Directed By: Ray Enright, Busby Berkeley
Starring: Joan Blondell, Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler
Line from the film: "I'm free, white, and 21. I love to dance AND I'm going to dance"
Trivia: Jean Rogers, who later played Dale Arden, Flash Gordon's girlfriend in 30s serials, is a member of this film's chorus
It takes a while for 1934’s Dames to get down to business, but once it does, this Busby Berkeley musical is guaranteed to “wow” you.
Horace P. Hemingway (Hugh Herbert) and his wife Mathilda (Zasu Pitts) stand to inherit $10 million dollars from Mathilda’s peculiar cousin, Ezra Ounce (Guy Kibbee). But before he agrees to sign it over to them, the couple, as well as their daughter Barbara (Ruby Keeler), must prove to Ezra that they are morally upright. This won’t be a problem for Mathilda, who leads a quiet, unassuming life. However, things get a bit dicier when it comes to the remaining members of the Hemingway clan. Barbara has fallen in love with song and dance man Jimmy Higgens (Dick Powell), a distant cousin who Ezra considers the “black sheep” of the family; while Horace had an unfortunate (albeit innocent) run-in with showgirl Mabel Anderson (Joan Blondell) on a train. In an effort to secure the cash needed to stage Jimmy’s newest musical, Mabel blackmails Horace, threatening to tell Mathilda and cousin Ezra about their railway “experience” if he doesn’t cough up $20,000. Once he has the money, Jimmy is able to make his Broadway dreams come true. But will cousin Ezra’s moral crusade ruin his opening night?
The first hour or so of Dames is dedicated to both cousin Ezra’s “inspection” of the Hemingways (to ensure they’re worthy, Ezra moves in with them for a month) and the budding romance between Jimmy and Barbara. While these two tales have their moments (the scenes with Jimmy are particularly entertaining thanks to Powell’s charismatic performance), neither are as good as the framing stories of 42nd Street or Gold Diggers of 1933, a pair of earlier Berkeley efforts that, for the most part, put the focus squarely on the Broadway experience. The cast of Dames does what it can to keep things moving along, but after a while I was ready for the comedy / romance to end, and for the music to begin.
The movie comes alive in a big way during its last act, which takes us to the opening night of Jimmy’s show. All three of the featured musical numbers are superb, each enhanced by Berkeley’s unique talents. The first song, “The Girl at the Ironing Board”, has Joan Blondell working at a laundromat and dancing with various men’s garments that spring to life as they hang on a clothesline. Next, we’re treated to what is undoubtedly the movie’s finest sequence: “I Only Have Eyes for You”, which sees Keeler and Powell riding a subway car to the end of the line. Some of the routines Berkeley created for this scene rival the title number for 42nd Street and the “Forgotten Man” sequence of Gold Diggers of 1933 (two routines that, prior to this film, I considered his best work). Things wrap up nicely with “Dames”, which features a handful of clever camera tricks. This final half hour of Dames makes up for the 60+ minutes of mediocrity that preceded it, bringing the movie to a very satisfying end.