue with Travis Banton, who designed That Night in Rio, he had to disguise Alice Faye’s first pregnancy and Wood her second. Wood used deep jewel colors like a dark fuchsia and deep turquoise, which the Technicolor camera loved, and used the wide V of the padded shoulder silhouette to taper to central gathers that softened the look of her midriff.  I particularly loved the cream-colored satin dress with the sequin polka dots scattered down the front in the final number.

I was hoping to find a lovely costume check photo of this dress, but I am reduced to a YouTube screen cap.

It must have been fun to design for Carmen, even though the censors demanded her naval had to be covered with flesh colored fabric.  One blouse with layered ruffled sleeves alternates eyelet with net ruffles, which gives excellent bounce.  Her inspiration for “The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat” was to banish “mixed fruit attires” (Gil-Montero 150).  The black, red and yellow costume became one of her most famous baianas. In fact, this film was instrumental in the adoption of turbans, ruffled, cropped tops and swirling skirts into mainstream 1940s fashion, for both women, and drag queens, even though men had cross dressed as Carmen even when her fame stretched no farther than Brazil.  Dressing in Bahian costume had traditionally been a Carnival disguise for men, but Carmen made it popular amongst drag queens worldwide.  Later in her career, gay fans attended her live appearances and her appeal amongst the drag community remains constant.  When reissued in the 1970s, her fashions recurred with a craze for platform shoes and bare tropical midriffs.  In 1986, “Hollywood Legend and Reality” organized by the Smithsonian, a sketch of one of Carmen’s outfits rekindled interest in her attire for fancy dress or every day.

Here, Carmen teaches Mickey Rooney how to imitate her in “Babes on Broadway.”

Here, they mug with director Busby Berkeley.  From the January 1942 Silver Screen magazine.

A surprising fan of Carmen’s was Ludwig Wittgenstein, considered by some to be the most important 20th century philosopher.  He was “a particular fan of Carmen Miranda…He would sit in the front row so that he could see nothing but the screen…Woe betide any companion who tried to talk to him.  There was only the movie on the screen, and Wittgenstein, rapt in his seat, munching on a cold pork pie” (Krishnan 70).

Interestingly, in 1974, the author of The Alice Faye Movie Book, W. Franklyn Moshierbemoaned the fact that the movie did not seem to have staying power.  “The film was a financial blockbuster; its theme of wartime romance, lavish color photography, and comedy hijinks ideally suited the war years.  As might be expected, it is dated by today’s standards, is never revived in theaters nor shown on television.  Essentially, it is not good Faye.  Pregnant with her second child through much of the shooting schedule, she did not feel well, and at times seems almost bored” (Moshier 166).

Maria Montez and Carmen Miranda “were important escape fantasies of WW II.  Both were strong Latin representatives during the years of our Good Neighbor Policy….while they were on top, and while the world needed them, they were sensational, stars of the moment in the era that needed their humor, their color and their considerable pizzazz.  When time passes them by, exotics are always doomed to seem passe, but who dares to put Maria Montez and Carmen Miranda in the bottom drawer?  And who would want to?  They remind us that people can have fun during dark times” (Basinger 509).  And that is equally true today, as a present day theater audience rejoices at the sight of The Tutti Frutti Hat.

Here is an original poster for “The Gang’s All Here” emphasizing what 1940s audiences would want to see.

This reissue poster cuts to the chase.  Get high and enjoy the show!

The Busby Berkeley Book by Tony Thomas and Jim Terry, “Alice Faye” by W. Franklyn Moshier, October 1961 Films in Review, Interview with Alice Faye by Michael Buckley, November 1982 Films in ReviewBrazilian Bombshell: The Biography of Carmen Miranda by Martha Gil-Montero, Carmen Miranda by Lisa Shaw, Hollywood Costume Design by David Chierichetti, Forties Screen Style by Howard Mandelbaum and Eric Myers, Great Movie Stars: The Golden Years by David Shipman, The Star Machine by Jeanine Basinger, “You’re Talking Nonsense” by Nikhil Krishnan in the May 16, 2022 The New Yorker, The Alice Faye Movie Book by W. Franklyn Moshier