Combustible Celluloid
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With: Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Zasu Pitts, Guy Kibbee, Hugh Herbert, Arthur Vinton, Phil Regan, Arthur Aylesworth, Johnny Arthur, Leila Bennett, Berton Churchill
Written by: Delmer Daves, based on a story by Robert Lord, Delmer Daves
Directed by: Ray Enright, Busby Berkeley
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 91
Date: 09/01/1934

Dames (1934)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Eyes for You

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

This little-seen, little-discussed Busby Berkeley musical is nonetheless a favorite of such lively filmmakers as Edgar Wright and Joel and Ethan Coen, and indeed, it still has the power to dazzle. The first two-thirds are by director Ray Enright, who manages some sly little Lubitsch-y moments of comedy. But then Berkeley takes over and throws in some truly astounding numbers that could only have been made for the camera. (The joke is that an audience is supposedly watching them on stage.)

The wealthy Ezra Ounce (Hugh Herbert) wishes to split some of his millions with his cousin Mathilda (Zasu Pitts) and her husband Horace (Guy Kibbee). But they must prove that they are of high moral fiber, and Ezra decides to live with them for a month to find out. Horace gets himself into hot water when an unemployed actress, Mabel (Joan Blondell) climbs into his bed on a train ride back to New York from Ezra's office. Meanwhile, Ezra's nephew Jimmy (Dick Powell) has been cut off because he has decided to become (gasp!) an actor. And Jimmy has been seeing Mathilda and Horace's daughter Barbara (Ruby Keeler). Eventually, a show must be put on, and Mabel and Jimmy raise the money by blackmailing Horace. But Barbara gets jealous of Mabel.

Actually, not much of this really matters. Most of the jokes come down to Ezra's organization for the lifting of America's morals, and watching them all come crashing down in a movie where hardly anyone seems to care much about anyone else's feelings. It's a totally carefree romp.

Berkeley's astonishing musical numbers, however, are the film's highlight, and he was at his peak here. He even takes a strange song about a girl who works washing and ironing clothes and turns it into a bizarre, quasi-sexual number. The much more memorable "I Only Have Eyes for You" is quite lovely, in a surreal way, with images of Keeler's face popping up everywhere, and then merging into other objects. And the "Beautiful Dames" song just has to be seen to be believed.

If you're one of those people who claims to hate musicals, you should still see this. I showed it to a friend who made the same claim and declared how awesome Dames was, adding that it wasn't so much a musical as it was geometry. (And if you see Berkeley's numbers, you'll understand.) The movie is available on DVD by itself, in a four-movie/two-DVD set of Berkeley musicals, and in a much bigger six-disc box set. It comes with featurettes, cartoons, and other goodies.

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