Sunday, May 2, 2021

Dames (1934)

Director: Ray Enright                                           Writer: Delmer Daves
Choreography: Busby Berkeley                           Cinematography: Sid Hickox
Starring: Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler and Guy Kibbee

Another outing by Warners’ musical team, with Busby Berkeley providing his distinctive choreography, Dames harkens back to earlier musicals like Broadway Melody from 1929 in that it’s a lot of fast-talking quips and visual gags rather than a more story-centered film like Footlight Parade, or pretty much any Astaire-Rogers film at RKO. It’s an odd film in many ways. While it revolves around putting on a musical show, as all of the films do, it shows very little of the backstage drama that usually informs these kinds of musicals. Most of the story is centered on tepid comedy antics than the music itself, and the result is it’s definitely not up to the standards of the usual Warners’ musicals, despite the musical numbers themselves directed by Berkeley. That said, however, even lesser Berkeley is still pretty impressive. The likely explanation for this is that film was kind of slapped together. Hal Wallis had trouble finding a director, and right up until shooting the cast had yet to be finalized. Meanwhile, Berkeley had attained complete autonomy at the studio and worked on his numbers entirely independent of the rest of the film. Because of that, one of his pre-code numbers had to be cut by Wallis because the producer had no intention of letting the Hays Office do it for him. So it stands to reason that the finished product feels cobbled together and never really gels.

The story opens by establishing the financial empire of Hugh Herbert. Guy Kibbee comes into the lobby looking for the boss, but he has to get through a phalanx of armed guards protecting Herbert from kidnappers. Kibbee has been brought there to be told that his wife--Herbert’s cousin--is going to be given ten million dollars inheritance before Herbert dies. The main stipulation of the endowment is that the family be morally upright, and that they have nothing to do with their other relations, namely actor Dick Powell. What none of them know is that Kibbee’s daughter, Ruby Keeler, has already fallen in love with Powell. Herbert is going to stay with the family for a month first, before he gives them the money, but Keeler’s mother, Zasu Pitts is afraid her daughter is going to ruin things by talking about Powell. Then, on his way back home, Kibbee finds his sleeping compartment on the train has been invaded by dancer Joan Blondell and is desperate to keep Herbert from finding out. Once Kibbee’s back home, Powell busts in and tries to get Herbert to finance the show he’s written but is chased out of the house. Finally, Blondell shows up with a plan to blackmail Kibbee in order to get the money to put on Powell’s show, which she does. Now all Kibbee has to do is keep Herbert from finding out, and Powell his uncle’s new morality league from shutting the show down.

While Ruby Keeler was a terrific dancer, she could hardly be said to be as good at acting and she’s a little tough to watch. But she doesn’t even dance in any of the Berkeley numbers. Dick Powell is just as bad, but in a completely different way as he hams it up over the top in every scene he’s in. Joan Blondell, meanwhile, doesn’t seem to have her heart in it at all, and since she was seven months pregnant at that time that may be why. The only bright spot in the entire cast is actually Guy Kibbee, who does a solid job with his comedy bits in a way that everyone else seems unable to replicate. There’s also a fun little cameo by actor Harry Holman who is most recognizable to movie buffs as Principal Partridge of Bedford Falls High School in It’s a Wonderful Life. And the dance director at Powell’s show, Charles Williams, is yet another actor from that film who played Cousin Eustace. The Berkeley numbers have the usual cast of thousands, with tons of extras and beautiful girls, and the kaleidoscope sequences are fantastic. The story itself likely comes out of the fact that by 1934 the Production Code was actually being enforced and in turn it forced Dames to adhere to morality--a major plot point in the film--that the better musicals didn’t have to. Delmer Daves’ story tries to poke fun at the idea, but it’s not strong enough to carry the entire film.

The songs in the film are actually pretty good, but they never went on to any great acclaim, with the exception of one that has since become a standard, “I Only Have Eyes for You.” One of the smart things the film does, is sort of preview the songs first, having Powell sing a verse and chorus to Keeler or Blondell, so that when they are presented in the show at the end of the film they are already familiar to the audience. Something similar happens with the cinematograph by Sid Hickox, and that is the first two-thirds of the film are shot fairly static like a typical thirties film, but as the final third begins there are a number of moving camera shots, some of them overhead, that really prepare the viewer for Berkeley’s filmed choreography at the end. It’s a nice touch. And honestly, Busby Berkeley’s numbers are the only real reason to watch the film. While the conceit is that the numbers are being performed onstage, once the camera moves onto the stage the entire show is purely cinematic. Even though the screenplay is pretty weak, Berkeley does some of his best work on the musical numbers, but it’s a shame that the whole production wasn’t stronger because in context they seem as weak as the story itself. In the end the Berkeley numbers are interesting, but little else in Dames is.

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