A Century of Film is Devin Wilger’s attempt to watch a film from every year between 1917 and today. Dames is the film we watched from 1934.
The opening of Dames is a delightful example of ratcheting absurdity. It begins simply, Horace P. Hemingway (Guy Kibbee) is at an office tower to see his cousin, Ezra Ounce (Hugh Herbert), who invited him to meet after 22 years. It has been established that Ezra is rich, via a succession of wall plaques, and Horace begins by asking for directions to Ezra’s office. Except the sequence keeps going, and going, as Horace is directed to different elevators, different secretaries, given quizzes - Kibbee’s delivery of the line “she has hair now” when describing his daughter is an unexpected laugh - before finally meeting his cousin. The sequence takes what could be a dry establishing sequence and makes it funny by making it long and weird. It also establishes that Dames might be a lightweight comedy musical, but it is one that, like its antagonist, can afford to be eccentric.
Ezra is one of those old school moralists who hates everything that could potentially give anyone joy, and that extends to musicals. This is why he is disinheriting his other cousin, Jimmy (Dick Powell) who has the gall to want to make it on the stage. Jimmy happens to be dating Barbara, Horace’s daughter, played by Ruby Keeler. The fact that cousins are dating is brought up and immediately brushed off - they’re only 13th cousins - but remains kind of distracting anyway. The other woman in the film - Mabel, played by Joan Blondell - threatens to complicate matters, but she secures financing for Jimmy’s big breakout play mostly by showing up in Horace’s bed all the time. She is then forgotten after the first number of the show within a show, because she functioned mostly as a means to an end rather than a character.
Dames delights in poking holes in its characters, such as the staunch moralist Ezra only believing in the medicinal properties of Dr. Silver’s Golden Elixer, which is mostly alcohol - initially 53 per cent, increasing to 79 per cent. The plot, which is pretty inconsequential all around, is certainly of it’s time - one can tell that everyone behind the camera was pretty annoyed by the introduction of the Hayes Code, and it’s clear that the villain being an alcoholic bully is a none too subtle dig at the censorship of the time. That everyone is reformed by a bit of song and dance - and extra strength medicine - is an interesting twist on the idea, maybe it censorship wouldn’t be so bad if these folks could let loose, have a little fun, and possibly start a riot.
While I’ve spent three paragraphs talking about it, the plot isn’t really why you might want to watch Dames, though it’s more entertaining than I expected and certainly worth watching. It’s the musical that serves as the film’s last half hour that makes it. That’s because the show-within-a-show was made by Busby Berkeley, who was at the cutting edge of making memorable musical sequences even if, in the context of the film, they didn’t make much sense - there is no way anything that happens on screen here would have made sense as a Broadway musical number, both because his sets are far larger than any stage and because he frequently employs the camera as an extra dancer. The camera flies through the legs of the dancers, pulls out to allow them to make kaleidoscopic images with their bodies. His imagery is most notable when it takes a mass of coordinated dancers and gets them to create new and unexpected images. Here, he uses special effects to make the images something very strange - at one point dancers use pictures to make a giant face of Keeler, and as the camera zooms into her eye the pupil opens and Keeler exits her own face, before walking into a mirror frame, which is picked up by another dancer. It’s something that you can only do on film, and the delight of watching a Berkeley dance sequence is that you’re going to see something completely unique.
The show in the film, Sweet and Hot, doesn’t make much sense but we only get the briefest glimpses of it, all big dance sequences. The first has Blondell singing about falling for a man after washing his long underwear, and dancing with it. It’s a warm-up and as a result is not too out there, apart from the whole “dancing with underwear” thing. The second, has Powell singing “I Only Have Eyes for You” to Keeler as they make their way through New York, before it goes to a totally mad and abstract sequence featuring Keeler’s disembodied head. The finale, Dames, just has a lot of women, mostly getting ready for work but eventually doing large, choreographed numbers that are notable largely for their spectacle, before Powell’s head bursts through the image in a shot that’s inspired and incredibly weird. The numbers are all something special, and are only like other Berkeley dance sequences, his willingness to completely break with reality to do something cool is one of his signatures.
Yet somehow, the best sequence is earlier in the film, where Powell sings “I Only Have Eyes for You” on a boat, inspiring other couples on the boat to embrace, and that sequence doesn’t have Berkeley’s signature razzle dazzle. Instead, it’s got emotional resonance, and maybe that’s an illustration of Berkeley’s flaws as a choreographer. In his desire to thrill us with the actions of a stage full of dancers, he forgets about emotions, they’re just cogs in a dance machine rather than people, while the earlier sequence is all about people. But nothing else is like a Busby Berkeley musical number, and this film has ample evidence of that.
Nobody is making films like Dames today, but that’s not to say you don’t see stuff like it all the time - the closest we get to a modern Busby Berkeley musical is something like the opening ceremonies for the Olympic games. But even those are constrained to the stage in a way that Berkeley never was, and as a result can’t do the same things he did with a camera. His films weren’t like much else, which is why they’re still special.
Next up, we meet the dangerous sounding Captain Blood.