When The Jazz Singer introduced sound to Hollywood in 1927, it opened up the possibility of performing a musical on screen for the first time. As you’d expect, most filmmakers simply adapted the language of the stage musical. That’s what made Busby Berkeley such a legend, one that’s managed to stick in the popular memory nearly a century later: he invented a musical language that was unique to the movies. He choreographed the camera along with the dancers, making it as vital to the sequence as any of the soloists; he used edits to make seamless scene changes that would be impossible on stage, and even to transform his dancers into two-dimensional images. In “I Only Have Eyes for You,” he literalizes the lyric “They all disappear from view” with a dissolve to an empty street. And he did all this for musical numbers that the plot insists take place on stage!
This was standard for the early Old Hollywood musicals, which generally took place either in a fantasy world or the world of performers. A studio note on The Wizard of Oz may explain why – MGM inserted the “it was all a dream” ending because they believed their audience was “too sophisticated” to believe Oz was a real place. This becomes hilarious when you realize it means that these producers expected their “sophisticated” audiences to accept the reality of their other films, where everyone is beautiful, the streets are all clean, no one has to work, and the backgrounds all look suspiciously painted-on, as literal truth. But apparently the Land of Oz was a bridge too far, and so is characters bursting spontaneously into song.
Dames relaxes that convention with a few songs that take place outside the climactic performance – but, ironically, those straightforwardly shot, single-location numbers would fit in the most easily on stage! But the songs that are supposed to be performed in the theater become deeply surreal when you try to imagine the logistics. Each cycles through dozens of expensive sets in the space of a cut, which I’m sure didn’t go over well with the Stagehands’ Union. Every once in a while the camera pulls back to reveal the stage these scenes are supposedly performed on, and it’s obviously not big enough to even hold all the hundred-plus dancers we see in other scenes, let alone for them to move around. Many scenes only work because of the camera placement: in the title song, the dames’ bathroom mirrors are all lined up to simulate a corridor of mirrors reflecting each other into infinity. Then, the camera moves, and the mirrors line up as if they’re all reflecting each other from a different direction. Berkeley’s trademark was entirely unique to film: dozens of dancers seeming to form a single shape as seen from overhead. I found something called “The Busby Berkeley Disc” that’s nothing but the “good parts” from the movies he choreographed. And even seeing this same trick over and over again in succession, it still blew my mind every time. It’s brilliant because it could only work on film – seen from any other angle, it’d just be a mess. And now remember that it’s supposed to be a theater performance where no one but the stagehands in the rafters could see it that way!
All this is what Alfred Hitchcock called “fridge logic” – you don’t really think about it until after you leave the theater and are looking in the fridge for something to eat. Dames has a much more serious conflict of content and intent in its plot, such as it is. It’s framed as the story of a team of vivacious young actors who manage to put on a show by bleeding the money from a self-righteous old blowhard. What it actually ends up being is a Kafkaesque nightmare of some poor, schlubby everyman who’s stuck between a religious fanatic and a team of ruthless blackmailers who hook him for tens of thousands of dollars by threatening to ruin his life forever. Guy Kibbee plays Horace P. Hemingway (sharing a name with the author for no apparent reason), who gets called up by his eccentric cousin Ezra Ounce (a pun on the poet Ezra Pound for even less apparent reason), who wants to give Horace his $10 million share of his inheritance early if he can prove his moral quality. Unfortunately, a showgirl named Mabel (and how bizarre is it now to see someone named “Mabel” as the face of youth?) invites herself into his train compartment, and he makes her swear to secrecy so Ezra won’t think they slept together. Unfortunately, he does that on his business card, which allows Mabel to track him down and extort him into funding a play by his daughter’s lover, Jimmy.
I cringed my way all through this plot, and I think there’s a couple reasons why. First, we never see our hateful old sourpuss actually do anything really hateful. He goes along with Ezra’s nonsense, but who wouldn’t for that amount of money? We learn that he’s kept Jimmy and his daughter Barbara apart, but we never actually see him do anything objectionable until he catches Barbara backstage nearly an hour in. If he actually had slept with Mabel, we might have a plot, and you have to wonder if that was the case before the censors stepped in. The direction (by Ray Enright for the non-musical scenes) accidentally predisposes us to side with him. He’s the first character we see, and we never quite get used to seeing him as an antagonist instead of a protagonist. But most of all, Guy Kibbee’s acting is too good for its own good. He made a career of playing farcical fall guys, but if Dames is any indication, his true calling was in drama. His terror when Mabel materializes in his bed and threatens to call his wife in isn’t comically exaggerated – it’s real, soul-chilling terror. If the comedy works at all, it’s as cringe, and that wouldn’t exist for decades yet.
And while I worried my assessment might betray some unconscious sexism – oh, won’t someone think of the poor man manipulated by a shameless hussy? – the title song came in to remind me Dames was no feminist masterpiece itself.
What do you go for,
Go see a show for?
Tell the truth,
You go to see those beautiful dames…
Oh! Dames are temporary flames
You don’t recall their names,
The whole number is about the most perfect expression of the Male Gaze you could ask for, peeping in on all these interchangeable dames in the bed, in the bath, and getting dressed. It wouldn’t even be fair to say Berkeley’s treating women as sex objects – that would imply actually interacting with them instead of just leering. When Jimmy’s secretary announces a bunch of women are waiting to see him, he buzzes them all in at once, but I doubt he’s planning an orgy. Berkeley’s at least self-aware enough to gently mock his own voyeurism: a couple times, one of the dames sees the camera watching her and covers it with a sponge or a blast of hairspray to smooth one of those cinematic transitions. But maybe it reveals something insidious and ugly at the heart of the Berkeley aesthetic: women as replaceable moving parts to be manipulated into the complex spectacle of his machinelike choreography. But what a spectacle it is!
It’s the opposite of the genuinely romantic “I Only Have Eyes for You” – love of a single woman as a whole and unique human being vs interchangeably objectifying all of them. You can see that tension if you watch closely in the famous tracking shot through the dancers’ legs: they’re all strainingly trying to smile through the obvious discomfort, and even Berkeley’s literal machines fail him as the camera keeps going in and out of focus.
What we see of Jimmy suggests he’s closer to the “Dames” side of the spectrum, losing interest in Barbara once Mabel comes on the scene in a plot that’s pretty much forgotten by the time the show starts. When Barbara’s late, Mabel comes in as her understudy. Barbara’s eventually reinstated, which is a relief, because in her one musical performance as Mabel, Joan Blondell is hilariously, ear-bleedingly off-key, sounding more like a cartoon parody of bad singing than the star of a Hollywood tentpole musical.
I described Ezra Ounce as a religious fanatic, and yet another of the gaps between content and intent here is the absolute absence of any religious content in his moralizing besides some vague references to “sinning.” The Hays Production Code took effect in the middle of the year, and it’s easy to see Dames as a slap back at all the finger-waggers who were making Berkeley and Enright’s jobs so hard. But the real-life Ezra Ounces of the world were so powerful that Dames has to satirize them without including anything they might actually find offensive! That conflict of interest is most surreal in the newspaper description of Jimmy’s play that gets Ezra so ticked off: “Sweet and Hot, Jimmy Higgens’ torrid musical comedy, springs from the fountain of youth. Author, songwriters and actors are all youngsters.” Oh no! Not youngsters!
Ezra vows to take down the show, but he loses some of his resolve thanks to the new extra-strength formula for the “Dr. Silver’s Golden Elixir” he takes for every ailment – 75% alcohol, up from 55. That’s about twice as much as your average bottle of vodka and just a hair under Everclear, so you’d think it’d be more likely to stop his heart than change it, but whatever. Washington had just repealed prohibition the year before, and Dames has some fun by imagining the kind of hard-nosed moralizer who passed prohibition in the first place as an unwitting alcoholic thanks to his own health-consciousness. In the end, love conquers all. Wait, I misread my notes. That should say “alcohol.” Alcohol conquers all, since it is, after all,
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