Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

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March 10, 2007

Carmen Miranda
Photo: 20th Century Fox Studios

Originally, I was going to write a post about last Thursday’s Denyce Graves recital at Royce Hall. I was going to say something to the effect of how the experience was like visiting your childhood hometown years later to find the overwhelming sense of loving nostalgia mixed with the sad realization that everything has changed and not for the better. But I had a much more exciting experience last night that I’ve decided would be more worthy of comment.

Photo: 20th Century Fox Studios

A day I have waited for for many years finally arrived in the form of a DVD of one of my favorite, and I would argue one of the best, films long out-of-print. You can keep your Citizen Kane’s and your Wizard of Oz’ – I’ll take The Gang’s All Here any day of the week. For those of you unfortunate enough to not be acquainted with this legendary film, it’s a 1943 20th Century Fox musical that encapsulates everything one would expect and hope for of a film from this period. I have watched a VHS copy of this film recorded from an American Movie Classics (before they started to suck) broadcast sometime in the early 90s more times than I care to admit. To see it in a restored version in all its Technicolor glory was overwhelming. The Gang’s All Here has a dream cast: Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda play New York City nightclub stars. Faye’s Eadie Allen falls for soon-to-be-shipped-overseas Sergeant Andy Mason (played by James Ellison). However, when he returns home a hero, complications ensue when Eadie discovers her hero has another pre-war sweetheart. All of this is played for comic effect and played against a backdrop of the nightclub performers' putting on an out-of-town benefit to (what else?) sell war bonds to the upper crust in Westchester.

Carmen Miranda and Tony DeMarco
Photo: 20th Century Fox Studios

The charms of this film are almost too many to count. Directed by Busby Berkeley, it is filled with extravagant and outrageous production numbers including the big finale – an homage to the polka-dot. (“While the polka is passé, the polka-dot is here to stay…”) Alice Faye and Carmen Miranda were at an apex and for better and worse many of the images here are the ones North America will most remember Miranda for, including “The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat” and “Brazil”. Faye, who has always been underrated, shines. She may not have the most impressive pipes in the world, but she sells these songs and injects what could have been a rather static part with some real emotion.

Alice Faye
Photo: 20th Century Fox Studios

If this weren’t enough, the club is fortunate enough to have Benny Goodman’s band as its house orchestra and he also has two numbers including the fantastic “Paducah,” a song celebrating the Kentucky town that, once heard, will never leave your head. And did I mention Charlotte Greenwood and Edward Everett Horton? Two class A performances from genius comic Hollywood character actors.

Charlotte Greenwood and Edward Everett Horton
Photo: 20th Century Fox Studios

The film is sublime. On the one hand, it is an upbeat commercial that Hollywood made for the WWII effort complete with a war bonds pitch and a paean to the “good-neighbor policy.” On the other hand it is a hallucinatory LSD trip functioning on its own internal logic. It is both nostalgic and forward thinking and has surprisingly good music overall. Lucky for us, it is now available on DVD in both a single format and packaged with three other Alice Faye classics in a box set. Now’s your chance, get out and buy it.

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