When we think of the American musical, our collective consciousness will immediately race to Stanley Donen and Gene Kelly, but choreographer turned director Busby Berkeley is the flamboyant, wildcard auteur of the genre. After organising military parades as an army officer in the First World War, he made his name as the creator of some of the most astonishing set pieces in cinema with an unrivalled trio of 1933 pre-Code musicals; The Gold Diggers of 1933, Footlight Parade and 42nd Bacon Street, Berkeley managed to turn the chorus line into an art form. The sequences were sublime but they also tapped into the social issues of the day, from the men lost to war to the depths of The Great Depression.
With The Gang’s All Here (1943) – Berkeley’s first Technicolor picture – the director reached his own (and arguably the genre’s) creative apex. Loaned to 20th Century Fox from Arthur Freed’s MGM stable, Berkeley used his newfound artistic freedom to let loose upon the screen, fashioning a dazzling masterpiece; a delirious, medium-pushing picture of infallible imagination that worked as a tonic for a nation in the throes of yet another war. The film’s plot centres around all-American soldier Andy Mason’s (James Ellison) budding romance with up-and-coming Broadway stage star Edie Allen (Alice Faye). There may not be any songs to match the calibre of We’re in the Money or Remember My Forgotten Man, but Berkeley more than makes up for it with the stunning array of dance numbers.
The legendary The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat (pictured above) remains a deliciously illicit highlight, with phallic bananas wielded with winking aplomb by hoards of chorus girls. The censors were inevitably outraged, but Berkeley was a pro at the art of innuendo; striking the right balance between the filth and the flurry. Benny Goodman and his band bring some finger-clicking Hit Parade swagger, grounding Berkeley’s more outlandish impulses. But the contrasting styles actually serve to elevate the maestro’s alchemic concoctions. The director’s camera, often craned, swings and swoops over the action. As it tilts and whirls, his surrealist sets come alive. The regimented chorus lines are anchored by commanding lead turns from Carmen Miranda and Faye respectively, and Berkeley expertly hops from chorus to solo with rhapsodic flair. The beauty and audacity of the numbers will leave audiences breathless. From the South Pacific to the New York stage, The Gang’s All Here is the height of cinematic ecstasy.