Alice Faye doesn’t demonstrate much dramatic range in Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here (1943). But then, she’s not asked to: Faye is here mostly for her songbird’s voice, and between numbers her starring role is reduced to romantic white noise. She falls for a soldier, then misses her soldier, then (through a series of transparently contrived misunderstandings) perceives a betrayal and feels stung by it. Of course this is all patched up with ungodly speed during the film’s climax, but in the meantime Faye wrings some teary pathos out of it all. She’s really good at that, too. Her drama may be strictly interstitial, but she nails every last note of homefront yearning.
The film’s true star, second-billed though she may be, is Brazil’s own Carmen Miranda. Whether she’s dancing the samba or stealing scenes, everything about her is exaggerated: her fruit drag, her comic mugging, her accent. Women of color were nearly nonexistent in the films of 1940s Hollywood, but Miranda’s flamboyance and exoticism make her a one-woman spectacle; an excessive mise-en-scène unto herself. Her performance is a racialized manifestation of Berkeley’s own over-the-top visual style, and as such it eclipses the work of the white leads. It taps into the seeming obsession with Brazil that seized the country in wartime—in fact, Miranda’s “Dorita” could be the distaff counterpart to José Carioca, the fast-talking parrot introduced in Disney’s Saludos Amigos (1942). (Like Dorita, José is tightly associated with the song “Aquarela do Brasil.”)
Miranda acts as the centerpiece for Berkeley’s Technicolor circus, a world that contracts and expands, that drifts between physicality and abstraction. His camera amplifies the already expansive choreography, often beggaring belief with the fluidity and duration of its crane shots. (Only a pair of cuts in the film’s first seven minutes!) As always with Busby Berkeley, the dance routines start out implausible and quickly ditch narrative altogether for the joys of pure geometry. They become macrocosms, sometimes literal kaleidoscopes, lacking purpose or explanation but still so weird, so ambitious, so beautiful. The Gang’s All Here may acknowledge the realities of war—the rationing, the heartbreak—but these impossible dances let the viewer disappear into the unreality of art.