Reintroduction Post #4:
Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933, LeRoy)
First Seen in: 2009
Of all the pre-code Busby Berkeley/Warren & Dubin musicals, Gold Diggers of 1933 packs the biggest socially conscious punch. Bookended with two numbers that directly address the Depression, Mervyn LeRoy makes the meat of his times-are-tough sandwich a romantic fantasy of sorts. Monetary issues plaguing Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon and Ruby Keeler gradually melt away, replaced by playful deception, romantic pairings and always redeemable misunderstandings.
The first part of the bookend is “We’re in the Money” which takes an ironically humorous approach to the era, ending with its disruption by creditors. It’s probably my favorite bit of the film, with Berkeley’s trademark “parade of faces” and its brief foray into a jabberwocky dreamland. That extreme close-up of Ginger Rogers, with the camera pushing in and pushing in, losing focus before regaining it, is one-of-a-kind. With so many other memorable shots that ‘wow’ for the opposite reason, this is the shot for me.
The ‘meat’ of Gold Diggers is the backstage ‘let’s put on a show’ variety, just like all the Berkeley musicals. This also means of course that the song-and-dance numbers take place within the context of the show. No bursting out into song here. Instead, we get outlandish setpieces clearly made for film despite the stage show context, each trying to top the next. “Pettin’ in the Park” has some über-risqué content, including actual nude silhouettes. “Waltz of the Shadows” is top-notch in all its visual details from its intertwining and versatile hoop dresses to the hilly landscape stairs shot from different angles, each making you see the set design in a new light.
It has all been written about Berkeley before, but it really is impossible to emphasize how justifiably cherished his musical numbers are. He created a kind of spectacle that remains his own, unparalleled to any other kind of spectacle on film. There’s never been anything like them and there never will be. He plays with abstraction, with kaleidoscopic shapes and with ever-evolving scenarios. There’s randomness to his ideas. Neon violins? What? Billy Barty as a perverted infant? What? And there’s an appreciation for classical female beauty without it seeming vulgar, despite seriously pushing skin-bearing boundaries even by Pre-Code standards. I still can’t figure out how he accomplishes this.
Berkeley’s setpieces are part of the culminating stage show, which allows his work to exist solely to please the audience, giving him free rein. The film’s plot exists around these setpieces; it for them, not them for it. They don’t push the story forward. They don’t even feature characters from the film; here, those actors exist solely as performers. Berkeley also goes far beyond what would be feasible in an actual stage setting in set scale, transitions and in shot choices, meaning not even the ‘audience’ in the theater can fully appreciate what they see. His work is standalone, existing for us and only us. We are hypnotized and transported as a result.
The story itself is fun, fast-paced and quick-witted, everything you expect from Warner Brothers musicals of the time. Joan Blondell, always the sparkling firecracker, remains a highlight of pre-codes from this studio. My favorite material is when she and Warren William take over the narrative. “Cheap and vulgar. Cheap and vulgar. Cheap and vulgar.” Too good. William is so damn fantastic here as is character actor Guy Kibbee. And Aline MacMahon manages to upstage Blondell at least in the firecracker department. Her relentless schtick greatly entertains. Of course, there’s never enough Ginger Rogers who became an expert in the language of glamor-snark with these early supporting roles. I used to adore Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell as a teenager. Now, I admit I’m pretty weary of them but they are a reliable source of comfort in these films, always true to their formula, even if they are consistently my least favorite element.
At the other end of the bookend is “Forgotten Man” which is what the entire film leads up to. LeRoy and the screenwriters make sure it is built up with mentions to the number and its purpose throughout. It closes the film, though I believe it was originally meant to be the first number but Jack Warner decided to switch the two. We don’t even go back to the frivolous romantic comedy. Just as you’ve lost yourself in Berkeley’s shapes and synchronicity, Warner slams you with Blondell’s bottom dollar prostitute. Straits are so dire, it has even infiltrated purified escapist cinema; now what do you say to that? The normally fantastical world of the musical, especially in the earlier decades of film, is used here to acknowledge not just the state of things, but specific groups that were boldly political to highlight such as the plight of women and war veterans left adrift despite giving so much to their country.
I need to watch 42nd Street again (I’ve seen it twice) to see which I prefer, but Footlight Parade will always remain my favorite Warner Brothers Busby Berkeley musical because the presence of James Cagney is unbeatable by a mile as far as I’m concerned. But that shouldn’t be seen as something lacking in Gold Diggers, which is just as pleasurable now as it must have been then.