The Gang’s All Here (Busby Berkeley, 1943)

After listening to the excellent Masters of Cinema Cast discussion on Busby Berkeley’s 1943 musical extravaganza The Gang’s All Here, I knew I had to watch it for myself. I didn’t know what to expect and having watched it now I still don’t really know what I made of it.

I was reminded of a few modern day film-watching woes as the film played out. You know when you’re watching a 2D film at home and for some reason they have these annoying and hard to follow fast-paced sweeping shots following someone through a surprisingly tricky pathway full of things jumping towards you, and you sit there unimpressed because you aren’t at an IMAX screening? There was a great one in the Jim Carrey-starring animation A Christmas Carol. Out of context it just doesn’t wow, because the sole purpose of it is to show off a piece of technology or visual effect.

Another example is the 30-ish minutes of wasted special-effects shots in Star Trek: The Motion Picture. Loads to see, if your thing is watching outdated effects showing a spaceship slowly crawling through space. In the distance. But watched in 2015 you can’t help but drown in the lethargy of it all.

So we have The Gang’s All Here. A work of Technicolor wonder. A flimsy plot serving as a platform for countless big hit parade smashes in state-of-the-art colour film. A picture oozing razzmatazz. A picture that just doesn’t wow, simply because the visuals it spends so long showing off are just something we expect of a modern film.

That’s not to say The Gang’s All Here is the first colour film and a massive surprise to audiences. Indeed, they had been treated to both The Wizard of Oz and Gone With The Wind in 1939, some four years eariler, both shot in Technicolor. This was, however, Berkeley’s first feature to be filmed entirely in Technicolor, which would have been a great honour at the time due to the high production costs associated with the technique. It wasn’t an opportunity he was going to waste, and he certainly made enthusiastic use of his chance to use colour for the first time.

Really, the plot is a duplicate of far too many films of the era: woman and soldier fall in love in a whirlwind romance on the eve of his departure for the war (in this case, he’s off to Japan). It really isn’t important. What the 1943 American audiences wanted was escapism – two hours of over-the-top dance numbers, busy routines, familiar songs and huge stars. And that’s what they got.

There are a few numbers where Berkeley really goes to town. The big opening number “You Discovered You’re In New York” – sung by Brazilian Carmen Miranda – is a sharp comment about wartime shortages. Her other big number “The Lady In The Tutti Fruity Hat” doesn’t hide the fact that it’s full of innuendo (7ft bananas, anyone?) and is probably the most memorable number in the whole film.

There are also moments of total surrealism, none more so than the finale “The Polka-Dot Polka”, which is Berkeley indulging in his big budget and experimenting with the Technicolor medium. It’s kaleidoscopic and hilarious and deserves to be seen.

It’s not at all a perfect musical, and it hasn’t retained its popularity over the years, for one reason or another. There probably won’t be a stage adaptation, owing to the fact the storyline isn’t strong enough and the wow factor on the big number comes from visual effects that couldn’t be recreated on stage. However, it deserves to be seen in full HD, with attention given to the brightly saturated colours of the original print. Inevitably, Eureka and Masters of Cinema have delivered on this release yet again.

The Masters of Cinema release of The Gang’s All Here is available to buy now. Strangely, you can watch the whole film via YouTube below, though the low picture and sound quality just doesn’t do it justice. You can get a flavour of it though.

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