A dot struggling against a black screen expands a bit, encircling a disembodied singer's face. Out of the dark, he sings the haunting "Aquarela do Brasil." From the left, a set of geometric lines invades the screen, morphing into the bow of a ship. The camera retreats, a Technicolor day breaks, and we splash onto a bustling Manhattan dock.
The ship's cargo, lowered by net, includes what appears to be a gigantic fruit basket. Berkeley's camera pulls back and the produce is revealed as the mother of all Carmen Miranda hats, with the tiny Brazilian powerhouse herself underneath, grinning. The camera advances to the rear again, and we discover we're in a New York nightclub, watching this colossal floor show. Seven minutes in, the first line of dialogue is spoken.
So begins "The Gang's All Here," a gloriously restored movie that anchors Fox's new "The Carmen Miranda Collection" of five movies. Throughout the 1943 musical, Miranda runs amuck across Berkeley's military-like dance productions, disrupting and humanizing the spectacles like a psychedelicized Engergizer Bunny. Glorious and gaudy.
The movie actually stars Alice Faye, in the way that all of Miranda's films star someone else. Someone who speaks perfect English. Miranda wanders in and out of the action, a broken-English Greek chorus of one chattering away about the hackneyed plot's turns.
Fox chieftain Darryl Zanuck's instructions regarding the handling of Miranda were clear: "Give her words to mispronounce" and never cut away when she's singing and dancing. Audiences loved her and made her rich. Miranda was a house pet, always leashed by the stage and screen systems. A professional foreigner.
The story is told here in the engrossing and moving documentary "Carmen Miranda: The Girl From Rio," which unspools on the DVD of the less-impressive "Something for the Boys." (A brief Berkeley docu comes with "Girls.")
"It was never possible for Carmen Miranda to be the central character of a film," says Miles Kreuger of the Institute of the American Musical. "She is billed as a star, but she could never carry the picture. She was like the spice in the stew. She was everybody's best friend or a confidant.
"She was there so that she could do a musical number and erupt into movement and color." The 5-footer's charms retain their potency today. You don't have to be gay to fall for Carmen Miranda (but maybe it helps).
Miranda's English improved over the years, but her situation didn't. She was unable to escape the accent and the fruit hat. In the U.S., "She was in some ways a creature from outer space." She yearned to make a "real" movie about Brazil, where she was highly respected as a samba artist. Miranda eventually came under fire in Brazil for her cartoon-like image and responded by staying away for more than a decade.
At times, the documentary's interviewees seem curiously mournful over the lot of the girl from the Rio slums who found fame and adoration in the States, but remained confined to the headdress. Viewers seeking real tragedy find it in the docu's final minutes, though, as we learn how Miranda popped pills day and night to keep her frail franchise going.
A sad and bizarre clip shows the tiny Brazilian, older now, suffering a heart attack on Jimmy Durante's TV show. She puts her hand over her heart, looks confused for a beat, and then dances her way offstage, waving goodbye to the audience. Twelve hours later she was dead.
But we're here for the fun, and Miranda delighted in providing it a-plenty. Midway through "The Gang's All Here" comes the second remarkable Miranda-Berkeley collaboration, "The Woman in the Tutti-Fruitti Hat."
Miranda's the centerpiece as an army of beauties frolics with giant bananas, raising and lowering the Freudian fruit with drill-team precision. The spectacular Technicolors and the disorienting suite of movements combine to blow our minds. And of course Carmen Miranda has just the catchy song for the occasion.
Fox Home Entertainment's five-disc set retails for $49.98 with individual titles going for $14.98 each. (They are "The Gang's All Here," "Doll Face," "Greenwich Village," "If I'm Lucky" and "Something For the Boys.") Thirty bucks gets you "Gang" and the "Boys" disc with that feature-length documentary, a reasonable way to go. Be careful with "The Gang's All Here" -- ensure it's the 2008 release, not the botched 2007 version.
Also circling the DVD blog's players this week is "Joy Division," a highly regarded documentary about the Manchester band of the 1970s fronted by Ian Curtis. If that's of interest, check out my earlier review of the feature film "Control" on DVD.
"Be Kind, Rewind," another new title, was a pleasant surprise for me at the movies. Check out the DVD blog's mini-review of the Jack Black-Mos Def film.
New and notable:
Be Kind Rewind (Warner)
Blood +: Vol. 2 (Sony)
Burn Notice season 1 (Fox)
Carmen Miranda Collection (Fox)
Classe Tous Risques (The Criterion Collection)
Joy Division (Weinstein Co./Genius Products)
The Jungle Book 2: Special Edition (Disney)
The Sword in the Stone (Disney)
Meerkat Manor season 3 (Animal Planet/Genius Products)
Popeye the Sailor 1938-1940 (Warner)
So I Married an Axe Murderer (Sony)
Under The Same Moon (La Misma Luna, Fox)
Welcome Home Roscoe Jenkins (Universal)