From March 2015 to April 2017, I was writing the monthly Teen Scene column for the website ClassicFlix. My objective was to promote classic films among teenagers and young adults. Due to the establishing of a new version of the website, it’s now more difficult to access to the old version and read the reviews. But, I’m allowed to publish my reviews on my blog 30 days after they had been published on ClassicFlix! So, I decided to do so as you could have an easy access to them. If you are not a teenager, it doesn’t matter! I’m sure you can enjoy them just the same! My twenty-fourth review was for the 1934s classic Dames directed by Ray Enright and Busby Berkeley. Enjoy!
Musicals from the 1930s are some of the most significant ones to see. Why? Because they initiated the genre into the world of cinema. The first talking picture, The Jazz Singer, was released in 1927, but the first all-talking, all singing picture was The Broadway Melody (1929), which won an Academy Award for Best Picture. Early Hollywood musicals were mainly backstage musicals, films about the creation of a musical review. A key figure of those films is Busby Berkeley, one of the most inventive choreographers in movie history and a Berkeley film nobody should miss is 1934’s Dames.
Dames creates opposition between the snobbish high society and the creative stage world. Millionaire Ezra Ounce (Hugh Herbert) believes in good American morals and visits his cousin Matilda Hemingway (ZaSu Pitts) and her husband Horace (Guy Kibbee) who lives in New-York City. Ezra has decided to will an important part of his fortune to the family, but he has to make sure they are morally good according to his principles.
Their daughter Barbara (Ruby Keeler) isn’t much thrilled by the idea as cousin Ezra decides to disinherit her love interest and 13th cousin Jimmy Higgens (Dick Powell). Ezra doesn’t approve of Higgens’ “sinful” artistic career. Ruby, to her parent’s despair, also wishes to have a career in the musical world as a dancer. Meanwhile, Horace has to deal with Mabel (Joan Blondell), a showgirl, who might endanger his status as a good moral man.
As we are not immediately introduced to Berkeley’s choreography or a song at the beginning of the film, what first grabs our attention is its hilarity. Dames isn’t only a musical, it’s a musical comedy. The film contains a bunch of dynamic comic situations that keep the spectator’s interest, such as the first scene where Horace goes to meet Ezra in his office for an appointment. He passes through several people and security measures to finally get to him. We then see during his last appointment he’s stayed only a few minutes.
Comedies in the ’30s have a touch of spontaneous humor that makes the film pleasant to watch, no matter what.
In the same vein, the characters in Dames are well-balanced and portrayed in a way to amuse us. Some are unwittingly funny and others are on purpose which creates an interesting opposition and the serious aspects of the film are not to be taken to the first degree. As a matter of fact, they lose all credibility, in a good way.
The force of Dames‘ casting mainly resides in the supporting actors. While Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell are lovely together and easily win our sympathy, the film wouldn’t have been the same without ZaSu Pitts, Guy Kibbee, Joan Blondell, Hugh Herbert and Arthur Vinton, who plays cousin Ezra’s bodyguard. He’s always sleeping, and more than ready to fire his gun (never on someone) if he is called to duty. He is unforgettable and with his height and clumsy manners he remains one of the most underappreciated performers of the lot.
ZaSu Pitts, the queen of classic character actresses, chooses the perfect mannerisms to suit her character, a woman who worries too much. Joan Blondell, with her “pep” and self-assurance, is the perfect pre-Code figure. Guy Kibbee knows how to choose the right facial expressions and tone, most of the time a confused one, to match his character as a man who deals with several problems. Finally, Hugh Herbert, despite playing a serious character, ends up being a clown, initiated by unstoppable hiccups. It’s frankly hard to say who is Dames’ best character because they all have their own distinct personality and the actors who portray them do a highly convincing job.
Dames‘ songs are lovely and, being part of a single show, they fit well together, but might not be the most memorable ones of the 1930s. Dames’ real artistic creativity resides in Busby Berkeley’s choreographies, the most impressive being the one created for the songs “I Only Have Eyes for You” and the title number. The choreographer creates spectacular kaleidoscopes with the dancers, filmed in a bird’s eyes point of view, create a better visual effect. Each part of a musical number is introduced in a way that leaves us speechless.
The illusions are amazing and because of that Dames is a film full of surprises. Try to see Dames sequence on a big screen. The choreography is a real masterpiece and should be praised for their glamour, due to the beautiful, luminous faces of the dancers, their radiant smiles, and beautiful eyes, as well as Orry-Kelly’s lightweight costumes.
Dames is a film that doesn’t need to be watched, but needs to be lived. Let yourself be entertained by the numerous gags and mesmerized by its visual musicality.