12 March 2013

Gold Diggers of 1933

"We're in the Money" with Ginger Rogers.

Film Forum’s 1933 series ended last week and as I could have predicted, my plans to attend most of the screenings were overly ambitious. Still, I did manage to see some of the films and enjoyed them quite a lot, even the few stinkers, and the whole series left me wishing for more (like 1934, 1935, etc.).

On day two of the series I saw Gold Diggers of 1933, a Mervyn LeRoy musical about three actresses trying to make it in New York during the Great Depression. Torch singer Carol King (Joan Blondell), ingénue Polly Parker (Ruby Keeler), and comedienne Trixie Lorraine (Aline MacMahon) are out of work after their show, which hasn't even opened yet, gets shut down because the company can't pay its bills. Fellow actress and rival Fay Fortune (Ginger Rogers) shows up at the flat that the girls share with the news that producer Barney Hopkins (Ned Sparks) is putting on a new show. Carol leaves to find out more information and returns with Hopkins in tow who promises parts for all of them. Hearing Polly’s boyfriend and next-door neighbour Brad Roberts (Dick Powell) playing a song he's written, Hopkins declares “Warren and Dubin are out” (the names of the real composers of the film) and promptly hires Brad. When Hopkins confesses that he still needs to raise money (he could get by on $15,000), Brad offers to get it for him as long as Polly is cast in the lead. Unknown to everyone Brad comes from a wealthy Boston family and is living in New York under a pseudonym as his family doesn’t approve of his career choice. Hopkins agrees.

Opening night of the show Brad replaces the ailing juvenile in the lead and receives rave reviews in the press. His true identity is also revealed, prompting the arrival of his straitlaced older brother, J. Lawrence Bradford (Warren William), and his lawyer with the very Boston sounding name of Faneuil Peabody (Guy Kibbee). Lawrence warns Brad that while the family may make allowances for his working in the theatre, he must give up Polly or lose his inheritance. Brad storms off and Lawrence heads to the girls’ flat, a much grander one now that they’re making money, to confront Polly. There he mistakes Carol for Polly, who he declares to be a gold digger before she can correct him. Angered, she and Trixie, who has already zeroed in on the lawyer, set out to make them pay “right through their checkbooks.” Lawrence’s attempts to turn Polly’s affections away from his brother don't exactly work out, and he ends up falling in love with her (Carol that is). By the end, the three couples are together, the “gold diggers” having gotten their men.

As to the star-studded cast, Joan Blondell is a better actress than I had thought, Warren William makes a great leading man, Guy Kibbee is hilarious, Aline MacMahon should be better known, Ruby Keeler can’t act to save her life, Dick Powell is fine but boring, and Ginger Rogers, not yet a major star, steals every scene she’s in. Rogers, who is delightful here, moves up my list of favorites every time I see one of her films. In fact, I think I saw more films in the series with her in them than any other star. While she normally receives credit for her dancing (rightly so), I don’t think enough is said about her skills as a comedienne, which she exhibits here, holding her own against the very funny MacMahon.

While the laughs may be plenty in the film, the Great Depression is never far from the minds of the characters. The girls’ lack of funds (they must resort to stealing a bottle of milk from the neighbours for their breakfast) and their inability to find work is explained simply by Fay: "It's the Depression, dearie." When Barney tells them that the new show is “all about the Depression,” Carol responds, “We won’t have to rehearse that.” The big numbers that open and close the film are also Depression-themed. In the opening number, Ginger Rogers and a bevy of dancers clad in large coins sing about breadlines and Old Man Depression in the upbeat “We’re in the Money” (Rogers actually sings one verse in Pig Latin). “Remember My Forgotten Man, ” the closing number, is a more serious acknowledgement of the dire times. Featuring Carol as a woman of the streets who’s been abandoned by her man and the amazing Etta Moten, they sing about the man who went off to fight for his country (“You put a rifle in his hand; You sent him far away”) and is now forgotten. After soldiers are shown marching off to war to the cheers of a crowd, we see them wounded, marching in the rain (on stage no less), returning only to wind up in a bread line.

Dick Powell and Ruby Keeler are "Pettin' in the Park."

Even with the comedic moments and love affairs, Gold Diggers is above all a musical and this one goes all out with four lavish numbers choreographed and directed by Busby Berkeley. In addition to the “We’re in the Money” and “Remember My Forgotten Man” numbers, there’s the visually striking “The Shadow Waltz” in which dancers with neon-violins glow in the dark against a black backdrop, ultimately forming the shape of one giant violin. And then there’s the naughty “Pettin’ in the Park.” Sung by Brad and Polly, it features a bevy of girls with their beaus making out in Central Park (“First you pet a little, Let up a little, and then you get a little kiss.”) along with famed little person Billy Barty as a pervy baby who escapes from his carriage so he can ogle the girls. After the skies open up, the drenched girls come in from the rain to change behind back lit screens, allowing viewers ample glances of their naked silhouettes. They reemerge, wearing metal dresses, whose removal is quickly solved when the baby hands Brad a can opener.

There are many elements in Gold Diggers that would never have been allowed after the enforcement of the production code the following year. Along with the suggestive lyrics and staging of the girls in the above-mentioned number, there are sexual innuendos made throughout the film, some revealing shots of Blondell as she gets dressed, and even a scene where one of the male characters wakes up after a drunken night believing he’s slept with one of the girls. All of these things would have been censored. In fact, “Pettin’ in the Park” was later removed, left out of early prints for television.

The racy scenes and dialogue combined with the over-the-top musical numbers and comic antics make for one hell of a film and maybe one of the best films of 1933. 

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