Dames (1934). 91 minutes. Directed by Ray Enright. Musical direction by Busby Berkeley. Starring Dick Powell (as Jimmy Higgins), Ruby Keeler (as Barbara Hemingway), Joan Blondell (as Mabel Anderson), ZaSu Pitts (as Matilda Ounce Hemingway), Guy Kibbee (as Horace Peter Hemingway), and Hugh Herbert (as Ezra Ounce). Music and lyrics by Harry Warren and Al Dubin.
Warner Bros. could have called this movie Gold Diggers of 1934 and its title would have made at least as much sense as the one they settled on. Much like the Gold Diggers movies, which I have reviewed previously (here and here), Dames focuses on characters who scheme to get their hands on an impressive sum of money and the way their lives intertwine with characters who are plotting to raise funds to put on a spectacular musical — all played by the usual Busby Berkeley suspects. The first set of schemers is Matilda and Horace Hemingway, who stand to inherit millions of dollars from wealthy uncle Ezra Ounce if they can prove to him that they lead an upright and moral life. His campaign to purge the United States of its moral turpitude brings him to New York City where Matilda and Horace, who stand to gain so much from Ezra financially, also live. Unfortunately, Ezra develops a horrible case of the hiccups and insists that the only thing that can cure them is a tonic, later revealed to be mostly alcohol, that he has shipped to him in crates from Upstate. Soon Ezra, Matilda, and Horace are downing the stuff in massive quantities.
Uncle Ezra cannot tolerate the theater and is outraged to learn that Matilda and Horace’s daughter Barbara intends to star in her beau Jimmy’s new show; Jimmy is Barbara’s extremely distant cousin and one of Ezra’s many detested prospective heirs. Horace, however, has a hard time reprimanding his daughter or her boyfriend for their theatrical ambitions as he is secretly the primary backer of their endeavor, having become the unfortunate victim of blackmail. The actress Mabel Anderson has caught Horace in a compromising position on board a sleeper train, and she drains him of a considerable sum in order to finance Jimmy’s production. The story therefore hinges on a secret vulnerability that renders the father an inappropriate flag waiver for the cause of moral uprightness. Of course, Uncle Ezra’s constant resorting to the alcohol-laden tonic as a hiccup cure does a nice job of destroying many of his ambitions in that direction as well. The Gold Diggers movies poke fun at the relationships between the classes; this one also needles at the ethical pretensions of social reformers.
Drunk as skunks, Ezra, Horace, and Matilda attend the opening night of Jimmy’s big show. Ostensibly they are there to criticize it, but the performances eventually win them over. Opening night consists of three numbers: “The Girl at the Ironing Board,” an extremely silly production in which Mabel dances around with nightshirts that are wired to move like men; “I Only Have Eyes for You,” a strange love song from Jimmy to Barbara; and “Dames,” which celebrates the showgirl in all her buxom beauty. Each of these numbers is bewildering in its own typically Berkeleyan way.
The “I Only Have Eyes for You” production is especially perplexing. As soon as the overall revue begins, we realize that it is not possible that the theatrical audience in the movie could experience any of the musical numbers as we, the movie viewers, do, given the complexity and improbability of the staging and camera work. Still, it is easy to think that the “Eyes” number has become completely detached from the musical revue and exists outside of the stage production. At the start, we see Ruby Keeler (Barbara) near the curtains off to one side of the stage. Her parents and uncle notice her from their theater box and register their shame at seeing their daughter as “a painted actress.” Then the film cuts to a street scene. It certainly appears that we are outside of the theater where the performance is taking place, but if one observes carefully, the parting of a curtain over this scene is quick but discernible, indicating that what we are watching, however implausibly, is a part of the stage show. I say “implausibly” because what we see is a fully functioning street with real automotive traffic going by. Keeler appears in front of the theater dressed in the same ensemble she wore at the side of the stage — she is apparently in costume, but it would be hard to tell if not for the curtain part — and Dick Powell (Jimmy) is cheerily selling tickets at the ticket booth, presumably to the very show that we are watching now. He sings snippets of “I Only Have Eyes for You,” and when he sells his last ticket, he joins up with Keeler, and the two of them walk to the subway.
This is especially weird because if we understand that the street scene is part of the show, then the film leads us to believe that there are two stages: the first is the stage inside of the building where Powell has been selling tickets, and the second is the very street that Powell and Keeler are standing on, even though it is clearly impossible for the street scene to be contained within a theater. This means that there is both a theoretical audience inside of the theatrical facade and the “real” audience that is watching Keeler and Powell in the street scene, as well as us, the movie theater audience, who are also watching the film. The result is a tremendous amplification of the audience and the subjects: we are three times larger than we normally are when we watch a movie, and Keeler and Powell are being watched three times over. But then we see the two of them walk away from the theater toward the subway to sing a song about not caring about anyone or anything that is nearby, which would seem to include not caring about us. As soon as they begin to sing, the lyrics deflate the complex setting.
Sitting in a subway train, Powell sings to Keeler, expressing in fairly repetitive lyrics that he “only has eyes for her.” He begins to imagine her taking part in the ads that adorn the train car walls. The camera zooms in on one such ad with a static image of Keeler substituted over it, and suddenly the production erupts into one of the most bizarre musical numbers I have ever seen. We transition into an enormous hanger of some kind where giant paper Keeler faces move around in a synchronized dance. Then the film segues into another scene, where dozens of women dressed and styled as Keeler dance up, down, and around a ferris wheel set. The camera cuts in and out of the set and at choice moments reveals Keeler dancing by — the real Keeler, and not just one of the women made up to look like her. In this way, we come to believe that possibly some special effect is being used to duplicate Keeler throughout the set, although careful study reveals this to be only an illusion. Eventually the dancing ladies turn over to reveal that each one carries a piece of a picture of Keeler’s face on her backside (I’m not sure if this is supposed to be flattering or not), and they assemble themselves into a large Keeler portrait. The camera closes up on the assembled Keeler eye, from which Keeler herself emerges, still smiling. At this point a strange undercurrent to the piece emerges that seems inadvertently to reveal how awkward and uncomfortable the harmless but obsessive love of the lyrics is. Keeler is a slightly awkward person, and her smile seems somewhat uncomfortable, so to watch her appear and reappear smiling in a slightly painful way suggests to me that being the center of attention of someone’s unceasing gaze is actually a difficult experience.
One of the most important things that happens in any Busby Berkeley musical sequence occurs in this routine when Dick Powell’s singing becomes very faint, almost like background noise. His voice takes on this effect when he and Keeler awaken back on the empty subway train and he carries her through the rainy train yard. As the camera pulls out, we see him at the far right corner of the screen in front of rows of stationary trains and their tracks. For a moment, as the camera moves away from him, it seems as though he and his increasingly small voice may disappear. There is something so beautiful in this moment: it is as if the two lovers, Keeler and Powell, are very tiny and insignificant in the grand of scheme of things, in this enormous and wet train yard, by comparison with the mammoth and complex routines we have seen on the ferris wheel set. Their love is not all grandeur and effects; it is actually something humble and enduring, something that exists in spite of the stage show and its strange conceptual dances, and also beyond the world outside of the stage show with its comedies of inheritances and social change.
The peeling away of layers in front of the theater at the beginning of the sequence is mirrored in this final, beautiful deflation. Of course, it is one moment in the middle of a series of fantastically large musical productions. But it would be a shame if Busby Berkeley’s choreography were to be remembered solely for the kaleidoscopic marvels that we are so often drawn to and rightly celebrate. He was also capable of creating small, tender moments within his chosen milieu of the phenomenally spectacular.