Gold Diggers of 1935 is another pale imitation of Gold Diggers of 1933 and lightening still hasn’t struck twice. Gold Diggers of 1935 is an entirely different entity than its prequeled namesake, and hinges on becoming a full-fledged screwball comedy; the movie is good, but you have to remind yourself it’s a Busby Berkeley production because so much feels unlike him. This was Berkeley’s first time as sole director and he has a deft touch behind the camera, even when he starts to veer into standard musical tropes. With a wacky, inane plot and a gaggle of game actors, Gold Diggers of 1935 isn’t the best of the series, but it’s a whole mess of fun.
In a luxury hotel where everyone is scheming to make a little something extra on the side, bellboy Dick (Dick Powell) ends up as the escort to the uptight Ann Prentiss (Gloria Stuart). Meanwhile, the rest of the hotel patrons are working towards putting on a benefit production for Ann’s ornery mother (Alice Brady).
In the original film, the so-called “golddiggers” were women dreaming of stardom who randomly stumble into love with wealthy men. They were perceived to be moneygrubbers by their élite lovers, only to end up possessing more integrity than anybody. With Gold Diggers of 1935, the name is as defined. From the opening scene, all the hotel staff go into their respective cliques with the intent of discussing who will make the most money. Everyone has a scheme to come into a windfall with plans to swindle the customers: “The guest is always right.” “Because he pays!” Scheming is alright because the Prentiss clan, and Ann’s betrothed, T. Mosley Thrope (Hugh Herbert) are both wealthy snobs; although it’s discovered that Thrope isn’t a snob, just a bumbler. The classic screwball elements are present, from the oblivious wealthy who don’t understand the struggles of the poor – “It could be worse…you could be a $40-million pauper” – and if anything the movie showcases Berkeley’s adeptness at creating screwball magic. You also have elements of romantic comedies (that we still see today), particularly Ann’s yearning to shirk off the mantel of wealth and cut loose.
Ann’s storyline is set up with several others, but for the first thirty or so minutes of the film there’s no talk of putting on a show, or really any trajectory set for the plot. Ann is the Sun by which all the other characters revolve, and as the plot moves towards putting a show together that binding element evaporates. Gloria Stuart is always a gem and Ann isn’t a daffy Katharine Hepburn type character; she’s feisty and temperamental like a Jean Harlow or a scowling Joan Blondell. (An aside, it was a shock to discover that past Berkeley mainstays Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, and Guy Kibbee weren’t in this production.) Her relationship with Powell is lightly developed, but never transforms into a relationship that rises above standard narrative conventions; after a date they’re supposedly head-over-heels, and Powell and Stuart lack the comfortability of Powell and Keeler. Also, Stuart isn’t a singer, as evidenced by her being eye-candy during the production numbers. In the one shopping sequence with Powell, she sings a line but it’s an obvious dub job. She must come from the Keeler school of talk-singing.
Regardless, Powell’s chemistry with Stuart is a mark above the brief scene with his fiancée played by Dorothy Dare. Dare is gorgeous, that’s not in question, but her acting opposite Powell is as gooey as macaroni and cheese. Her Betty Boop personality is composed of big eyes and big smile that come off totally ersatz; the script has her fall for Ann’s dimwitted brother, Humbolt (Frank McHugh) which caused me to ask whether she was the most insidious golddigger of all, especially as she starts to question Dick about his relationship with Ann. The rest of the talent on display have their various moments to shine. Hugh Herbert plays a similar stuffed-shirt like he did in Dames, but he isn’t nearly as moral as Ezra Ounce was. He looks old enough to be Gloria Stuart’s father which will make you happy that they don’t end up together; Herbert was 51 to Stuart’s 25! Taking the Guy Kibbee role is Adolphe Menjou as the choreographer, Nicoleff. He’s delightfully grandiose and his pretentious dance moves are the source of the comedy.
The dance sequences are just as frenetic and beautifully orchestrated as in the past, but Berkeley seems unaware of how far he wants to push into regular musical territory. As with Dames, Powell sings a song outside of the confines of the production (and he sings it fully twice, which grates if you hate repetition), but a new development is an impromptu dance sequence to open the film, where the staff of the hotel dance and work in time with the music. It’s a bizarre opening since it’s so rehearsed and shoves the movie into the realm of musical as opposed to a comedy about a musical. The final dance number is pure, unadulterated Berkeley and he continues to dazzle with his use of crane shots and overall whizbang. The piano waltz is the hallmark of the production involving Berkeley’s trademark use of cranes on top of a winding staircase and twirling pianos; for a minute I felt I was watching a living Escher drawing. The undulating pianos, ripped from a similar shot in Gold Diggers of 1933 is fantastic! Does anyone know whether it was achieved via trick photography or some type of stage device? The main song, “Lullabye of Broadway” isn’t as catchy as “Remember My Forgotten Man;” the song wants to leave audiences with a lasting social commentary as “Forgotten Man” did, but the only impression I got was that being a woman who sleeps all day and goes out at night is doomed to die. Was I supposed to notice something different? There’s also a sweet wave to Gold Diggers of 1933 when Betty (Glenda Farrell) briefly sings “We’re In the Money.”
Gold Diggers of 1935 can never replicate the sheer joy of Gold Diggers of 1933, but it has its merits. The screwball comic antics of a group continually trying to outswindle each other – “Whatever it is, I get my cut!” – holds together with a hilarious character played by Adolphe Menjou. The story is scant but the final dance numbers continue to impress.
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