I knew better than to go gaga over the first Busby Berkeley movie I saw because Gold Diggers of 1933 is superior to Footlight Parade. Not to say Footlight Parade isn’t good, but there’s far more technical skill, stronger acting and plotting in this film as opposed to yesterday’s. Director Mervyn LeRoy – who has been behind the camera of some of my favorite films – tells a witty tale of mistaken identities and wanton scheming, while Berkeley creates pure magic through song and dance. It’ll be hard to top this as the week progresses.
Barney Hopkins (Ned Sparks) is a Broadway producer putting on a show about the Depression. He enlists the help of a gaggle of starving chorus girls including best friends Carol (Joan Blondell), Polly (Ruby Keeler), and Trixie (Aline MacMahon). When Polly falls for blue blood songwriter Brad (Dick Powell), Brad’s snobby older brother, Lawrence (Warren William) schemes to break up the relationship. Through a series of machinations, Carol and Trixie decide to trick Lawrence into believing Carol is really Polly.
There are moments throughout Gold Diggers of 1933 were the musical comedy element is almost forgotten, or at least it’s not as integral to the story as it was in Footlight Parade. The musical plays as a silent background partner to events throughout, starting with Ginger Rogers dressed as a coin – demurely covering her lady business – singing “We’re In the Money” (at one point she expertly sings it in Pig Latin!). The cast of the show, matching the people of America before the Depression, are successful with no cares in the world. As the plot progresses the women are forced to scrape by however they can. The final number of the movie, “Remember My Forgotten Man,” leaves the audience to remember what is going on at the moment. For all the glitz and romance, culminating in happy endings for all the couples, there is still starvation and sadness out there on the street. The song’s jazzy lament, with a dour and forlorn Blondell crooning, only emphasizes America’s descent into the doldrums contrasted against the sparkly Rogers of “We’re In the Money.” Speaking of songs, the music assembled is memorable in a way that the songs of Footlight Parade were not. The two songs above, the former especially, are iconic, while smaller songs such as “Pettin’ in the Park” are exceedingly catchy. Let’s talking about that last song for a second. The song is a saucy admission of sexual congress, but the lyrics are a tad rapey to borrow a popular culture term. Yes, Polly does sing part of the lines, but there’s no ignoring questionable lines like “Come on, I’ve been waiting long” and “Struggle just a little.” A lot of people who have reviewed this find the song to be cute, but I couldn’t shake the creepy quality to it.
“Pettin’ in the Park” is pretty tame compared to other post-Code “no, no’s” that are in the film. Berkeley understands how to create classy pre-Codes. I mentioned Rogers with the giant coin already, but the big production number includes silhouetted nudity that leaves little to the imagination. In that same number, the women come out in metal corsets to ward off amorous suitors, only to have Powell crack open one of the corsets with a can opener. Oh, and let’s not forget Joan Blondell side boob! Yes, I actually typed that and my jaw hit the floor when I saw it. None of this feels exploitative or scummy because Berkeley and LeRoy utilized elements within the gaudy production, or in the case of Blondell’s boob, to indicate the naturalness and calm when the women are alone in their own home (Blondell is getting ready for the day).
In comparison to Footlight Parade, the story and acting is of a higher quality. The narrative, in particular, which could have spun off into various directions run like a well-oiled machine; I found that the plots within Footlight Parade came and went with little bearing to the overall story. Here, the three girls are our stars and you’re aware that struggling isn’t a new occurrence. They treat the loss of Barney’s show as if it’s a bad breakup – shows and men (especially shows run by men) always lead to disappointment for them. The script develops the women in a way that isn’t reliant on exposition. When the girls wake up to find work, they simply say “One, two, three” and roll over as proof of the futility they feel towards their situation. Blondell is probably the one best defined to be a “gold digger” although she never falls into outright greed. Carol has once had everything, and isn’t too keen to struggle forever. If anything, the covetous character is Ginger Rogers’ Fay. Rogers only holds a few scenes, and is extremely conceited; a far cry from her future roles as a sweetheart. In spite of her phoniness, you can’t help but smile due to the allure of Rogers as a personality. The other women of the trio are also amazing, and it’s always refreshing to watch a group of women who support each other as Carol, Trixie, and Polly do.
I haven’t seen anything with Aline MacMahon before, but she’s one I’ll be watching in the future. Her wisecracking, cynical Trixie is endearing and probably one of the better female friends written for the screen. Her claim to fame within Barney’s show is being the comic, “I’ll make them laugh at you starving to death,” and all of her lines hit their mark. There are rare moments where she’s not the brightest one: “What is a parasite? You better resent it” but they’re few. In yesterday’s review, I mentioned my dislike for Ruby Keeler and Dick Powell’s characters, but I’m reversing that with Gold Diggers. They have a mature relationship that blossoms fully throughout the runtime. I never found Powell to be arrogant as he was in Footlight, but felt for him as a lovesick sad sack. Their interactions are darling, and by the end I fully believed they were in love; it’s a testament to their chemistry as it’s on par with Myrna Loy and William Powell. Ned Sparks is also funny as the wacky musical producer, and we get another jab at the studio system when he declares “our juvenile actor is dying of old age.” Might he be poking fun at older stars playing teens? Guy Kibbee is also brilliant as family lawyer for Lawrence and Brad, Peabody. Peabody’s subplot revolves around his past affections for a showgirl named Eunice. Kibbee’s drunk act is a reason in itself to watch the film, particularly when he drunkenly asks Fay “Did you have a mother? Named Eunice?” You also have Warren William continuing his career as a stick in the mud, and he’s reunited with Blondell after working together on Three On a Match. William and Blondell have steamy chemistry that’s fairly intense at times. And don’t forget a cameo from Sterling Holloway as a messenger boy, his voice gives him away!
The bulk of the production is shown within the first thirty minutes of the movie, which could leave you asking what the remaining hour of the plot will focus on. What starts out as a story about the Depression – “we won’t have to rehearse that!” – turns into a screwball comedy with mistaken identities, faux seductions, and a plot that’s eerily similar to My Man Godfrey (just in the use of a plot point). A further confirmation of the script’s prowess is the ability to tie all the plots up seamlessly in an organic way that never feels as if they’re rushing to put things together. Elements glide towards each other to be cleaned up in a nice bow, and that’s necessary for a film with so many concurrent stories. The final show-piece has the women moving past their “cheap and vulgar” origins to snag their princes, which might be saying that the Depression won’t last forever…or I’m grasping at straws.
Gold Diggers of 1933 is an amazing collaboration of script, acting, and dance. The “Shadow Waltz” number is bewitching and beguiling, on top of the countless other songs that have entered the popular culture. The cast is made up of phenomenal actors who all pull together to create a loveable ensemble. Gold Diggers of 1933 is the Busby Berkeley movie to beat!
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A freelance film critic whose work fuels the Rotten Tomatoes meter. I've been published on The Hollywood Reporter, Remezcla, and The Daily Beast. I've been featured in the L.A. Times. I currently run two podcasts, Citizen Dame and Ticklish Business.