Hi all, sorry for the delay in posting. I’ve been dealing with a few abrupt household issues that prevented me from keeping up with everything, so bear with me as it’ll take a few days to get back on schedule.
Returning to the world of Busby Berkeley, I believe I’ve found my least favorite movie: Dames. The plot, musical numbers, and everything else is right in the title: women. That’s generally acceptable when you have a cast that’s composed of almost everyone from Gold Diggers of 1933; really, this film shouldn’t have any room for error. However, the plot is thin yet has ambitions of being grander, and the musical numbers aren’t nearly as inspired or innovative as in the past. Part of this could be burnout on Berkeley‘s part combined with a desire to top himself. I put part of the blame on screenwriter Delmar Daves, who must believe that Berkeley’s philosophy is to create a spotlight for half-naked women.
Millionaire businessman Ezra Ounce (Hugh Herbert) is determined to remove filth from the entertainment world, especially Broadway shows. When the outcast of the family, Jimmy (Dick Powell) plans on putting on a show filled with elements Ezra is against, Ounce decides to leave his fortune to his niece, Barbara (Ruby Keeler). Unfortunately, Jimmy and Barbara are in a relationship, and so the fates align to have Ezra unintentionally finance the production.
Considering the talent transferring from Gold Diggers to this, the movie is an actor’s delight. Joan Blondell is good, albeit reduced into being the feisty blonde leading lady (who conveniently is placed as the lead at the last second, probably because Keeler couldn’t sing), and nothing more; oh, she does have a racy moment where she’s naked in a bed which only makes Guy Kibbe’s line, “No nudity at all, I’m terribly disappointed. Agreeably, of course” funnier! Blondell is relegated to the back, and being the source of contention between Jimmy and Barbara. She never fully becomes a third leg in a love triangle, nor is she other than a songstress in the last act. Ruby Keeler was darling in Gold Diggers, but here she reverts back to being an awkward stick in the mud possessing little talent of note. Yes, there’s an entire dance built around her, complete with bizarre floating cutouts of Keeler’s face, but she’s written with little other than being perfect for Jimmy. There’s zero depth to her character, and by the end I didn’t find any connection to her because I didn’t know her (I didn’t feel I knew any of the characters other than their one-note roles within the narrative). Her character’s central place within the show appears to be pure narcissism on Jimmy’s part.
The scene stealer continues to be character actor Guy Kibbee, moving from the shadows of side character to supporting actor. He’s introduced going to visit Ezra Ounce, a man with enough security to make you believe you’re entering Fort Knox. Kibbee’s flustered, stammering performance isn’t as confident as Peabody in Gold Diggers, but he continues to work wonders with his lines. Upon mentioning that Ezra saw Barbara as a bald baby, he cheers the fact “She was born bald…She’s got hair now!” I did have to wonder where Ounce found a recent picture of Barbara, though, for his family tree if he hasn’t seen her since her birth.
The main failure with Dames are the songs. Songs such as “I Only Have Eyes for You” and “You Oughta Be in Pictures” are toe-tappers, but Jimmy ends up singing the first song to Barbara outside of the production. In Gold Diggers, he casually sings to Barbara from across a courtyard while doing work on the piano; it was natural to his daily routine. Here, Jimmy spontaneously sings in crowded areas, and even has a complete band with him! By moving the songs outside of the production, the actual production itself feels uninspired and clearly a way to placate Berkeley’s epic dance routines. Also, there’s no explanation for the reason why no one acknowledges Jimmy’s spontaneous bursting into song, and removes any semblance of reality. Dames becomes another copycat musical; an imitator of the Berkeley formula. Berkeley’s geometry in motion is good, the Barbara song aside, but there’s no real “wow” moment like in Gold Diggers. The title song just shows the one-track mind of Jimmy and the movie: to get women in skimpy clothes. There’s little insight or real artistry in the “Dames” song and it just appears to be a fashion show.
For a movie meant to be about attempts at censorship, and with a title like Dames to boot, the movie is rather tame. The actors aren’t given nearly the complexity within their roles and are all one-note; the plot is wafer thin, and the movie becomes a run-of-the-mill musical with characters bursting into song. It’s an okay movie with another side-splitting performance by Guy Kibbee, but it’s content to tread water.
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