Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Trailer Tuesday: GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933

I always manage to get the plots to 42nd STREET and GOLD DIGGERS OF 1933 mixed up, because both have amazing Busby Berkeley dance numbers and both share the same casts and both deal with survival during the Great Depression. This is the film with the plot I remember, but always seem to think it’s 42nd STREET.

You might wonder why a guy who has a book on writing action movies is a huge fan of Warner Bros musicals from the 30s, but that would be thinking in cliches... so stop that right now! Oddly enough, the big set pieces in Busby Berkeley films have much in common with big action set pieces in today’s films... and probably even more in common with martial arts films (since both deal with graceful physical actions). My main love for these films comes from their gritty reality base... these are movies from the Great Depression *about* the Great Depression. While MGM was turning out glossy escapist fantasy musicals, Warner Brothers was known for gritty social issues film... and that extended to their musicals. Just as I love the WB long haul trucker movie THEY DRIVE BY NIGHT and their film about guys stringing power lines across the country MANPOWER, these musicals are about real people struggling to pay the rent and doing hard physical work (dancing). GOLD DIGGERS was directed by Mervyn LeRoy who may be most famous for his gangster film LITTLE CAESAR and crime film I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG, but went on to direct the film version of MISTER ROBERTS and THE FBI STORY (with Jimmy Stewart).

Choreographer Busby Berkeley basically reinvented the musical with his amazing production numbers, and went from Broadway choreographer to film choreographer to director of film musicals to... director of THEY MADE ME A CRIMINAL, one of the best crime films of the 1930s and probably John Garfield’s best film. After that, he invented Carmen Miranda’s hat of fruit before heading to MGM where he directed Ester Williams’ *underwater* dance numbers in movies like MILLION DOLLAR MERMAID, also directed by Mervyn LeRoy.


Directed by: Mervyn LeRoy
Written by: Erwin Gelsey and James Seymour based on the play by Avery Hopwood.
Musical Numbers by: Busby Berkeley.
Songs by: Al Dubin & Harry Warren.
Starring: Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler, Ned Sparks, Guy Kibbee, Warren William, Joan Blondell, Ginger Rogers.

Hey, the gang from 42nd STREET is back in this Great Depression musical! The story begins in an apartment filled with out of work actresses, so poor that they have one good pair of shoes and one good dress between them. The have to be careful not to schedule auditions or day job interviews at the same time, or someone will have to go in clothes with patches and frayed hems. Not that anyone has an audition or job interview, we’re in the middle of the great depression and everyone is flat broke except the very wealthy who only lost part of their fortunes in the stock market crash. This pad o gals can’t even leave their apartment, because they’d have to walk past the building manager’s office, and they are months behind on their rent (the manager keeps slipping notes under the door warning of eviction). Their only entertainment comes from listening to the cute composer across the alleyway Brad (Dick Powell) work on his songs as he avoids *his* building manager. Polly (Ruby Keeler) has a crush on Brad, and often flirts with him from window to window. Nobody knows how they’re going to afford food, because all of the Broadway Theaters are closed... no one has money to put on a show and hire them.

Enter Barney (Ned Sparks, playing the same role as in 42nd STREET just with a different name) a scheming Broadway producer who has a plan. Because the theaters are broke, he’s made a deal with one to put on a show on spec. They’ll make money off ticket sales. He’s also found a potential investor to cover the hard costs of putting on a show... but he needs a cast and some songs. So he shows up at the pad o gals and convinces them to rehearse for free for pay later. Hey, it’s a chance for the gals to get out of the apartment and maybe make enough money to pay their back rent so they won’t be evicted. It’s pretty obvious that Barney has nothing but a scheme... and when he hears Brad’s music, he thinks he has a composer! (Great in joke as Barney calls the movies composers Dubin & Warren and fires them!) Basically, he puts together a show where everyone is working on spec, They have the labor, and that’s most of what’s needed.

Brad and Polly can now flirt face to face with no alley separating them, and it’s love. Barney wants Brad to play the lead, since he knows the songs (and maybe Barney can pay Brad once for two jobs), but Brad is ultra publicity shy and says he can’t be seen on stage. This causes some of the girls to wonder if he’s a criminal on the run or something.

Everything is going great, until that potential backer for the hard costs of the show backs out, leaving them in big trouble. All of this work for nothing...

Except (plot twist) Brad claims he can cover the hard costs. They set up a meeting where Brad will show up with a cashiers check for the hard costs of the show... and wait and wait and wait as Brad doesn’t show. Just when they’re sure Brad is nothing more than a schemer, maybe using this funding thing as a way to get into Polly’s pants, he shows up with the money. Where did he get it? Rob a bank? Brad doesn’t want to tell anyone where he got it, not even Polly. He *is* a bank robber, right?

When the juvenile lead gets lumbago on opening night (because he’s well over 40) they need someone to jump in and take his place... and Brad reluctantly steps in. The show is a huge hit, Brad’s face ends up in the newspapers... and the other shoe drops.

Brad *isn’t* a bank robber, he’s the black sheep son of a wealthy Boston family who disapproves of doing *any* work for a living. This is one of those families who is so rich the Stock Market crash only made a small dent in their fortune. They send older brother Lawrence (the always sleazy Warren William) and his best friend Peabody (the always pudgy Guy Kibee) to rescue Brad from the horrors of singing and dancing on Broadway. But when the two wealthy gentlemen come to the pad o gals, and Lawrence wants to know how much money it will take to buy Polly in order to release his brother from her spell. Due to some confusion they think Carol (Joan Blondell) is Polly and she insists that this conversation take place somewhere more civilized, over a bottle of champagne and a steak. So Lawrence and Peabody end up on a double date with Carol and Trixie (Aline MacMahon)... and we get to the gold digger part of our story. The gals could easily make a bunch of money by selling Polly’s love for Brad, but they would never do anything to harm Polly and the concept that love has a price offends them. This is an interesting social point, as Lawrence believes that love can be bought, and Carol and Trixie believe it has no price. When you are wealthy, everything has a price. When you are broke, you learn the true value of simple things like love and friendship.

Somewhere in here, an impossibly young Sterling Holloway (WINNIE THE POOH) show up as a bellboy and gets a single line of dialogue. Also in the cast in small roles (uncredited) are future Mrs. Ronald Reagan and Oscar Winner Jane Wyman, future tough guy and LEOPARD MAN star Dennis O’Keefe, future cowboy star Wild Bill Elliott (as a dancer!), and character actor Charles Lane (IT’S A WONDERFUL LIFE) as the snooty society reporter who blows Brad’s cover.

The two gals manage to hook Lawrence and Peabody. There’s a great scene where a passed out drunk Lawrence is stripped and put in Carol’s bed, wakes up, and once again tries to buy his way out... but realizes that maybe these actresses are not evil incarnate, and maybe he’s *in love* with “Polly” (Carol). This creates a huge problem, because he thinks that he is in love with his brother’s gal! As the show goes on, we get a great false identity farce, which ends with a triple wedding. As usual, no shortage of half naked women, because this is precode. Side boob, top boob, underboob, and lots of sheer lingerie.

Let’s talk about the musical numbers for a moment, because there are some great ones here including an amazing show stopper at the end. The film opens with “We’re In The Money” with Berkeley’s signature “Parade Of Face” where every one of the beautiful chorus girls gets a big close up. Ginger Rogers sings this number, which (because we are still pre code) features scantily clad women with giant gold coins. The most amazing thing about this number is Rogers singing in *pig latin* for a verse or two! I couldn’t talk in pig latin that fast, let alone sing it! This is the cold opening number of the show, and ends prematurely as the repo men come to take the sets and costumes and props in a very funny scene.

Next up is one of the songs from the show, “Petting In The Park”, with Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell and a bunch of scantily clad gals in very risque situations. Billy Barty plays a horny baby (you read that right) who at one point, as the chorus girls are undressing behind a shade with *naked* silhouettes of bouncing boobs, starts to slowly pull the shade up! By the time the shade is raised, the chorus girls have changed into tin (!) breastplates and panties and dance away. The number ends with Powell unable to get into Keeler’s pants or breastplate, and Barty hands him a can opener! Powell proceeds to open Keeler’s outfit and we fade out. Hey, the *subject matter* of this song is heavy petting! This is one of those scenes you can’t believe are in a film made in 1933. The silhouettes behind that shade are *nude*.

One of the most beautiful dance numbers ever put on film is the “Shadow Waltz” with Powell and Keeler and Rogers and the rest of the gals. The chorus girls have *neon violins” they play in the dark, creating amazing kaleidoscopic images when the lights turn down. If “Petting In The Park” focused on ass, this number focuses on class. It’s worth the price of admission.

View That Number Here.

But it’s not the best number in the film. That would be the closing song, “My Forgotten Man” sung by Joan Blondell and Etta Moten. This has been a film about the Great Depression, and the social and class issues that event brought to the surface in America. This number focuses on the problems of impoverished veterans... and hits hard. All of those soldiers who fought in the Great War (WW1) returned as broken men, only to be broken again by the Great Depression. The number is in stark German Expressionistic images and deals with homeless vets. So many great moments in the number, including a policeman rousting a homeless man sleeping on the street, and Blondell opening the homeless man’s lapel to display war medals. This is a heart breaker of a song that shows how poorly the country treated war veterans after the economy went south. Hey, no parallels to today, right? The number ends with an amazing Busby Berkeley dance number that combines soldiers marching off to war in the background as homeless men march in search of jobs in the foreground. This is the conclusion of a film that has mostly been a comedy look at the struggles of surviving in the Great Depression... and makes you realize how serious poverty is.

Warner Brothers cranked out musical like this throughout the depression. Berkeley choreographed dance numbers in *five* musicals in 1933 alone! These films allowed people to forget their troubles for a couple of hours without ignoring that they had those troubles. The pad of gals and it’s concept that if people work together we can get through these temporary problems gave people hope and probably kept them from fighting with each other when things got tough. These films kept Warner Brothers in the black, and maintained their identity for gritty realism... even with these lavish musical numbers!


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