Affect and the Hollywood musical: "Another name for Paradise"

Carmen Miranda singing "Paducah" in The Gang's All Here.

Busby Berkeley’s The Gang’s All Here (1943) is a great example of how uneasily the queer priorities of the musical—its preference for style over substance, performance over essence, artifice over sincerity—sit with so-called traditional American values.  Much of the movie, filmed at set at the height of WWII, is spent in an attempt to conjure up a certain set of patriotic affects.  Songs like “Nothin’ ’Til My Baby Comes Home” articulate the loneliness of women on the home front as they pine for men overseas.  A montage sequence in which our guy, Sgt. Andy Mason (James Ellison), leads a series of victories over the Japanese, aims to invoke jingoistic pride.  The plot, such as it is, involves the staging of a Broadway spectacle in order to sell war bonds.  Etc.  But these rather traditional, conservative affects are periodically exploded by the presence of a radical, excessive pleasure that we might call queer, and that goes by the name of Carmen Miranda.

Miranda’s numbers in The Gang’s All Here are not simply queer by virtue of her status as a gay icon.  They are queer because they’re governed by a kind of outrageous anti-realism that seeks nothing more than to stun and affectively overwhelm the spectator, and that makes no attempt to disguise its own artifice.  In other words, despite their purported aim to foster good-neighborly relations between the U.S. and South America, Miranda’s numbers have no “point” in the film: they do not speak to such Important Issues as patriotism or keeping your chin up or staying true to your baby ’til he comes home.  They are about sheer spectacle, about wallowing in abstract colors and forms (see also here), which is to say the pointless pleasures of style.  The effect of integrating Miranda’s surreal and campy production numbers into an otherwise rather dull and square WWII-era musical is exhilaratingly strange, especially in numbers like “Paducah,” in which Miranda effectively hi-jacks the song—a paean to the kind of small-town America represented by the titular Kentucky city—from Benny Goodman and his orchestra and proceeds to turn it into something ravishingly absurd.  Even the sound of the word “Kentucky” coming out of Miranda’s mouth sounds wrong.  Miranda’s comic, exotic, wordly persona is about as far away from Paducah as you can get.  The “paradise” envisioned by the Broadway musical is not Paducah, Kentucky, no matter what the lyrics of the song may claim: it can be found in the queer excess of its increasingly surreal production numbers. 

A study in contrasts.  Above, style and excess: Carmen Miranda in "The Lady in the Tutti-Frutti Hat."  Below, getting serious: Alice Faye sings "Nothin' 'Til My Baby Comes Home."

This brings us to the film’s downright psychotronic climax, which makes the ending of The Three Caballeros feel understated by comparison.  It’s here that Berkeley lets loose, experimenting freely with his trademark overhead shots and geometric pattern effects.  As we find outselves utterly overwhelmed by the dazzling weirdness of Berkeley’s images, we forget completely that this is ostensibly a film about boosting morale during a war, or even that there is a war to feel a proper way about. This is the musical at its most unapologetically escapist, which is to say at its most pure.

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