Friday, January 26, 2018

The Lady in the Tutti Fruiti Hat: Showgirls & Produce

Today, we, as big fans of Warner Brothers pre-code musicals, happily contribute to The Busby Berkeley Blogathon, hosted by Hometowns to Hollywood.

Fortunately, the excellent writer Kellee Pratt has gone a long way to answer the difficult question of how one even begins to write about the visionary (and quite possibly stark raving mad) director/choreographer in her post, Busby Berkeley Choreography: Geometric Gems.

First a celebrated dance director on Broadway, whose arrangements of dancers into jaw-dropping visual extravaganzas undoubtedly stunned many a first-nighter, Mr. Berkeley a.k.a. "Buzz," began expanding the scope, flamboyance and technical demands of said routines and adapting them to the promising medium of movies, starting with a series of musicals produced by Samuel Goldwyn and starring comedian Eddie Cantor.

Describing the cinematic universe of Busby Berkeley is tantamount to writing about another fellow of expansive imagination, Warner Brothers and MGM cartoon-meister Tex Avery (note: author Joe Adamson did this, brilliantly) and finding oneself mired in such Captain Obvious observations as "Tex liked insanely ridiculous sight gags, pushing even cartoon extremes, faster than both a 1918 Henry Lehrman comedy and the speed of light." Yes, explaining the cosmos and Cosmo Topper are easier tasks than describing Busby Berkeley production numbers and the psychedelic world of the imagination!

Are there words that adequately describe the world of dreams and swirling geometric patterns created by dramatic sets and color-coordinated chorines, all arranged as compositional elements in light and shadow, throughout the epic Busby Berkeley production numbers? No, although the effect on the moviegoer, in 1933 and 2018, especially seen in big screen glory, is quite visceral and stunning. What does it all mean? Don't ask - just enjoy the roller-coaster ride, as audiences hurting from the effects of The Great Depression and having both a temporary escape and a wonderful time at the movies did.

No doubt André Breton and Salvador Dali didn't agree on much, but may well have welcomed a camera track through the spread legs of showgirls, ending at the eternally smiling faces of Toby Wing and Dick Powell, as a peculiarly American spin on the dadaist/surrealist artistic statement.

All this brings us to today's Topic Du Jour, that favorite of banana grower sales conventions 'round the world, The Lady With The Tutti-frutti Hat production number from The Gang's All Here.

Directed by Berkeley and produced by William LeBaron (known for his work for RKO and Paramount, including W.C. Fields, Ernst Lubitsch and Preston Sturges comedies), The Gang's All Here would turn out to be the choreographer's last big screen spectacular before a five year hiatus from motion pictures.

In addition to the earnest, hard-working showgirls holding up giant bananas in The Lady With The Tutti-frutti Hat, The Gang's All Here is chock-full of elaborate production numbers that are very imaginative, wild and ambitious, in some ways 1943-style throwbacks to the extravagant extravaganzas designed for 42nd Street, Gold Diggers Of 1933, Footlight Parade and Dames.

In glorious Technicolor as opposed to the black-and-white milieu of the Goldwyn and Warner Brothers musicals, again, nothing says dada and surrealism, Hollywood-style, quite like a spinning, undulating, pulsating kaleidoscope from Berkeley's wondrously way-out imagination. While those brilliant and mind-numbing Berkeley masterpieces from the depths of The Great Depression can be more reminiscent of Fritz Lang or G.W. Pabst netherworlds than the jaunty world of musicals, this 1943 offering is far sunnier: bright-bright-bright and color-saturated, in stark contrast to the gritty Busby Berkeley pre-Code universe.

This Alice Faye vehicle, loaded with international music stars and top character actors, is big and brassy, following other Fox hit musicals (Down Argentine Way) and much in-tune with the switch from 1930's B&W musical - whether gritty Warner Brothers "Gold Diggers" flick featuring Joan Blondell or glitzy MGM tap-fest starring Eleanor Powell - to the 1940's Technicolor extravaganza.

At Way Too Damn Lazy To Write A Blog, when we say "read the suspect his Miranda rights", that could be a reference to Hamilton mastermind Lin-Manuel Miranda, but is more likely to be about Carmen Miranda, mainstay of 1940's movie musicals and legendary entertainer.

At the center of The Lady With The Tutti-frutti Hat production number: Busby's signature choreography and the super megawatt "personality plus" of the one, the only Carmen Miranda (1909-1955), yet another great who left us too soon.

Proof that the high-spirited and fruit-filled production numbers, not just in The Gang's All Here but its box-office hit predecessors, Down Argentine Way, That Night In Rio, Week-end In Havana and Springtime In The Rockies were terrific for firebrand Carmen Miranda's career; the fact that the Brazilian entertainer and recording artist was subsequently caricatured, singing in Portuguese, in the Bugs Bunny cartoon Slick Hare. Yes, Friz Freleng and his crew of ace animators at Warner Bros. paid the ultimate tribute!

Here, without further adieu, not the last Busby Berkeley movie musical production number, but, with the other Technicolor visionary visual spectaculars in The Gang's All Here, arguably the last mindbogglingly larger-than-life, audacious and delirious ones until the 1952 Esther Williams vehicle Million Dollar Mermaid.

The numbers other than The Lady With The Tutti-frutti Hat in The Gang's All Here, including the opener, Brazil, express that distinctive Busby Berkeley style and unfettered imagination in full flight. . . while also positively seething with produce.

The rest of The Gang's All Here, a wondrous hodgepodge if there ever was one, notable for the sheer number of 20th century pop culture and classic film touchstones on hand, is a treat for those who love movies and music of the era. There's Benny Goodman (singing, no less)!

Carmen and her "Banda Da Lua" orchestra! The croaking frog gravel voice that could only emanate from Eugene Pallette! Perennial favorites of this blog Charlotte Greenwood and Edward Everett Horton!

And when it comes to the production numbers in The Gang's All Here, that certain mad genius was definitely not adjusted for patriotic wartime tastes, toned down and cleaned up as it had been in the equally elaborate, extremely entertaining and downright spunky (yet a tad sanitized in the patented MGM wholesomeness) Mickey Rooney & Judy Garland musicals, but given free rein. The finale in particular is a lulu, including the singing disembodied heads of the cast members!

The spectacular production numbers in The Gang's All Here, as radiantly colorful as a George Pal Puppetoon, create, like the best of animation, a certain delirious, glorious, memorable and downright hallucinogenic wonderment on the big screen.

Thanks again, Buzz, for creating your own universe on celluloid, Buzz - and I hope you left your brain to the Smithsonian Institute!

And, last but not least, thanks to Hometowns to Hollywood for hosting The Busby Berkeley Blogathon.

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