I still can’t decide what I actually think of Busby Berkeley. Do I enjoy his work? I can’t decide. He doesn’t choreograph dances, he creates vast kaleidoscopic arrangements of people, specifically chorus girls. They are dances firmly in the fantasy realm that could never have actually been performed on a stage. Sometimes I think I am more in awe of his mind than I am of his actual dance sequences. How does he think of these things?! Sometimes I get frustrated, because I miss the flow and grace and energy of real dancing, but he is certainly unforgettable.
1933 was the pinnacle year for Warner Bros. musicals, starting with 42nd Street – the musical that revived movie musicals as a viable and profitable film genre – and including Footlight Parade and Gold Diggers of 1933. They all have much the same cast, the same choreographer, the same songwriters. They were also all three made before the Hays Code was more firmly enforced in 1934. Watching those three movies is like watching a variation on a theme: backstage musical during the depression with impoverished chorus girls negotiating lack of money, falling in love, sugar daddies and the desire for stardom. But it’s a fun theme, irrepressible to the core despite the depression constantly in evidence.
But Gold Diggers of 1933 is somewhat unique. It is a less cohesive story than the other two and manages to combine backstage musical with sex comedy and social commentary. The movie was based on a 1919 play and 1923 silent film, which were about gold digging chorus girls getting caught up in high society and the kernel of that story – the sex comedy part – is sandwiched in Gold Diggers of 1933 between a musical. Seriously. The beginning is a musical, we take time out to have our comedy, and then the movie goes back to being a musical at the end. There are no songs or dances in the middle of the film.
The film follows the fortunes of three chorus girls, Carol, Trixie and Polly (Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon and Ruby Keeler). The show they are in folds up when creditors close it down because the producer, Barney, failed to pay his bills (Ned Sparks). They are broke and reduced to stealing their neighbor’s milk, until they hear that Barney is putting together another show, though he has yet to find a backer. However, living next door to the girls is a young songwriter, Brad (Dick Powell). Barney hears his songs and hires him to write for the show and Brad offers to be the backer, somewhat to the girl’s skepticism. But he comes through with the cash and the show goes into rehearsals and opens as a hit while he and Polly fall in love.
At which point the depression era musical goes into temporary abeyance and the sex comedy begins. It turns out that Brad is from a blue blood Boston family and when they hear that not only is he writing songs for a musical, but that he is also starring in it and has fallen in love with a chorus girl, the family is appalled and descends upon him to demand that he at least give Polly up. His brother, Lawrence (Warren William), a respectable banker and his lawyer, Fanuel H. Peabody (Guy Kibbee) decide that they must buy Polly off. But of course, they mistake Joan Blondell’s Carol for Polly and when they insult chorus girls in general as unprincipled, vulgar gold diggers, Carol and Trixie vow revenge. They’re going to act like unprincipled, vulgar gold diggers! Romantic complications ensue as Carol and Lawrence accidentally fall in love.
And then we’re back at the end with several big musical numbers choreographed by Busby Berkeley, ending with “The Forgotten Man,” dramatizing the plight of WWI veterans. It’s interesting, because the movie ends on that note.The romance is resolved before the “Forgotten Man” number and the lasting impression the film seeks to give you is the one of the depression and the soldiers. It’s a surprisingly grim note to end on, though also a call to arms (presumably by supporting FDR; Jack Warner was a big supporter).
I find the beginning and the end to be the strongest, though that’s not a complaint. The beginning is a great evocation of the shared struggles of the girls during the depression. I especially like the scene where Barney and many of the chorus girls meet in Polly, Trixie and Carol’s room to discuss his new musical, which he says is going to be all about the depression, while Brad shows them his songs, and you can visualize the musical we actually see later taking shape.
And then, of course, there is the iconic opening song, “We’re In the Money,” which fairly drips with irony, since the girls are not allowed to complete their song before their show is forcibly closed down. “It’s the depression, dearie,” as Ginger Rogers acidly observes. Another iconic song is “Pettin’ in the Park,” which is one of Busby Berkeley’s most suggestive sequences, almost bizarre at times. The men are all trying to make out with their girls, who escape during a rainstorm and change behind a screen, clearly nude, and emerge in a cute suit of armor. There is also a mischievous baby, played by Billy Bart, who runs about watching and encouraging and who gives Dick Powell a can opener to get through Ruby Keeler’s suit.
Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler were in seven movies together and were a popular screen team. They always played similar roles: he was a happy-go-lucky guy who often played juvenile lead in the musicals they are putting on and she was the innocent and sweet presence among the cynics who becomes a star. She is not the greatest dancer – heavy on her feet and looks somewhat off balance – but they are a cute and winning couple that you always root for.
Joan Blondell plays Carol, the wise-cracking chorus girl with the heart of gold. She has an interesting style of singing, reminiscent of Rex Harrison. She talks her songs rather than sings them. Aline MacMahon plays the comic who is out for gold. Warren William usually played smarmy businessmen, but rather unusually in this film he is an uptight banker bewildered by Blondell.
In Gold Diggers of 1933 Ginger Rogers had yet to make Flying Down to Rio with Fred Astaire, though that would also be released in 1933. The film actually opens with her singing “We’re In the Money” and for a moment you think she’s going to be one of the important characters, but she almost entirely disappears after the song, only to reappear occasionally to try and steal Guy Kibbee from Aline MacMahon. Listen for when she sings part of “We’re In the Money” in pig Latin.
The songs were written by Harry Warren and Al Dubin. Harry Warren is not as well remembered today as his contemporaries, George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Cole Porter. Part of the reason is that he chose to write almost exclusively for Hollywood, where songwriters did not receive the same level of recognition. But he was just as successful, winning three Oscars for best song and nominated for eleven. He and Al Dubin wrote the songs for most of the Warner Bros. musicals in the 1930s. They are the kind of songs you absolutely cannot get out of your head. I’ve been singing “We’re In the Money” for a week now and I’m still having trouble getting “Lullaby of Broadway” out of my head and I saw The Gold Diggers of 1935 months ago. Sometimes I feel like a walking jukebox, singing snatches of Harry Warren songs while I go through my day.
The three Oscars he won were for “Lullaby of Broadway,” “You’ll Never Know” from Hello, Frisco, Hello with Alice Faye, and “On the Atchison, Topeka and the Santa Fe” from The Harvey Girls with Judy Garland.
Here is “We’re in the Money,” positively small scale compared to the dances that come later in the film.