Sunday, August 26, 2012

Gold Diggers of 1933 (Warner Bros., 1933)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2012 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran him the tape of Gold Diggers of 1933 that I’d recorded from Turner Classic Movies two days ago (they were showing it along with five other films — 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, Dames, Flirtation Walk and Go Into Your Dance — as a birthday tribute to Ruby Keeler) — a movie that delighted both of us. I’ve always thought Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade are Busby Berkeley’s best films at Warners (though Gold Diggers of 1935 contains the very best number he ever did, “Lullaby of Broadway”) because they’re the ones which are the most entertaining as movies — the plot portions are amusing and interesting in their own right instead of just “filler” in between the big Berkeley production numbers. It was odd in retrospect to see Warren William top-billed (he plays Dick Powell’s Boston-blueblood brother and doesn’t even appear until the film is 45 minutes old!), and even odder to see the lack of respect with which Ginger Rogers was treated as both actress and character (she’d have her revenge when she left Warners for RKO later that year and started her series with Fred Astaire, which would push her ahead of Keeler as the movies’ biggest female musical star) — but the camaraderie between the three leading ladies (Keeler, the marvelous Joan Blondell and Aline MacMahon) as the showgirls sharing a flat and leading such poverty-stricken lives that, in one of the film’s most marvelous scenes, MacMahon carefully uses a pair of ice tongs to steal a quart of milk from a neighbor so they’ll have something to eat before breakfast is wonderful — and so are the catch lines in the second half of the movie (Charles is already starting to incorporate them into our life, whispering “Cheap and vulgar” when he wants me to kiss him the way Joan Blondell does to Warren William in the film).

And the numbers are among Berkeley’s best — ranging from the spectacular “Shadow Waltz” (with its famous neon violins) to the sexy “Petting in the Park” (the Berkeley movies were definitely Hollywood-glasnost productions!) and the intensely dramatic “Remember My Forgotten Man” (which overall director Mervyn LeRoy put at the very end of the film, after all the romantic knots are properly tied — nothing could follow this intense dramatization setting the Depression to music!). About the only things we need to apologize for are the musical talents of the principals, which are rather limited; Ruby Keeler is an acceptable dancer but her singing voice makes Marion Davies sound like Maria Callas by comparison, and Dick Powell does have a strong voice but his rendition of the haunting ballad “I’ve Got to Sing a Torch Song” was aptly described by Michael Brooks as follows: “This number was thrown away in the movie[1], if ‘thrown away’ can be applied to Dick Powell’s tenor that pinned you to your seat like a dentist’s drill.” Certainly the Brunswick record Bing Crosby made of the song at the time (including its haunting verse, omitted in the film) is far more musical, with Crosby showing a genius for phrasing far beyond the square, on-the-beat singing we get from Powell (especially on the last reprise of the final eight bars, where Bing does a haunting register drop and suddenly makes the song sound more intimate and therefore more moving) — but Powell is an appealing enough personality as an actor (with just a hint of the wise-guy toughness that would make him the screen’s best Philip Marlowe 11 years later!) and Blondell (whom he married in 1936) is a first-rate actress in these tough-girl-with-a-heart-of-gold roles. — 8/27/98


Charles and I ended up watching a movie. After having experienced (I can’t really say we “watched” it because only 15 minutes of the film footage exists and we were trying to make out the rest just by listening to its soundtrack) Gold Diggers of Broadway the night before, I thought it would be interesting to watch the far more famous remake, Gold Diggers of 1933 (and apparently there’s even a fourth version: in 1951 Warners put Doris Day through the paces of this plot and named it after one of the Gold Diggers of Broadway songs, “Painting the Clouds with Sunshine”). I hadn’t seen this film in a long time, and I’d quite forgotten how good it is: indeed, I’d call it one of the very best musicals of the “pre-Code” period (along with the much more escapist Love Me Tonight and The Gay Divorcée — an Astaire-Rogers vehicle I’ve always liked better than its more famous follow-up, Top Hat). What makes Gold Diggers of 1933 special is that it’s not just another Busby Berkeley musical — instead of just marking time between the spectacular production numbers, Gold Diggers of 1933 is consistently interesting start to finish. It also avoids the mistake Warners frequently made of back-loading all the big numbers at the end: it starts with a full-dress Berkeley production on the song “We’re In the Money” (sung by Ginger Rogers and danced, maneuvered, platooned or whatever you want to call it by the full Berkeley chorus), while the next number (“Pettin’ in the Park”) occurs roughly two-fifths of the way through and only two numbers, “Shadow Waltz” and “Remember My Forgotten Man,” are held back until the end. Gold Diggers of 1933 also benefited from a much better (plot) director than the Berkeley films usually got, Mervyn LeRoy, who brought to this story some of the cynicism and bitterness of his previous films dealing with the Depression, notably I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (LeRoy had actually been set to direct the first Berkeley film at Warner Bros., 42nd Street, but because retakes and post-production on I Am a Fugitive ran behind schedule he had to give up the 42nd Street assignment to hack Lloyd Bacon); reunited with Sol Polito, his cinematographer on Fugitive, LeRoy brings some quite advanced compositions to the surprisingly bleak tale of three chorus girls — Polly Parker (Ruby Keeler), Carol King (Joan Blondell) and Trixie Lorraine (Aline MacMahon in a surprisingly assertive, non-victim role even though Winnie Lightner, who played her part in Gold Diggers of Broadway, was even better) — living together and so desperately starving that Trixie has to take a pair of ice tongs and steal a bottle of milk from a neighbor (in a nicely done suspense sequence during which we worry that Trixie will drop it and neither of those two needy households will get it).

Gold Diggers of 1933 is also an argument against my general field theory of cinema that the quality of a movie is inversely proportional to its number of writers: the script was a committee product (Erwin Gelsey and James Seymour, screenplay; David Boehm and Ben Markson, dialogue) but it’s also quite marvelous, well done and brittle in its cynicism, starting with an audacious opening in which the “We’re In the Money” number, representing the dress rehearsal of a new show being produced by Barney Hopkins (Ned Sparks, usually a whiny-voiced comic-relief third banana but surprisingly good here as an authority figure), is abruptly shut down in mid-performance by a gang of sheriff’s deputies, attaching the costumes and sets to pay off the debts Hopkins has run up to get the show to the point of a dress rehearsal. “They close before they open,” Carol grimly points out. Later, over their morning meal of stale bread and stolen milk, the girls hear from Fay Fortune (Ginger Rogers) that Hopkins is putting on a new show — only they find he doesn’t have the backing for it: the “angel” he was counting on just reconciled with his estranged wife and she talked him out of it. Brad Roberts (Dick Powell), a songwriter who lives in the building across the street from the girls and who’s been carrying on a mutual flirtation with Polly, says he can come up with the $15,000 Hopkins needs, and of course the girls assume he’s kidding — especially when he starts to write Hopkins a check and then thinks better of it and says he’ll have to pay the money in cash. He says he’ll be at Hopkins’ office at 10:30 the next morning and Hopkins, the secretary he’s hired for the day, and the girls are all waiting, impatiently drumming on their bodies and every flat surface in the audience (a scene Charles said Busby Berkeley could well have choreographed!), and Brad finally shows up two hours late but with the cash in hand. Rehearsals start and Hopkins tries to talk Brad into appearing in the show as well as financing it and writing the songs — “Give your songs a break!” he says, noting that Brad sings them much better than the professional juvenile (Clarence Nordstrom) who’s been given the male lead opposite Polly — but for mysterious reasons Brad won’t risk a public appearance.

The girls see a newspaper story about a man who robbed a bank for $20,000 and is known to hang around theatres, and assume that’s where Brad got the money — but after the show opens with Brad as a last-minute replacement for Nordstrom, the truth emerges: “Brad Roberts” is actually Robert Bradford, younger brother of Boston banker J. Lawrence Bradford (Warren William, who’s top-billed but doesn’t appear until 45 minutes into this 96-minute movie), and the elder Bradford is against his younger brother being involved in show business and even more against him getting romantically entangled with a showgirl. It’s here that the plot of Gold Diggers of 1933 begins to track that of Gold Diggers of Broadway, as J. Lawrence Bradford goes to the chorus girls’ apartment (a newer, swankier Art Deco one they’ve presumably rented with the money they’re making from the hit show they’re in) intending to buy off Polly — only Polly is out and he mistakes Carol for Polly. (Ironically, in the plot Dick Powell is mistaken for Joan Blondell’s boyfriend when he’s really Ruby Keeler’s; in real life Powell and Blondell were an item and eventually got married.) Polly and Trixie decide to take J. Lawrence and his attorney, Faneuil “Fanny” Peabody (Guy Kibbee) — who recalls his own youthful dalliance with a showgirl and concludes from it that they’re all parasites and gold-diggers — on the ride of their lives, getting the men to buy them everything for orchids to lapdogs to $75 hats (“Do all hats cost $75?” Peabody whines when it turns out that’s the asking price for the one he’s buying Trixie as well as the one Lawrence bought Carol) that are rather helmet-like but surprisingly tasteful (one wouldn’t look at these and associate them with Danny Kaye as Anatole of Paris, giggling that he designed atrocious hats because “I … hate … weemen!”) and ultimately winning their hearts, though just because he’s fallen in love with Carol doesn’t make Lawrence one whit less determined to break up Brad’s relationship with Polly, to the point where when Brad announces that he and Polly already are married, Lawrence snarls, “Then I’ll have it annulled!”

The plot strands get resolved quickly and perfunctorily during a performance of the show-within-a-show, in which Lawrence threatens to have Brad arrested, Brad tells Hopkins he can’t go on for the last number because “my brother’s trying to have me arrested for getting married,” and Hopkins recognizes the “policeman” who’s about to make the arrest as “an old ham actor” who played cops in so many plays he got the delusion that he was one. The show and the relationships go on, and with the plot portions done the movie goes into one of the most audacious sequences ever put on film, “Remember My Forgotten Man?,” the big number that expresses the Hopkins’ character stated desire to do a musical about the Depression. (“We won’t have to rehearse that,” Carol says bitterly — and when Trixie asks if there’ll be a comic-relief part, Hopkins said, “Sure, I’ll have the audience laughing at you starving yourself to death.”) As I noted in my comments on Gold Diggers of Broadway, the two films may be related plot-wise but the Zeitgeist behind them couldn’t have been more different — one made just before the stock market crash, when most people (including so-called economic “experts”) believed the market bubble would never end, and the mood of the country (at least the part of it that went to movies) was all about tip-toeing through the tulips and painting the clouds with sunshine; and one made at the depths of the Depression, when even people who could afford a movie ticket (especially to one of the proletarian neighborhood theatres Warners had acquired en masse when they bought the First National theatre chain in 1928 with the profits from The Jazz Singer and The Singing Fool) keenly felt the economic desperation of the time and flocked to a movie that ended not with a big, optimistic production number but a bitter song about forgotten men who’d served in World War I and were now dependent on breadlines. The name “Busby Berkeley” is usually associated today with the big, splashy, almost abstract production numbers like “Shadow Waltz” in this film — but sometimes (the title number of 42nd Street, “Remember My Forgotten Man” here, “Shanghai Lil” in Footlight Parade, “Lullaby of Broadway” in Gold Diggers of 1935 — the number Berkeley regarded as his very best, and most people since have agreed — and “Night Over Shanghai” in The Singing Marine) he did surprisingly dark, dramatic numbers telling miniature stories almost totally separate from the film.

“Remember My Forgotten Man” (a song that rivals “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” as a musical depiction of the Depression with a surprisingly radical, class-based lyric — more of a surprise from Al Dubin, who wrote the lyrics for this as he had for Gold Diggers of Broadway but with a different composer, Harry Warren instead of Joseph Burke, than it was from E. Y. Harburg, the Left-wing activist who wrote “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?” with a fellow Leftist, Jay Gorney, as composer) begins with Joan Blondell essentially rapping the lyrics as she passes a cigarette to a man under a lamppost (a setting Berkeley probably borrowed from the way Florenz Ziegfeld staged Fanny Brice singing “My Man”), and it moves to some haunting close-ups of Depression victims coming home from the war, ending up on the streets, desperately waiting on breadlines and, in one haunting image, a closeup of a man (former Chaplin impersonator Billy West) showing his service medal. The number moves into a booming version of the song by Black contralto Etta Moten (who later appeared in Flying Down to Rio singing “The Carioca”) and ends with an elaborate arc-shaped bridge over which lines of men are marching while another bridge looms in the background and Blondell returns to take out the song, this time singing in full voice instead of talk-singing (she almost certainly had a voice double and James Robert Parish, in his book Hollywood’s Great Love Teams, says it was Marian Anderson), the Vitaphone credit comes up and the film ends. Kudos to Mervyn LeRoy for realizing that nothing could follow “Remember My Forgotten Man” and allowing the film to end with those final, haunting images! Gold Diggers of 1933 has its flaws — the movie begins to sag a bit at the midpoint when the original Avery Hopwood Gold Diggers plot horns in on the Depression realities, and as good as Dick Powell is his voice had a rather enervating quality (Michael Brooks compared it to a dentist’s drill) and Bing Crosby, in the Brunswick records he made of “Shadow Waltz” and “I’ve Got to Sing a Torch Song” (a haunting ballad that Powell sings at his piano and which does not get the full Berkeley treatment — what would he have done with it, one wonders: a Frankenstein-style treatment with Powell leading a search party through a haunted wood trying to find his missing girlfriend?), totally outsings Powell — but on its own it’s a masterpiece and probably the best movie Busby Berkeley ever worked on, not despite but because of all the stuff in it between his awesome production numbers. — 8/26/12

[1] — Meaning it wasn’t staged by Busby Berkeley as a big production number — one can only imagine how he might have done it, perhaps with Powell as an anguished Dr. Frankenstein chasing a girlfriend instead of a monster, with torch-carrying villagers arranging themselves into kaleidoscope patterns on the hillsides!