The Grumpy 1930s Musical

Joan Blondell puts Guy Kibbee in an awkward situation. Image: Pinterest

Did you ever watch a movie that seems, well, irritable – like it woke up on the wrong side of the bed?

That’s how we feel about Dames, a musical comedy from 1934. This film is about a rich industrialist (Hugh Herbert) who wants to give $10 million to his extended family, but! He thinks theatre productions are immoral, and he refuses to give his money to anyone associated with theatre folk.

The movie opens as Herbert summons a relative (Guy Kibbee) and declares he’s visiting the family to see if they’re Worthy of the $10 million. You can guess the rest: Kibbee’s daughter (Ruby Keeler) is dating Broadway wannabe Dick Powell; meanwhile, Kibbee is blackmailed into funding Powell’s show.

This family is very busy keeping these secrets, because $10 million was – and still is – a lot of purchasing power. You can understand their predicament.

However.

Despite the witty lines and amusing situations, these people are unlikeable. Powell comes across as a glib opportunist, while Keeler’s character seems to have trouble Keeping Up. Joan Blondell‘s role is the biggest disappointment of all; there is none of her trademark charm.

Now, this is not the actors’ fault. They’ve made the most of the script, which feels like a thinly-veiled dig at the newly-enforced Production Code. The film’s message appears to be: Unsophisticated people deserve to be blackmailed, but they’ll be glad for it later.

Thankfully, we have Busby Berkeley dance sequences to dilute things, although there are some odd goings-on here, too.

A dance sequence with giant cardboard heads. Image: YouTube

Busby Berkeley was probably the most influential musical choreographer in 1930s’ Hollywood. According to the website Dance Heritage Collection, “Berkeley quickly learned and invented cinematic techniques, created unusual camera angles, and incorporated rolling platforms, mirrors, and wide-angle lens to maximize space and impact in his musical numbers.”

In Dames, Berkeley’s musical sequences do not advance the story; they are works of musical art to be enjoyed for their own sake.

The first musical number takes place in a 19th century commercial laundry, where Blondell serenades the pyjamas and long underwear hanging on a clothesline. It’s meant to be amusing – “And when I’m off on Sundays, I miss all these undies” – but not even she can glamourize the job of a laundress.

Berkeley’s next sequence is set to the famous song “I Only Have Eyes for You“, featuring Ruby Keeler cardboard cutout heads. (See above photo.) Dancers, sporting Ruby Keeler hairdos and dresses, move the large heads in different patterns. All this culminates in the women kneeling down and reorganizing their skirts to create one massive Ruby Keeler head.

It’s a weird piece of business. Let’s never mention it again.

How to apply lipstick, Busby Berkeley style. Image: The Paris Apartment

The last musical number in Dames is an engineering marvel.

It starts as a board meeting, where men argue about staging a Broadway play. Powell interrupts them with, “Dames are necessary to show business. What good’s a show without you beautiful dames?”

And here come the Dames, in an over-the-top Berkeley extravaganza that details their morning routines. The Dames, two to a bed, awake and greet the day before enjoying a bath with mountains of bubbles. Next they sit at dressing tables, applying powder and lipstick, then they walk to the theatre and march through multiple Stage Doors.

Here Berkeley arranges the Dames in dizzying patterns. Cameras move around and over the Dames effortlessly, as they form kaleidoscopes with military precision. It’s dazzling, but, by the time it ends, you wonder if the Dames are thinking, “The things a gal has to do to pay the rent.”

Ultimately, few issues are solved in this film: A stage show is produced; a family receives an inheritance; and a man changes his mind about the theatre. There would be little to recommend Dames, if it weren’t for the incredible Busby Berkeley spectacles.

This is part of THE BUSBY BERKELEY BLOGATHON hosted by Hometowns to Hollywood.

Dames: starring Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler. Directed by Ray Enright & Busby Berkeley. Written by Delmer Daves. Warner Bros., B&W, 1934, 91 mins.

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29 comments

  1. A splendid account, Ruth, of a movie that’s never come my way.

    Disappointing to hear that even Blondell couldn’t salvage the screenplay! And she’d be the big draw for me here — as you might have guessed, I’m not much of a one for Busby Berkeley musicals.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joan Blondell doesn’t have much screen time in this film, and her character is disappointing. Our Joan does her best, but I wonder if maybe a Lilyan Tashman or Helen Vinson would have been better in this role?

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  2. “In Dames, Berkeley’s musical sequences do not advance the story; they are works of musical art to be enjoyed for their own sake.” That’s a insightful observation and one of the reasons I admire Busby “engineering” marvels, while not loving them in the same way as an Astaire-Rogers number. Of course, it’s apples and oranges as they say!

    Liked by 3 people

      • Perhaps the biggest difference between Astaire-Rogers and most 30s musicals is that, while they are all more fluff than substance, Astaire-Rogers films have a certain charm, witty sophistication, and cleverness of storyline that transcend believability and do not need Busby Berkeley-like extravaganzas for audience appeal. You can ‘lose yourself’ in an Astaire-Rogers film in a way that you can do in few other 30s musicals.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. I appreciate the post on “Dames”! Several years ago, I bought a six disc Busby Berkeley set and watched everything but “Dames”! I had always heard it was the weakest link in the chain of all the Berkeley WB musicals, and I pushed it to the bottom of my play list. Based on the excellent post, and the interesting comments posted my curiosity was piqued!

    With a jaundiced eye (!), I watched the film and was pleasantly surprised! Oftentimes this is the result when I have low expectations for something. Because I have such a positive association with Kibbee, Keeler, Powell, Blondell, Herbert, and Pitts, I enjoyed seeing the actors together once again. It’s almost a sense of comfort for me to see the majority of them all together in a series of films—like old friends somehow. I would probably use words such as “cute”, “uplifting”, and “delightful” to describe “Dames”. If I stacked it up next to the other WB Berkeley musicals in the series, it might bode an unfavorable comparison. However, as a stand-alone film, and the subjective mood I was in today, I was favorably predisposed to the film.

    I had to chuckle though about the play within the film. I’m not sure what the story-line of Powell’s character’s play is! It goes from the strange song about the laundress loving strangers’ underwear in the laundry (?), to Powell and Keeler in the subway, to Joan Blondell strutting her stuff in the last number we see before bedlam breaks out!

    If anyone gets the chance to see “Dames” on the six disc set I bought, the extras on the “Dames” disc are very fun. You will see a featurette called “Busby Berkeley’s Kaleidoscopic Eyes”, 3 featurettes—“And She Learned About Dames”, the early technicolor “Good Morning, Eve”, “Melody Master: Don Redman and His Orchestra”, 2 vintage WB cartoons—“I Only Have Eyes for You”, “Those Beautiful Dames”, audio only of “Direct From Hollywood Radio Promo”, and the film’s trailer.

    Once again, thank you for letting me comment in a long-winded way. Your blog motivates me to see the films you discuss, and I always have an enjoyable and educational experience. Keep ’em coming! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’m so glad to hear you enjoyed it – and I agree re: the storyline in Powell’s stage production is a bit nebulous. It’s hard to imagine a theme that brings these diverse dance sequences together… For awhile I wondered if it was the evolution of women’s roles in society??

      Thanks for the recommendation re: Featurettes on the 6-disc set. They sound terrific!

      Like

  4. To be honest, I don’t remember much about Dames (which is probably a good thing). I did have one funny moment, though, in one of my college classes when we watched the “I Only Have Eyes for You” number. None of my classmates had ever seen anything Busby Berkeley and they were all simultaneously confused and intrigued. That’s Berkeley for you!

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I’ve been meaning to watch this film since I saw the many heads being showcased in the documentary That’s Dancing! I’m happy this film has escaped me so far. I have the impression this film is better if we are drunk while watching it – or at least live-tweeting with the #TCMParty gagn so we can make fun of the ridiculousness.
    Thanks for the kind comment!
    Kisses!

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I love how you described Dames! This is one of my favorite 30s musicals and it has some visually stunning and catchy musical numbers. As always, the often-repeated cast members in this film are terrific together. Thanks so much for participating in the Busby Berkeley Blogathon!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Busby Berkeley certainly knew how to stage a musical number! And you’re right – such a great cast in these Warner Bros musicals. Thanks for hosting this terrific Blogathon. I’ve got a nice list of movie to watch. 🙂

      Like

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