Gold Diggers of 1933

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933 USA 97 mins)

Source: Chapel Films Prod Co: Warner Bros. Prod: Robert Lord Dir: Mervyn LeRoy, Busby Berkeley (all musical numbers) Scr: Erwin Gelsey, James Seymour, David Boehm, Ben Markson, from Avery Hopgood’s play Phot: Sol Polito Ed: George Amy Art Dir: Anton Grot Cost: Orry-Kelly Mus Dir: Leo F. Forbstein Songs: Harry Warren and Al Dubin

Cast: Warren William, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, Ruby Keeler, Dick Powell, Guy Kibbee, Ginger Rogers, Ned Sparks

… in musicals like the Gold Diggers series, the gold diggers usually came in twos and threes, were played by smart, snappy actresses like Joan Blondell… and Aline MacMahon, [and] set out to make their way in a man’s world but on their own terms… This is one of the few genres and occasions where there’s a real feeling of solidarity among women.

– Molly Haskell (1)

The key rather [to Mervyn LeRoy’s status and power at Warners] was his feel for the contemporary idiom and milieu – a sense of realism…

– Thomas Schatz (2)

You had to watch [Busby] Berkeley. He was such an expert technician that a number could get totally lost in images.

– Roger Edens (3)

Coming in between Lloyd Bacon’s 42nd Street and Footlight Parade, Mervyn LeRoy’s Gold Diggers of 1933 is the second in a trio of hugely successful Warner Bros. backstage musicals. Released by the studio within the same (eponymous) year, all three are perceived to be part of a return to box-office form for the reputedly ailing song-and-dance genre, and all three showcase numbers “created and directed” (4) by self-taught army-and-Broadway-trained choreographer, Busby Berkeley. Whilst the celebrated Berkeleyesque vision of multi-populated, kaleidoscopic fantasy-set-pieces links the three movies (along with slangy, street-wise dialogue, and the playfully vivid tunes by Al Dubin and Harry Warren), what distinguishes the narrative of Gold Diggers of 1933, in relation to the two Bacon-helmed works, is the absence of a strong, energetically charged central male protagonist, along the manically driven lines of Warner Baxter’s Julian Marsh or James Cagney’s Chester Kent. Gold Diggers of 1933 does offer, in a featured role, the ineffable Ned Sparks as hyper-motivated Broadway director Barney Hopkins, but the film’s plot-steering leads are the personably played titular showgirls: Ruby Keeler’s dewy-eyed Polly Parker, Joan Blondell’s bright-eyed Carol King, Aline MacMahon’s sharp-eyed Trixie Lorraine and, in a supporting part, (soon-to-be-Fred-ed) Ginger Rogers’ greedy-eyed Fay Fortune.

Like many a Warners non-musical film, Gold Diggers of 1933 was one of the studio’s few popular filmusicals to openly address, and indeed directly critique, the contemporaneous Great Depression, the socio-economic national catastrophe that supposedly compelled audiences to seek fleeting doses of solace and escapism at inexpensive picture-houses. Subsequently, the opening credits immediately flow into one of Depression-era cinema’s most potent and reassuring icons. The grinning, young and healthy figure of Ginger Rogers is shown onstage, bedecked in a floor-length train of twinkling silver dollars, sporting a circular, shiny-coined crotch-piece, and singing “We’re in the Money” (“Old Man Depression, you are through, you done us wrong”). Meanwhile, a bevy of chorines treat us to a fashion-parade of various dollar-disc-bespangled outfits; Ginger breaks into a verse intoned in Pig Latin; and then everyone, holding up huge round pieces of luminous cardboard coinage, performs a kind of corporate Mexican wave of endlessly undulating, boundless, cash flow (“Let’s lend it, spend it, send it rolling along!”). When suddenly – Crash! – all is rudely interrupted by officials from the sheriff’s office come to confiscate property for the theatre company’s unpaid debts (Rrrip! – there goes Ginger’s glistening crotch-piece). Having begun somewhere near what theorist Rick Altman might describe as the filmusical’s transcendent, sung-and-danced “supra-diegetic” realm (5), we’re effectively brought back to mundane, diegetic reality and the bracing cynicism of Ginger-as-Fay’s summary one-liner, “The Depression, dearie!”

That mood of bracing cynicism continues in the following expository scenes set in the apartment shared by the three principal girls who are forced to sleep in the same bed and to drink breakfast milk pilfered (by the ever-enterprising Trixie) from the upstairs neighbours. Also conveniently occupying an adjacent flat is Polly’s new heart-throb, aspiring young songwriter Brad Roberts (the perpetually beaming Dick Powell) who just happens to be playing a potential hit melody (“I’ve Got to Sing a Torch Song”) when seasoned showsmith Barney Hopkins is invited in, having announced he’s planning to put on an exciting new vehicle that’s got everything going for it, except dough. Brad, who’s impressed Hopkins with his song ideas (especially one based on “those men in the breadlines”) promptly promises to deliver $15,000 to Barney’s production office which he miraculously, and mysteriously, does the next morning. Once the show is launched, two connections from Brad’s past, his stuffed-shirt older brother, J. Lawrence Bradford (Warren William) and the portly family lawyer, Faneuil Peabody (Guy Kibbee) turn up, determined to terminate both Brad’s “sensational career” in showbiz as well as his inappropriately serious interest in “this Polly Parker woman”. One thing misleads to another and soon these two prospective spirits of party-pooping melancholy are being properly (and all-too-willingly) fleeced by a triumphantly gleeful Trixie (“Well. I’m very sorry, Mr. Bradford, but I just couldn’t leave the room without a corsage!”) and an increasingly reluctant Carol (who’s pretending to be Polly).

What enlivens the plot-section’s rather conventional farce situations, loosely based on Avery Hopgood’s 1919 play, The Gold Diggers, which had already been filmed twice as a silent and early talkie (6), is the cast’s spirited delivery, especially MacMahon, who’s an Auntie Mame-ish hoot (“Now, let me see, what does ‘c.o.d.’ mean?”) and Blondell, who brings an appealing sincerity and zest to a standard salt-of-the-earth role (her tearful joy, telephoning the news that she and her chums may’ve found jobs, is really quite touching, as is her ability to convey genuine romantic chemistry with William, the poor person’s John Barrymore). These two talented women constantly pep up the film’s story-world, nailing the occasional zinger with real zeal, and fleshing out an actual sisterly rapport, evident even when interacting with the limited histrionic resources of the sweetly ingenuous Ruby Keeler’s Polly. Amongst the male characters, Ned Sparks’ nasal-voiced Barney is a total delight, declaiming lines like “Listen, he’s got it! Just what I want! Don’t you hear that wailing, wailing? Men marching, marching! Marching in the rain! Jobs! Jobs! Gee, don’t it get ya?!” with visionary conviction. Surely much of such conviction, and the movie’s overall tone of authenticity and gutsiness is attributable to the narrative’s direction by Mervyn LeRoy, a versatile (and erratic) filmmaker, already responsible for such acclaimed, hard-bitten Warners hits as Little Caesar (1931), Five Star Final (1931) and I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (1932), with the anti-lynching melodrama, They Won’t Forget (1937) still to come.

So, in many ways, we can separate story-director LeRoy’s contribution to Gold Diggers of 1933 from dance director Berkeley’s legendary and indisputable authorship of the film’s quartet of classic, surrealistic musical numbers. All the Berkeley sequences demonstrate this unique auteur’s astonishing powers to transform straightforward performative set-ups into abstract micro-worlds of consistently evolving experimental art, shooting and virtually editing in one camera with almost Hitchcockian foresight and precision (7). One of these numbers, “Pettin’ in the Park”, adds all sorts of eroticised meaning to the notion of congress in public places, as, amidst a myriad of ingeniously contrived configurations, clearly naked women are revealed undressing, silhouetted behind screens which are then pulled up by a perving baby-midget who proceeds to hand tenor Dick Powell a can-opener to prise apart Ruby Keeler’s freshly donned metal bathing suit. Another, “The Shadow Waltz” splays out rows of blonde-wigged women in triple-tiered hooped skirts playing violins which are neon-lit in the dark, presenting a panoply of geometric patterns, culminating in the formation of one huge, shapely, self-bowing instrument. Less preoccupied with the usual parameters of singing and dancing, Berkeley explored the tonal registers of space itself, and orchestrated the plastic harmonies of mise en scène‘s own peculiar dynamic dimensions, moving his self-contained pieces close to opulently staged, non-representational live animation. This arch formalism is often fuelled by a smutty-minded, child-like cheekiness, since, as dance critic Arlene Croce has remarked, “Less primitive taste possibly would not have supported such extremes of invention” (8).

Berkeley’s inventive extremism reaches an epic, operatic pitch in the “My Forgotten Man” finale to Gold Diggers of 1933 where Brad Roberts’ and Barney Hopkins’ narrative dream of devoting a routine to “Men out of a job round the soup kitchen” becomes an Expressionist-noir nightmare-scape of World War I veterans returning home to a Depression-induced continuum of breadlines, homelessness and hand-outs. Starting out as a bluesy lament from Joan Blondell’s streetwalker, the song is passed on to a lone black woman in a tenement window, and gradually builds into a percussive march which advances through send-off parades, rainy battlefields, physical injury, and on to the final insult and humiliation of a defeated economy. This whole series of extravagantly squalid tableaux finishes by coming full circle back to Blondell, now the apex of a lumpenly disaffected triangular grouping of crowds of unemployed men and abandoned women, reaching up, arms outstretched, as the lyric insistently proclaims, “Forgetting him, you see,/Means you’re forgetting me,/Like my forgotten man”. Without plot wind-up, we cut straight to “The End”, accompanied by pulsating strains of the by now already haunting Dubin-Warren ballad. Although conceived and mounted as something apart from LeRoy’s tough and timely story strand (9), this climactic Berkeley number (even more forcefully than the “We’re in the Money” intro), ironically supports and undercuts one of the key thematics, inherent in the very title of Gold Diggers of 1933, namely, Surviving the Zeitgeist. The truly unforgettable impact of “My Forgotten Man” (like much of the racy, pacy picture it crowns so memorably) is perhaps most succinctly expressed by its diegetic director Barney Hopkins, himself: “Gee, don’t it get ya?!”

Endnotes

  1. Molly Haskell, From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, Penguin, New York, 1975, p. 145
  2. Thomas Schatz, The Genius of the System: Hollywood Filmmaking in the Studio Era, Pantheon Books, New York, 1989, p. 140
  3. Quoted in David Shipman, Movie Talk: Who Said What About Whom in the Movies, Bloomsbury, 1988, p. 116
  4. The credit officially allocated to Busby Berkeley in the opening titles sequence of Gold Diggers of 1933.
  5. Rick Altman, The American Film Musical, Indiana University Press, Bloomington and Indianapolis, 1987, pp. 68-74
  6. Colin Larkin, The Virgin Encyclopaedia of Stage and Film Musicals, Virgin Books, London, 1999, p. 247
  7. See Tony Thomas, That’s Dancing!, Harry N. Abrams, New York, 1984, p. 111
  8. Arlene Croce, “Dance on Film”, Cinema: A Critical Dictionary, vol. 1, ed. Richard Roud, The Viking Press, New York, 1980, p. 256
  9. Schatz, p. 152: “LeRoy’s unit shot on a thirty-day schedule from February 16 through March 23, and Berkeley’s from March 6 to April 13”