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There Is Nothing Like Dames

For the most part, a viewing of the 1934 backstage musical Dames is only intermittently rewarded — by fair-haired sass Joan Blondell, pert in silken nighties as she dupes a hapless money man; by hunchy, kewpie-eyed tapper Ruby Keeler as she stomps out a routine; and by the great and gorgeous Al Dubin-Harry Warren standard "I Only Have Eyes for You." But while the body of the picture, directed by Ray Enright, is tepid, the big-show finale is ultimately worth the wait. That's when the directorial reins are handed over to mad genius Busby Berkeley, and the enterprise spins off, literally at times, into the kaleidoscopic, gyroscopic world of one man's obsessive imagination. It begins with Blondell and "The Girl at the Ironing Board," a production number, set in a laundry, that gives amorous life to a gang of grabby union suits hung on clotheslines. ("When I'm off on Sundays," Blondell yowls in the arms of an underthing, "I miss all these undies!") From there, things only get weirder, and more beautiful, as Keeler rises up through her own eyeball and the camera swoops and hovers to take in an army of lovelies disguised as the star and deployed on sets stocked with rotating platforms, deco cutouts, Ferris wheels and neon-lit bathtubs. By the time things get around to Berkeley's trademark bird's-eye blossoms of torso and leg, the proceedings have become so dynamically fantastic, it's the film's prosaic narrative that feels more like a passing unreality. For sheer delirium, it's tough to beat Dames, but Cinefamily's Berkeley series also includes the far more consistently satisfying 42nd Street — the definitive backstage musical that's a marvel of bubble-wrapped Depression-era grit — as well as the very swell Gold Diggers of 1933 and the '43 stinker The Gang's All Here, a slug of mush recommended only to Carmen Miranda fanatics and lovers of Alice Faye's liquid-velvet voice. (Cinefamily at the Silent Movie Theatre; Thursdays at 8 p.m., thru March 27. www.silentmovietheatre.com)


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