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Dames (1934)

     I have mentioned before that although I consider myself a fan of musicals, I am particular about which strike my fancy. I am going to now probably commit the greatest sin any “musical fan” can and say that Busby Berkeley musicals do not thrill me. Although Dames might be a lesser of the Berkeley movies to which his overly elaborate choreography and direction was contributed, I have also seen the Gold Digger movies and 42nd Street and my position stands.

       I particularly dislike the cast combination that appears in Dames and others. Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler and Joan Blondell would also appear in Gold Diggers of 1933  and Footlight Parade, both of which were released the previous year and both of which have Berkeley behind them. Nevermind that Blondell and Powell  or Powell and Keeler appear together in numerous other musicals. The logical assumption for this combination of actors would be that they have great chemistry and work so well together, but that reasoning is considerably flawed. Firstly, Blondell has a horrible sing-talk approach to music that makes her utterly unsuitable for the genre, in my opinion, excluding the fact that she is also not a dancer in the traditional sense. Keeler, who is an adept hoofer, apparently also cannot sing because I failed to hear her utter a line in Dames. Powell’s voice makes him suited only  for musicals because, frankly, he puts off such a weak, unmanly air that he could never carry a leading role in any other genre. The artist type of character suits him perfectly, which is why he repeatedly appears as stage actors, songwriters and playwriters. I have consumed too many of these crummy musicals in the past year or so and have had my fill of Powell and his failure to gain my sympathy.

     Dames is about Powell’s song and play writer who is the bad seed in a family of otherwise moral folks. His uncle looks down upon his profession, and opts to send a $10 million inheritance to another sect of the family, which includes Keeler’s character, who is 13th cousin to Powell, making their affair agreeable. The dilemma of the plot is to keep this rich uncle from discovering that Keeler will be in her boyfriend’s play, which of course indicates that her part of the family is equally sinful and unworthy of the money. Powell and Keeler really fail to pull of any sort of romantic feelings between their two characters. Keeler seems to affect such a smiling, emotionally barren facade as to suggest she’s on mind-numbing drugs. Powell, on the other hand, is too busy singing directly into the camera lens to convince the viewer he is not just going through the motions with his gal pal.

     Returning to my beef with Berkeley: Perhaps the trouble is that his creative work with concocting elaborate musical numbers that involved hundreds of dancers and difficult camerawork find themselves as the center of the film’s attention leaving the plot lines to suffer. His routines always seem to find themselves, probably deliberately, in movies about stage musicals. The problem is — and I’m sure I am over thinking this — that the routines he films in no way could be performed on a theater’s stage. The overwhelming number of people require far too much space to pull off a routine, the aerial cameraviews of creative dancer formations could never be seen by a theater audience member and the cutsie cuts between formations are the work of Hollywood editing, not something that could occur on the stage. Sure, I should just sit back and be in awe of the difficulty of the scenes Berkeley pulls off, but in telling the truth, I usually find myself bored. I appreciate that no one would even attempt this type of work in today’s movie industry, thanks to CGI, but hurry up already. This song is not very good and the nondancing has my mind wandering.


One Response

  1. I would disagree about Powell. Later in life, he made a convincing hard boiled detective, on radio and TV.

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