Wallis started out only knowing he wanted another musical starring Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler but it took him several screenwriters and a couple of screenplays before he had a story written to his satisfaction. Original director Archie Mayo was soon replaced by another director before the reins were handed over to Ray Enright a week before shooting began. From the beginning, however, the design and direction of the musical numbers was under the command of Busby Berkeley. The director/choreographer had his own unit by this time, operating under his complete control and with no supervision except for Wallis' sometimes stern eye on content and cost.
For Dames, however, Berkeley had a threat to his autonomy that was more powerful than Wallis or even the Warner Brothers. In the summer of 1934, the Motion Picture Production Code was toughened and strictly enforced after protests from Catholic groups. Among the targets of their attacks were the musicals of Busby Berkeley. In 42nd Street (1933) Berkeley sent his camera through the spread legs of scantily clad chorus girls and in Gold Diggers of 1933 he projected their naked silhouettes on screens.
One of the raciest numbers Berkeley planned for Dames never made it to the soundstage, much less past the Code's censors. Berkeley wanted Joan Blondell to perform a number about a battle between a cat and a mouse that would end with Blondell inviting all to "come up and see my pussy sometime." Wallis nixed this number completely in a memo he sent to Berkeley dated March 19, 1934: "we are accused of obscenity in our pictures enough as it is without reason, and besides there is no use besmirching the name of Berkeley with filth."
As a replacement, Berkeley devised a number with Blondell as "The Girl at the Ironing Board." Having Blondell behind an ironing board was not just an illustration of the song. At the time of shooting she was seven months pregnant and careful camerawork, handled by her husband, cinematographer George Barnes, was required to disguise her condition. All the attention on Blondell may have caused Berkeley to make a rare on-screen goof. He later recalled that after the picture opened: "over her right shoulder in the distance I see outside on the lawn where the clotheslines were hanging, one of my property men nailing up a clothesline. I had never noticed it, and no one else did until a week after the picture had opened."
Wallis put pressure on Berkeley to keep down costs, a request that caused Berkeley to bridle: "I was under pressure at the time to hurry up and finish on schedule. I could take any number I've done and elaborate on it, fifty percent more. But the front office was always thinking in terms of budget and expense."
Nevertheless, Dames is filled with great songs set to Berkeley stagings. The most famous, set to a Dick Powell-crooned "I Only Have Eyes For You," has chorus girls wearing Ruby Keeler masks, ultimately forming a giant Keeler face. The song remained a standard well into the rock 'n' roll era with hit versions by The Flamingos in the 1950's and Art Garfunkel in the 1970's.
Despite the new restrictions and a thin plot, Dames provides another wonderful showcase for one of Hollywood's greatest theatrical designers. Busby Berkeley bypassed the censors' shears and the front office's stinginess to create an exciting theatrical spectacle.
Director: Ray Enright, Busby Berkeley
Producer: Hal B. Wallis
Screenplay: Delmer Daves, Robert Lord
Cinematography: George Barnes, Sid Hickox, Sol Polito
Editor: Harold McLernon
Art Direction: Robert M. Haas, Willy Pogany
Music: Mort Dixon, Al Dubin, Sammy Fain, Irving Kahal, Harry Warren, Allie Wrubel Cast: Joan Blondell (Mabel Anderson), Dick Powell (Jimmy Higgins), Ruby Keeler (Barbara Hemingway), Zasu Pitts (Mathilde Hemingway), Guy Kibbee (Horace Hemingway), Hugh Herbert (Ezra Ounce).
BW-91m. Closed captioning.
by Brian Cady