Directed by Ray Enright
Written by Robert Lord and Delmer Daves
If it hadn't happened before, Dames begins to really start to test the notion of how empty and pointless a Busby Berkeley movie can get and still be "good," just so long as it still has its full complement of Busby Berkeley numbers at the end. Of course, this had been tested before, with Footlight Parade, with both films pointedly ignoring the superior model already demonstrated in Gold Diggers of 1933. Dames tests that idea from the opposite direction, however, for while Footlight Parade was actively irritating before it got to its Berkeley, Dames is not "actively" anything. It's the first Berkeley movie at Warners I've seen that gets straight-up boring (not just wearying, but boring), and also the first that feels intentionally padded and maybe even intentionally slowed down to a molasses crawl, in order to hit an arbitrary runtime of 90 minutes that could be cut to 80 or even 70 without trying, and possibly without even losing much dialogue. So if Dames is good overall—and I would call it good, however grudgingly—it could be just because its brand of drippy farce is easier to stomach than Footlight Parade's abrasive screwball approach. Or maybe it's because it flips Footlight Parade's hit/miss ratio, so that rather than one all-time great Berkeley number and two middling Berkeley numbers, Dames gives us two and one, respectively. It's also nice that it offers them in ascending order of quality, so you at least get to leave Dames on a high note, even if you aren't likely to forget how cavalierly it's wasted your time.
Still, it starts off okay, with what is by far the swiftest cutting that editor Harold McLernon ever manages in his part of the film; so, as we wind through a bullet-pointed montage of brazen plagues on marble facades, Dames invites us to notice that all these venerable institutions are owned by one and the same man, a certain Ezra Ounce (Hugh Herbert), a multimillionaire based out of Buffalo, NY, who has used his great wealth to set himself apart from the unwashed and immoral masses. This is true in a physical sense, too, as we discover alongside Ezra's cousin-in-law, Horace Henchley (Guy Kibbee), husband to his blood cousin Matilda (ZaSu Pitts), who presently finds himself subjected to a succession of barriers manned by officious underlings, as well as a patdown search, just in case he was carrying. Ezra has summoned Horace for the first time in twenty years to explain that while he knows he can't take his vast wealth with him when he dies, he has practically no one else he actually wants to give it to. Pointing to the Ounce family tree with derision, he's long-since determined that most of its branches are rotten, and unworthy of his capitalist bounty. He singles out Jimmy Higgens (Dick Powell) especially—Jimmy is an aspiring man of the stage, and therefore (to Ezra's mind) just about the lowest form of life on Earth. Horace, however, seems upright enough—in any event, he and Matilda will have to do—so Ezra promises them his fortune, if only in exchange for a sign of their commitment to his cause. To this end, he invites his cousins to join him at the head of the "Ounce Foundation for the Elevation of American Morals," a reformist society repeatedly referred to by a cumbersome initialism that this screenplay prays you'll find amusing, though it plainly is not.
Yet while Horace genuflects to his cousin-in-law, his daughter Barbara (Ruby Keeler) is busy with a cousin of her own—none other than Jimmy himself, the would-be showman. (The way the film just gets right out of in front of them being "thirteenth cousins" is a little bracing—like, sure, it's obviously not "incestuous" in any useful sense of the term, but to make such an odd detail a major point of exposition in the first ten minutes suggests that it actually matters, and it never does again, not even for a sputtering "get your hands off my cousin!" bit.) Besides being in love, the couple are also in the early stages of pitching a grand Broadway musical. Certainly, this would bode ill enough for Horace's inheritance chances, but Horace acquires an even bigger problem on the train ride back from Buffalo to NYC, when a he finds a stowaway named Mabel (Joan Blondell) in his berth. Mabel soon realizes that this feeb is ripe for blackmail, and this leads us right back to Jimmy and Barbara, for when Mabel makes Jimmy's acquaintance, and inserts herself into his burgeoning Broadway show, she makes herself useful as the leverage Jimmy needs to get Horace to pony up the financing—which, of course, places poor Horace in an even more awkward position.
Sigh: there's also the most lazily-contrived subplot you'll ever see with Barbara, who's certain that Mabel's trying to steal her man, and this winds up even more go-nowhere and redundant than the rest of it, plausibly the result of a rewrite just to give Blondell a part, which accidentally inflicted an unnecessary mean streak upon the film that it never benefits from; and truly, it never stops being astonishing to me how much plot there can be to recite in these 30s musicals, even when half the time it feels like nothing actually happens in them.
That feeling is downright tangible in Dames: the vast majority of its "narrative" section is exclusively the Kibbee and Herbert Show, overriding everything else and for some reason tasking the two likeably-degenerate character actors to play against type as a pair of humorless, moralizing prudes. It's not even "one prude and the dirty old man who has to pretend to be a prude," which is where you'd think the screenplay would have immediately gone to generate some laughs. Nor is it "neurotic, repressed prudes." (Where's Edward Everett Horton when you need him?) Nope: in the absence of any personality conflict (which comes close to an absence of personality, period), what we get out of a shockingly large percentage of this film is just Herbert "humorously" pontificating on moral decadence, and Kibbee enthusiastically shaking his head in agreement. What isn't that is Kibbee flailing around, trying to navigate the blackmail plot; what isn't that is Herbert's real contribution to the proceedings, a feature-length case of the fucking hiccups. I'm not sure this script could have ever been actually funny, but director Ray Enright certainly gave up on trying with demoralizing speed, allowing an aimless tempo to settle over the proceedings that allows full minutes to pass between "comic" beats, and the one thing that this thin gruel was never going to survive was being stretched out in every scene.
It is slightly more successful as "a romance," and even that's mostly because I just like frequent screen partners Powell and Keeler, always pleasant company in these movies when they're making goo-goo eyes at each other, and while Dames isn't terribly keen on just letting them do this, at least their early scenes get to be nice. (Not that it necessarily says great things about Dames as a musical qua musical that its best song arrives in the first few minutes. This is Fain & Kahal's "When You Were a Smile On Your Mother's Lips and a Twinkle In Your Daddy's Eye"—an exceedingly precious and lyrically clever piece about a love so eternal that it goes backwards in time, too—delivered by Powell to Keeler in what amounts to full diegesis next to a lake with zero visual elaboration. Still, I appreciate the callback to "By a Waterfall" in the score.) Anyway, that the plot of Dames seems to go out of its way afterwards to push Keeler to the margins is one hell of a misstep, especially considering where we ultimately end up.
And "where we end up," of course, is a three-layer-cake of Berkeley, for (big spoiler!) Ezra, Horace, and Matilda fail to stop Jimmy, Barbara, and Mabel before they can put on their show. (Not even a spoiler at all: it turns out Ezra and Horace can get boners!) That first Berkeley number raises the anxiety level a bit nonetheless—because it's not especially good either.
Of the three climactic songs (all by Warren & Dubin), "The Girl At the Ironing Board" is the one that most feels like novelty music lyrics incongruously matched with the same bland 30s pop melodies we've gotten used to; hence the whimsical premise is paired with some pretty sleepy sounds. Berkeley follows along with some pretty sleepy visuals, and the number is more-or-less exactly as its title and lyrics advertise: Blondell, in the form of a neighborhood washer woman, waxes poetic (and pretty tunelessly) on her proletarian loneliness, and we join her as she falls into a daydream that's given shape by all the men's clothing she's washed. Berkeley turns this into an undemanding frolic for the pregnant Blondell (not something you're asked to notice, of course, under the ministrations of her then-husband, cinematographer George Barnes), and she spends the sequence cavorting with a bunch of living underwear. That's pretty much the whole joke, and while it's not awful—it's a better joke, I suppose, than literally anything since the film's opening five minutes—there's still nothing here to be thrilled by, unless, I suppose, the poorly-concealed wirework tickles your fancy in some ineffable way, or perhaps if you're from 1934, and the mere fact of a woman touching dirty union suits turns you on. It is not the biggest surprise to discover that this was a replacement, for what is rumored to have been a much bawdier segment, involving a cat and a mouse and the line, "Come up and see my pussy sometime." I don't know if that sounds better (it kind of doesn't), but it would probably be more memorable.
Thankfully—finally—things take a quantum leap into excellence, though the first minute or so of "I Only Have Eyes For You" (the standard making its first-ever appearance here) still keeps you nervous, as Powell and Keeler go on a date in the city. Things remain a little staid—occasionally, the crowds vanish by way of a dissolve, leaving only the two lovers—but the song is nice, and the scene-setting is gently romantic. Then it gets extremely Berkeleyesque, nearly without any warning, as the pair fall asleep on the subway and we are transported into the customary black void, which is, this time around, populated entirely by Ruby Keelers. It's genuinely amazing stuff—"top-tier Berkeley," as I'm wont to say, and sometimes I'm not sure if the guy had a middle-tier, just a binary between extraordinary and meh—and we are presented first with a destabilizing spin on the old "parade of faces" with a flock of placards of Keeler's face dancing in the dark. At one point we enter Keeler's eye and Keeler comes out of it, and next we find a whole gaggle of Keelers—in the flesh!—dancing on a surrealist deco set that resembles a waterwheel.
Being 1934, obviously these Keelers are actually just "women in brown wigs," but it's a pretty decent illusion (even good wigs for a change), with the actual Keeler usually taking the focal point of any given shot (plus a few strategically-placed mirror gags), and even when it's not entirely persuasive, it's not the kind of gesture that genuinely depends on believing in it anyway. It's the thought that counts, and while I can't say with any certainty the thought must have been "farewell, my muse," it is the perfect conclusion to Berkeley and Keeler's collaborations, and the fact is that this was indeed the last time they worked together, Keeler for whatever reason never reteaming with the choreographer again—and I honestly do not know what it could have been, for with Dames she had now served as the most concrete connection between Berkeley's numbers and the narrative sections he didn't care about in four of his films, and she would remain at Warners (indeed, even working with Powell again several more times), not retiring until the early 40s. I have not found any salacious story to explain it, and while Berkeley would provide cause enough for someone to refuse to work with him ever again the following year, I've no choice but to accept that "Eyes For You" really is only an accident of perfect timing. Whatever it was, it's a lovely tribute to the actress, who was perhaps never objectively "good" in any of these movies, and who may've been the most limited performer in any of Berkeley's films at Warners; but who also had the precisely right kind of gentle, cute, sincere persona to sell the underrated but absolutely-crucial roles that helped make 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 better than just movies with Berkeley numbers attached.
The grand finale probably was never meant to undercut this sentiment, let alone suggest that Keeler could just be replaced by anybody with nice legs. But that is kind of what it says, and it certainly occasions some hellacious tonal whiplash—not, however, that I mean this in any bad way. This finale is "Dames"—a word, incidentally, that has not been uttered previously in this entire film. (And how disingenuous is it that this movie called Dames is actually almost entirely about two old men plotting a censorship campaign? There's probably some reading of this that makes Dames a sub rosa critique of the newly-augmented Production Code, but by no means does that reading ever make itself interesting.) Well, regardless, "Dames" does at last bring the dames—and, if nothing else, you must admire its honesty.
It begins with Powell, who has convened a meeting to explain to his fellow Broadway producers what the people want: they do not want writers; they do not care for choreographers; and musicians might be necessary, but they are not who sell the tickets. It's the collections of legs and butts and breasts and smiles who do that, and "Dames" bounds up and down with musical energy (the first song in this film with real oomph) as it prosecutes its cynical ode to exploitation. As this film has found Berkeley operating in an unusually literal mode all along, for the third time he simply takes the lyrics as written, and makes them visual. Partwise, then, "Dames" is a fuguelike impression of the daily routine of the Broadway (or Warners) chorine, a series of geometric arrangements loosely-based on physical states, like "sleeping" and "bathing," with a remarkable emphasis on angular shot design that turns the patterns of the sets into vanishing points stretching out into the infinite. It gets significantly more bizarre, with downright shocking twists on what by now were some of the most old-hat of Berkeley's tropes, most amazingly with a set-up that allows him to combine his human kaleidoscopes and his parades of faces into single-take shots—specifically, by launching the women into the air at the camera. And then it becomes just mesmerizingly abstract, culminating its tunnel imagery with a spiraling camera move through a conjoint object best (if anachronistically) described as a 2001-style stargate sequence. Except this stargate is made of, well, dames.
Two out of three ain't bad, of course, but it leaves us with a terrible quandary, because Dames is in no sense a good movie overall—hell, on average, it's mildly awful!—and what is a "good movie" but one that you would feel comfortable recommending? I would never recommend Dames, because there's no reason to ever watch it as a whole film. But as an inert vessel for a couple of spectacular Berkeley numbers, it also did its job. One would obviously prefer that no movie ever be as transparent about its rote, soulless functionality as Dames winds up being, but it did the one thing it was built for, and so I give it its due.