Tuesday, November 10, 2009

Film Review: The Gang's All Here

"The Gang's All Here" *** (out of ****)

"The Gang's All Here" (1943) was one of the first movie musicals I ever saw. It left quite the impression on me. At least 20 years has past since I first saw it and I still remember it. I remember the good natured fun of it. The bright colors, the lavish costumes, the dancing and Carmen Miranda! She was always an important figure in my family. She was one of my grandmother's favorite stars. Why? I have no clue. But she took great delight in watching her sing and dance. And I guess she transferred those feelings on to me.

Despite my background with the film you might think there would be a part of me which would give the film a pass for the sake for nostalgia. Actually, and perhaps surprisingly, that's not the case. My rating for the film has nothing to do with sentimentality. In fact, I'll even discuss what I feel are flaws with the picture.

"The Gang's All Here" is some ways has something in common with another musical I reviewed this month, "Down Argentine Way" (1940). Both were made at Fox. Both feature music written by Harry Warren. Two members of the cast are the same; Miranda and Charlotte Greenwood. Both have a Latin American feel to them. This actually was part of a political agenda. During President Roosevelt's term in office he established something known as the "Good Neighbor Policy", which is even given direct mention here. It was to improve relations between the U.S. and Latin America, especially within time of war. You will be pretty pressed to find musicals made during this time which were set in Europe. Audiences knew what was going on, so you'll notice a lot of movies dealt with Latin countries. It was exotic enough for viewers to be interesting.

There's a lot of politics and subtle social messages floating around in this film. It is in some ways a typical WW2 musical. It deals with the soldiers and patriotic pride. Audiences couldn't escape that. But the film also touches upon a "dilemma" which was starting to become more public. With the war going on morals concerning pre-marital sex were loosening. Consider this. Men were off in other countries away from girlfriends and wives. No one would know what they were up to and since we are all human we all get the same basic human urges. And women are no different. What were they suppose to do while their loved ones were away? Attitudes became more relaxed under the guise of "for the boys". A woman would show a man a good time because it was the least she can do to show her gratitude for what the boys were doing over-seas. In the most extreme cases this would result in pregnancies with young girls a) not being married and b) not knowing who the father was. Humor was found in this situation in the Preston Sturges comedy "The Miracle of Morgan Creek" (1944). "The Gang's All Here" doesn't find much humor in the situation and it doesn't give us a moral sermon on it either. But, it at the very least, subtly acknowledges that this type of behavior was going on.

The film is about a solider, Andy Mason (James Ellison). He is suppose to be a good looking, ladies man type. He hasn't met a girl he couldn't pick up. One night, at a club in New York, he meets a singer/dancer, Edie Allen (Alice Faye). At first a friend, Phil Baker, as himself, tells Andy she is out of his league but that doesn't stop Andy from trying. After some rough patches Andy manages to wear her down. In the course of one night she has agree to meet him at a train station the following day and see him off not to mention she promises to write to him everyday. Not bad for a first date.

Besides singing at a club Edie also does volunteer work at another places where she dances with soldiers. They all hit on her, dropping her line after line about how beautiful she is but she says she puts up with it because, wait for it, it's for the boys. This is how she meets Andy.

Andy wasn't completely honest with Edie. You see, he never told her that he is engaged to Vivian (Sheila Ryan). Her father, Peyton Potter (Edward Everett Horton) and his father, Andrew Manson Sr. (Eugene Pallette) are best friends. Both families have long suspected and encourage the two to get married. The kicker is, Vivian knows Andy has a wondering eye but doesn't get made at him because he is a solider and she knows the way they are. She'll do her part for the boys by turning a blind eye. But will Edie feel the same way?

When Andy is shipped off to the south pacific he is award a medal (for what is never made clear) and upon his return Peyton and his father have decided to throw him a party. There plan is to get the performers at Andy's favorite nightclub to come to their estate and put on a show. And, so as not to lose money, they will promote it as an event to buy war bands. But the problem is Edie works at Andy's favorite nightclub and will come to the estate. But Vivian will be there too.

I imagine that's how the film arrived at it's title and after the gang shows up the big question is when will Vivian and Edie find out they are both in love with the same guy?

"The Gang's All Here" tries to have a lot of fun with this premise and in some ways it does succeed. The story has some good comedic possibilities. It is good enough to keep our attention. And as I have said before that is all I require from a musical. A decent plot and a great score. And that's one of the problems. The score is by Harry Warren. At one time a great composer, who wrote several scores for Warner Brothers musicals. Here however, the score is lackluster at best. There isn't one stand out song in the entire score. That is what stops me from giving the film a higher rating. A better score would have made the film more memorable. Warren has written some great songs like "There Will Never Be Another You", "Lullaby of Broadway", "I Only Have Eyes For You", and one of the big hits during the war years (and personally one of my favorite songs ever written) "You'll Never Know", which is best know for being sung by the star of this film, Alice Faye in the movie "Hello Frisco, Hello" (1943). But there is not one song in this film which can make any of those. The prettiest song in the film is probably "A Journey to a Star", which Faye sings, but, I'd hardly call it one of Warren's great melodies.

The other songs include Carmen Miranda singing "The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat", a comment on Miranda's wild costumes. It is a pretty strange dance sequence which was choreographed by the film's director, Busby Berkeley. It was considered at the time a bit risque even. I wonder if it served as an influence for a dream sequence n the Coen Brother's cult hit "The Big Lebowski" (1998). It has lovely ladies holding giant bananas over their heads.

The final song in the film is "The Polka Dot Polka". This is an extremely weak song to end the film with. Usually the finale is done to a big, show stopping tune which Berkeley would create an extravagant set piece for. But here the song is no show stopper and his ideas don't really seem to match the song at all. If you want to see Berkeley at his best check out his work in "The Gold Diggers of 1933" (1933) and the "Remember My Forgotten Man" sequence or the "Lullaby of Broadway" finale in "The Gold Diggers of 1935" (1935) or even the "Shanghai Li" piece for "Footlight Parade" (1933). Those set pieces were mini-movies. None of Berkeley's pieces here match the magic of those earlier days.

As for the performances in the film they aren't that bad. Alice Faye was quite the big star at Fox. Never given much credit for her acting though, she was very capable at it. She was mostly just known for her singing. It is said she had more songs on the hit parade than any of her rivals. During the 1930s and 40s Faye was a major movie attraction appearing in films like "Alexander's Ragtime Band" (1938) with Tyrone Power and "On the Avenue" (1937) with Dick Powell. "The Gang's All Here" was made during the end of her reign as Fox's favorite musical lady. She would be replaced by none other than Betty Grable. But Faye gets in some good acting moments here were require her to be a bit sappy.

For comedy we have Horton, Pallette (who I mentioned in my "Step Lively" (1944) review) and Greenwood as Horton's wife with a wild past. Horton plays his usually "sissy man" character. The wealthy gentleman who is under the thumb of a woman. And sly references are made that he is a homosexual. And Carmen Miranda is given the "Ricky Ricardo" treatment. Her broken English is used for laughs as she mangles American expressions.

I wrote about Berkeley's "For Me and My Gal" (1942) which I didn't like but I didn't want to leave it that way with Berkeley. He is probably the best known director of musical comedy. "The Gang's All Here" does have flaws, like not even allowing the audience the opportunity to see the lovers make up and kiss (!), that is standard movie practice, however, it is fun to watch. Here is another musical where the humor is the added attraction and not the songs. Horton and Pallette score big after Faye. I don't know if younger more modern audiences will like this, I have a hunch they won't, but if you like musicals you'll probably find something about "The Gang's All Here" to enjoy.