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The Effect of Dada and Surrealism on Hollywood Movies of the 1930s

Ruby Keeler

Hollywood took Dada and Surrealism and cheerfully dumped them into American movies with no explanation or framing devices in the early 1930s. This program shows great example scenes from films that jumped on the Dada and Surrealism bandwagon to delight and mystify viewers reeling from the Great Depression.  See notes at bottom.

Program List:

THE BIG BROADCAST (Paramount 1932)
Opening title and credits and opening scene

NEVER GIVE A SUCKER AN EVEN BREAK  (Universal Pictures 1941) W.C. Fields’ most Surreal and Dada feature.  Race to the hospital scene.

THE BIG BROADCAST (Paramount 1932)
Bing Crosby enters

DAMES (Warner Brothers 1934)
Busby Berkeley I ONLY HAVE EYES FOR YOU sequence

Battle finale

W. C. Fields arrives in China

MONTE CARLO (Paramount 1930)
Excerpt, Jeanette MacDonald sings from the train, the peasants in the fields join in.

Love Me Tonight (Paramount 1932)
Hunting scene in which Jeanette MacDonald says “There are things too noble, too refined, to be made ridiculous.”  That sums up what Dada faced in 1916.

DAMES (Warner Brothers 1934)
Busby Berkeley sequence title song.

Ending scene and credits


In the 1932 feature film THE BIG BROADCAST there is a scene in a radio station. The first shot is of a clock at the end of a hallway. We can hear its slow “tick tock”. A black cat is seen walking down the hallway. An office boy comes out of a doorway and points to the ON THE AIR sign. The cat then slows down to almost no movement at all. The clock quits the “tick tock” sound. Three men poke their heads out of a doorway. They appear one at time in three jump cuts with their heads completely exposed with no sign of movement. An angry man appears. He is the head of the radio station. The clock throws up its hands in alarm. The three heads vanish one at a time: Pop Pop Pop. The cat runs for the door. It slams shut before the cat gets there The cat literally melts under the closed door and is gone. I absolutely love this example of surrealism in what is for all intents and purposes a straightforward movie. In the early 1930s there are many other examples of surrealism being dropped upon an unsuspecting audience. It is not explained. There is no framing device. An avant garde art movement is swallowed up by Hollywood and spit out with less fanfare than a fresh faced ingenue.

THE BIG BROADCAST was a Paramount Picture. Paramount accepted surrealism more readily than the other studios. It would pop up in the oddest places. It helped that they had W.C. Fields under contract. He starred in two surrealist tinged features: MILLION DOLLAR LEGS (1932) and INTERNATIONAL HOUSE (1933). Fields iconoclastic humor has been called eccentric, misogynist, ribald, absurdist, and many other things. What it is never called, and deserves to be, is DADA.

Over at MGM, Dada was coming to the big screen via the Marx Brothers. Dada was more than an art movement. It was an ardently political, antiwar and absurdist response to the senseless carnage of World War I. In DUCK SOUP (1933), Groucho goes to war singing “They got guns/We got guns/All God’s chillun got guns”. He orders trenches readymade because there isn’t time to dig them , keeps track of the war tally with a pool hall counter, dresses in every conceivable form of military uniform, including that of a boy scout troop leader, and sends one soldier off to war with “You’re a brave man. Go and break through the lines. And remember while you’re out there risking life and limb through shot and shell, we’ll be in here thinking what a sucker you are.” DUCK SOUP was a box office failure. The heads of MGM thought it failed because Harpo hadn’t played the harp. In all the rest of their films at MGM, the Marx Brothers would periodically have to stop their mayhem so Chico could do a piano solo. As soon as their momentum got going again, they would have to stop for Harpo to play the harp. The audiences returned. Maybe America was not ready for Dada.

Warner Brothers was known for hard hitting realism. They had Jimmy Cagney, Edward G. Robinson and that tough dame Bette Davis. So what saved them from bankruptcy in the dark bottom of the Depression? The great master of Hollywood Surrealism, Busby Berkeley. Warner Brothers didn’t call his movies surrealistic. They called them all kinds of other things, always with an exclamation mark. Sure, they had great songs! Great casts! Dick Powell! Ruby Keeler! Joan Blondel! Hundreds of chorus girls! But what put these films over the top was Busby’s grasp of surrealism. His greatest surreal masterpiece was DAMES (1934). It has two fabulous numbers. The first is for the song “Dames”. Impossible to describe – you will just have to watch it yourself. It ends with a salute to Man Ray. The second number is “I Only Have Eyes For You”. It begins with Dick Powell! and Ruby Keeler on a street car. As Dick sings all the girls in the advertising placards in the street car turn into Ruby Keeler. The camera then dives into one of the ads and comes out on a sound stage with a hundred chorus girls dancing who all look like Ruby Keeler. The real Ruby appears and the camera slowly moves toward her eye. Soon the eye covers the entire screen. The single most famous image in surrealist films is the slicing of the eye in Luis Bunuel’s UN CHIEN ANDALOU (1929). In “I Only Have Eyes For You”, the iris of the eye opens like the iris of a camera and RUBY KEELER, LIKE NUCLEAR MISSILE COMING OUT OF A MISSILE SILO, SEEN FROM ABOVE, COMES OUT OF HER OWN EYE!