Heads you lose.

Regular Shadowplayers may recall my near-sexual fascination for Busby Berkeley and the FLOATING HEAD OF DEATH. Imagine my all-pervading joy and sheer, sensuous transport at finding another such head at the start of B.B.’s THE GANG’S ALL HERE:

This cheerful yet somehow alarming individual drifts weightless towards us, crooning “Brazil”, right at the start of the film. He’s not quite as skull-beneath-the-skin terrifying as Wini Shaw in GOLD DIGGERS OF 1935, but it turns out he’s only a foretaste of the main attraction, which comes at the film’s end:

At the climax of a number celebrating the perennial joys of the polka dot, the traditional B.B. chorus-line transmutes by the aid of mirrors into a glistening Technicolor iris-sphincter, permutating kaleidoscopically and finally emitting —

Eugene Pallette! B. Kite and I struggled to capture this man’s majesty in our Believer article on character actors, only for Fiona to encapsulate the Great Man in a colossal nutshell: “He’s the brick shithouse everybody’s always talking about.”

Anyway, I don’t want to take that sphincter metaphor any further than I absolutely have to, but basically the entire cast of the film is evacuated right in our faces, an image out of Heironymous Bosch.

It’s hard to decide who’s more terrifying. Mock-turtle Edward Everett Horton on a sickly green polka dot platter, lunging into our eyes like a vision from Hades, certainly comes near the  top. For once in this film, Carmen Miranda is actually less horripilating than everybody else.

Benny Goodman is just WRONG ALL OVER. He’s an odd film presence, in general, quite likably different and welcome, but hurled bodiless towards us with a translucent lavender ruff, he becomes a CREATURE OF NIGHTMARE.

AARGH! Shit shit shit get it way from me! Charlotte Greenwood demonstrates why Nicholas Ray slept with a gun under his pillow. If you wake up from dreaming of THIS, you’ve gotta be able to fire off a few rounds at anything lurking in the corner of the room or you’ll have a case of the screaming ab-dabs for sure.

And then Alice Faye, the singing Simone Signoret, with her cerulean-blue face, is wafted at us on happy updrafts of melody and we realise that we truly are in the Twentieth Century Fox’s idea of Sheol, Gehenna, the bottomless pit — adrift, decapitated, among the eternally smiling, hopelessly insane stars.

“Hell will have no surprises for them!”


9 Responses to “Heads you lose.”

  1. Neither time nor fashion have altered The Gang’s All Here’s ineffable weirdness. There was a war on and to cheer everyone at home — and reassure the troop at the front (who got the print fresh from the lab) that all was well — Busby Berkeley offers us. . . Carmen Miranda, Eugene Pallette, Edward Evertt Horton and Charlotte Greenwood.

    Well yes, there’s Alice Faye singing “No Love No Nothin’ Until My Baby Comes Home”
    and she’s got a 4F of a male lead (I forget the nonentitity’s name) to prove it.

    But what we take away from this bizarre spectacular are the polka dots — and the bananas.

    I Double Dog Dare you to see it on acid.

  2. Here’s a Charlotte Greenwood tribute, in which Charlotte herself can be heard singing her showstopper from Cole Porter’s Out of This World.

  3. I think The Gang’s All Here makes hallucinogenics obsolete.

    I agree about the male lead.

    Nice song!

  4. The male lead is James Ellison, who also appeared in the Tourneur/Lewton “I Walked With A Zombie” … and I’m sure that only the unkind will remark that he played that film’s title role.

  5. Lewton seemed to like these bland actors. After all, he used Kent Smith. He really made the concept of the bland heavy work — the bad guys in The Ghost Ship and The Leopard Man are so laid-back it’s impossible to susepct them of any wrongdoing, even though the Scooby-Doo plotting makes them the only logical suspect in each case. I guess, with low-key villains, the heroes had to be even more unremarkable.

  6. I can’t tell you how happy I am to include this in the blogathon. This is certainly one of the most memorable films I’ve ever seen and proof positive that someone took LSD and popularized it, without the audience knowing it exactly, before Timothy Leary. Thanks so much, David.

  7. One other “floating head” comes to mind after watching this mind-boggling number … the stone head in Boorman’s ever-strange “Zardoz.”

    Ah, “Zardoz”! Beethoven, Charlotte Rampling, *plus* Sean Connery in a wedding gown! One doesn’t want to look too closely into the thought processes involved …

  8. I name-checked Zardoz in my original Floating Head of Death post.


    I have to do a follow-up uniting The Tingler and Night of the Hunter next.

  9. […] The Gang’s All Here (review on this blog somewhere), and gave a brilliant exposition on the disembodied heads in polka dots that end the film. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen this “dancing heads” […]

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