Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Gang’s All Here

The Gang's All Here posterThe Gang’s All Here has a threadbare plot consisting of a boy-meets-girl romance, heartbreak caused by a misconception, and a happy resolution for everyone. However, the film has a handful of gems, including performances by the radiant Carmen Miranda and historical references to America making friends next door and enemies abroad. The film opens on a Broadway stage as a sizable dance troupe unload the S.S. Brazil, a cargo ship carrying the Brazilian exports of coffee, sugar, fruit, and of course Miranda herself, who is bedecked in gaudy jewelry, a nightmarish outfit of bouncing pom-poms and her trademark fruit-filled hat. When the number ends, the host jokes about how the coffee Miranda bestowed upon him will make him rich, then says taking her hand, “Well there’s the Good Neighbor Policy. C’mon honey, let’s good neighbor it!” Male audience members proceed to dance with tropically-themed chorus girls to a song named “Uncle Sam-ba” which fuses North and Latin American styles.

The leading man, a young soldier named Andy Mason, makes his first appearance in this venue, the infamously lascivious Club New Yorker. A chorus girl named Edie Allen catches his eye and he pursues her, but fails to impress her. For unexplained reasons he tells her that his name is Casey instead of Andy. Subsequently the filmmakers place the Mason/Allen affair aside and launch into a bizarrely erotic musical extravaganza, featuring bare-legged showgirls grasping surreally large bananas that beg Freudian interpretation. An effervescent Miranda arrives on the tropical island stage set in a cart pulled by golden oxen; while she delivers her famous number “The Lady in a Tutti Frutti Hat” a multitude of female bodies undulate six-foot bananas from their hips, and lie in star formation with giant strawberries between their splayed legs as their counterparts perform an unmistakably penetrative act. The result is truly mind-boggling.

Mason eventually overcomes Allen’s resistance to him, but by the time her eyes assume that soft romantic gleam, he is stationed in the Pacific. Allen, ignorant of the planned marriage between Mason and his “high-school sweetheart” Vivian Potter, pines for him. After three months he returns and his father hires the Club New Yorker troupe for a party, for which he will sell war bonds by way of admission. A hint of the drama to come is dropped when Allen and Potter confide that are awaiting the return of a beloved soldier, both referring to Mason. When Allen discovers she has spent three lonely months writing letters to a practically married man, she turns her back on his desperate claims to still love her. However, because a key female dancer drops from the show on account of an allergic reaction to roses, Potter takes her place. When Allen later overhears Potter describing her plans to become a Broadway star and abandon what was only a marriage of convenience with Mason, she falls in love with him all over again. With absolutely no follow through to this happy turn of events, the film descends into a dreamlike sequence of futuristic costumes, swirling kaleidoscopic camera tricks, and the disembodied heads of the principal actors singing the film’s theme song.

The Gang’s All Here exemplifies the sexualization of Latin America to an extreme and the conflation of bodies with landscapes. At the close of “The Lady in a Tutti Frutti Hat,” the camera pans over an island coated with open-legged girls lying between the trees like so many ripe bananas; Latin America is projected as a landscape that is female, passive, and even rapable. Those who act upon this landscape are North American businessmen positioned to turn a profit from Roosevelt’s “Good Neighbor Policy” of boosting trade and investment between the United States and Latin America. The wealth to be gleaned from Latin America prompts these men, like the host from the Club New Yorker, to take the region by the hand and say “C’mon baby, let’s good neighbour it!”

The “Good Neighbour Policy” had political aims as well as economic, and this integrationist sentiment has no better pop culture manifestation than Carmen Miranda, the inter-American poster girl. In The Gang’s All Here Miranda unites North America with Latin America through music, such as in the “Uncle Sam-ba.” However, Miranda’s character Dorita is an ambiguous one. On one hand she has bubbly charm and childlike innocence; her antics bemuse and baffle the North Americans, as does her quirky broken English. But on the other hand, she has a potent sexuality, as evidenced by her awakening animalistic passions in the nervous teetotaler Mr. Potter, which must be kept in check. There is suspicion and even hostility between Miranda, cast as a sensuous bombshell associated with the balmy tropics, and the American women, cast as patient and faithful sweethearts associated with a middle-class domestic idyll. The Latin America of The Gang’s All Here may be dazzling and erotic, not to mention lucrative, but the jury is out on whether it can be fully trusted.

YouTube Link: The opening scene, with the transition from "Brazil" to "You Discover You're in New York."

See also: Copacabana, That Night in Rio, Week-End in Havana, Carmen Miranda.

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