Busby Berkeley.<i>The Gang’s All Here</i>, 1943. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.
Busby Berkeley.The Gang’s All Here, 1943. Courtesy of Twentieth Century Fox.

The Polka Dot Polka

by Travis Boyer

Dance director Busby Berkeley choreographed bodies, props, water, fabric, and feathers into forcefully executed musical montages in which dancers are pixels in a kaleidoscope—and anything is possible. Subordinate to the big dance numbers, the plots of his films usually involve someone or everyone making a splash on Broadway, in Hollywood, or, as in the case of The Gang’s All Here, New York of 1943, as entertainers in a glittering New York City nightclub. Having spent most of his career pushing the limits of his craft in black and white, Berkeley took advantage of this filmic opportunity to direct in Technicolor. 

The film is best known for the deliciously colorful showstopper, “The Lady in the Tutti Frutti Hat,” for which Carmen Miranda, in her self-styled baiana look, pounds banana xylophones amid a chorus of wave steppers keeping time holding giant bananas and strawberries. Other numbers in the film juggle geopolitical, social, and cultural issues of the day with matters of the heart.

Within a messy, multivalent screenplay, Miranda’s character, Dorita, both symbolically and substantially embodies the Roosevelt administration's “Good Neighbor Policy,” while Andy Mason (James Ellison) is a sergeant in the Pacific returning to life as a suburban playboy, and Benny Goodman performs the song “Minnie’s in the Money,” about loving a wage-earning woman. With blonde soup-can locks and a deep, sultry voice, the leading lady, Edie Allen (Alice Faye), is a rising nightclub star with a soft spot for soldiers. As a whole, the cast seems closeted in one way or another, expressing anxiety about blackmail, exposure, and “the censors” and getting tripped up by fibs and miscommunication.

Even a plotless musical would be challenged to find storyboard space for “The Polka Dot Polka,” the finale written by David Raksin. Dressed like a glamorous veterinary surgeon in full-length teal gloves and a blush-colored evening gown—both splashed with emerald polka-dot appliques—Alice Faye begins the song by singing, “Listen, Gate” (Gate was a slang term for Louie Armstrong and jazz fellows in general). Faye’s song then unfolds like a third grade history lesson on the taboos of courtship and trends in apparel during the polka craze of the 1880s.

With Faye towering above fourteen child dancers wearing bustles and bow ties, with dubbed adult singing voices, generations are blurred to demonstrate the noteworthiness of the polka dot to a stuffy suburban audience for whom, not so long ago, a flash of polka-dotted stocking was considered “too, too shocking.” The polka, like jazz, was a trend that once swept both the United States and Mexico, brought by German and Bohemian immigrants. During the 1880s, “polka” was a trade name with numerous associations. Although the polka curtain band (for looping up curtains), polka gauze, and polka hat are now obsolete, we see in the polka dot—the pattern, the image, the fabric—a trend that is impervious to change. 

Harp music and a symphonic chorus push the camera toward one of the children’s polka-dotted lace gloves. Then Busby starts to kick in. The glove—now a set piece isolated in space—is as strange and enormous as Claes Oldenburg’s Spoonbridge and Cherry sculpture. The hollow back of the glove becomes like a side-turned gazebo filled with pink neon-lit hoops, each held by forty dancers that, as they emerge, grow to one hundred in number, all in head-to-toe blue knit-wool bodysuits.

The long camera shots glide around a darkened multi-tiered wedding cake–cum–partial-ziggurat set where only the neon of the hoops is visible. Heavy jazz horns indicate the number has grown up and we are now in the future—the polka-dot future. Though the cordless version of this light effect gets updated in Tron (1982), here it’s simply an updated color version of a Busby Berkley trope used first in Gold Diggers (1933), for which the aerial shot animates dozens of neon violins to form a giant neon violin. Throughout this dance number, colored dots are tossed, rolled, and flipped—the dot shape eventually morphing toward surrealism, framing the faces of Allen and the cast like an anatomized head-on-a-platter Technicolor Elizabethan elevated ruff.

As the lyrics go, “oh, the polka dance, the polka dance, the polka dance is gone. But the polka dot, the polka dot, the polka dot lives on!” The song makes such a strong case for the dot’s transcendence that one is tempted to pen a contemporary verse that would perhaps include a reference to Yayoi Kusama, if her name were more easily integrated into the rhyme scheme. Tucked near the credits of a wartime musical, this forward-looking song posits the ineffability of a ubiquitous motif and escalates this view through dance, technology, repetition, and hyper-synchronism, all in the key of Busby. Both Berkeley’s choreography and the polka dot travel through time, unconstrained by fixed conditions. Whether as an individual dot or part of an infinitely expandable composition of bodies, the polka dot is a dancer.

Travis Boyer is a New York–based artist, curator, and textile educator.