Warner Brothers wonderful early thirties musicals didn’t overtax themselves for a plot idea. They just put on a Broadway show at the end with lots of lead-in featuring backstage preparation and ambitious chorus girls. I find them quite funny and entertaining from start to finish, even though the showstopping Busby Berkeley dance routines come at the end. Dick Powell or James Cagney could reliably carry these vehicles as the zealous producer/songwriter and the magical Joan Blondell always delights. She’s terrific in “Gold Diggers of 1933,” and “Footlight Parade (1933).”
In the slightly different “Dames,” released in 1934,” the action slows down as the movie sets up the relationship between the well-off Horace Hemingway (Guy Kibbee) and Ezra Ounce (Hugh Herbert), an eccentric millionaire with an extremely high morale standard. Ezra decides to begin handing out his vast fortune with an offer of $10 million to Horace, but Horace must prove he and his family live a “moral” life. Dick Powell plays disreputable cousin Jimmy, a songwriter and singer who wants backing for a Broadway show. The problem for Horace is that Jimmy is dating his daughter Barbara (Ruby Keeler). Horace must hide that information from Ezra even though the millionaire decides to live with the Hemingways for a while.
I like how Busby Berkeley’s Warner musicals, including Dames, use the threat of starvation to motivate the chorus girls. Despite the giddy fantasy Berkeley provides, the Great Depression lingers over the story. Blondell, who plays chorus girl and singer Mabel, even stoops to committing blackmail to get the show produced. Apparently though, Ezra, who is gangster-like in his controlling ideas, has the power to shut down the show at any time if he thinks it’s scandalous. When the movie finally stages the Broadway show, Ezra arrives at the theater with a dangerous-looking group of henchman to pounce on the cast and crew.
Dames contains some of Berkeley’s most inspired numbers, including the incredible “The Girl at the Ironing Board,” which includes clothing (long underwear, etc.) dancing with Blondell’s Mabel. The song “Dames” becomes a magnificent production number with stunning black and white images and Berkeley’s usual geometric dance forms. Powell gets a lot of mileage out of the song “I Only Have Eyes for You.” He sings it on a ferry to Ruby Keeler early in the film and reprises it later in a full production number during the Broadway show sequences. Dames doesn’t have the immediate Busby Berkeley impact of Gold Diggers of 1933, which opens with Gingers Rogers and a chorus of beautiful showgirls singing “I’m in the Money,” but it rewards the viewer’s patience with the plot setup by providing a spectacular finale.