Monday, August 27, 2012

Gold Diggers of 1935 (Warner Bros., 1935)

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

I went to meet Charles and show him the tape of Busby Berkeley’s film Gold Diggers of 1935. It seemed an opportune time to run him this one, not only because the night before he was playing the Harry Warren compilation audiotape on which I’d dubbed the soundtrack recording of “Lullaby of Broadway” (I wanted to give him an opportunity to see the great number he’d so far only had the chance to hear) but also because the female lead is played by Gloria Stuart, who 62 years later got to film the comeback role of her life in the current #1 movie Titanic (she plays the modern incarnation of the character played by Kate Winslet in the bulk of the film — Winslet plays her in 1912 and Stuart in 1997 — and I remember being pleasantly surprised that she was in the film when last spring, in response to a long article in the L. A. Times detailing all the film’s production problems, she wrote a letter to the editor saying that James Cameron was one of the three best directors she’d ever worked with, along with James Whale and John Ford!). Though one misses the presence of a dancing star in this film — Ruby Keeler may not have been a great dancer at the level of Ginger Rogers (post-Astaire) or Eleanor Powell, but at least she was good and provided a focal point for Berkeley’s big numbers in the films they made together — Stuart, even in a fundamentally silly script (she’s the overprotected daughter of miserly rich bitch Alice Brady, who falls in love with hotel desk clerk and aspiring doctor Dick Powell), actually showed signs of major acting talent.

This time around, not having seen this film in a while, I actually found myself rather charmed by the script — though its continuing entertainment value actually comes in the numbers: the long, wordless opening sequence (in which a crew of janitors, clerks, washerwomen, maids, polishers and whatnot get a summer resort hotel ready for the season in unison and in strict tempo while an instrumental version of the song “I’m Going Shopping with You” plays on the soundtrack); and the big productions at the end, “The Words Are In My Heart” and “The Lullaby of Broadway.” “The Words Are In My Heart” is the one in which Berkeley gets 56 baby-grand pianos to dance, and is notable for its stunning size displacements as well as the mobile pianos: Dick Powell starts out in a garden setting, singing the song to Gloria Stuart, and the camera pulls back to indicate that the garden setting, Powell and Stuart are just parts of a floral arrangement on top of a giant spinet piano at which three women are sitting, one of them playing it and all three doing a trio version of the song — Berkeley actually cribbed this gimmick from Sammy Lee’s staging of the song “It Was Sweet of You” in Transatlantic Merry-Go-Round the year before (though Lee had relentlessly copied the water ballet in “It Was Sweet of You” from Berkeley’s “By a Waterfall” number in his previous film Footlight Parade), but it’s still amusing to note that the spinet the three ladies are sitting at is adorned with a candelabrum, 13 years before the film A Song to Remember (in which Chopin is going blind as he plays, and servants bring in a candelabrum to help him see the keys) supposedly gave Liberace the idea to make that his trademark. Then Berkeley pulls back and dissolves to his piano ballet, and while for the most part the illusion that the pianos are self-propelled is absolutely convincing, in the opening boom shot (while the pianos are still mounted on a staircase, before he dissolves to a more typical Berkeley overhead shot of them doing their stuff on a black Bakelite background) one can readily see the black-clad stagehands under the pianos, pushing them around in order to make them move. (They were, of course, hollow dummy props to keep the weight of them within reason.)

The “Lullaby of Broadway” number remains one of the most audacious production numbers ever put on film — only the ballet at the end of Gene Kelly’s An American in Paris can compare with it for its fertility of imagination, and unlike the festive Impressionism of the Kelly sequence, this is dark, sinister, almost noir, a far cry from the relatively unimaginative though professionally competent direction of the rest of the film (Gold Diggers of 1935 was the first film Berkeley was allowed to direct entirely by himself — interestingly, he got two directorial credits, one as dance director and one as director). The famous opening scene, in which a white pinprick on an otherwise black screen swells until it fills the screen and is revealed to be the disembodied head of Wini Shaw as she sings the opening chorus of the song, then she throws her head back and it disappears from the screen, to reveal the New York skyline while the rest of the screen, all but the part where her head was, remains stark black, was copied for the 1951 film Lullaby of Broadway but the rest of that number was a typically unimaginative, stage-bound setting quite far from Berkeley’s imagination. The number dramatizes Al Dubin’s lyric — “When a Broadway baby says goodnight/It’s early in the morning/Manhattan babies don’t sleep tight/Until the dawn” — and casts Shaw as a “Broadway baby” who, after a night of nightclub-hopping with her rich beau (Dick Powell), comes home in the morning just as everyone else is getting up, sleeps all day in her cheap apartment, wakes up again at 7 and gets ready for another night on the town. This turns out to be another date with Powell, who takes her to the “Club Casino” — where whole platoons of dancers of both genders entertain them even though there seem to be no other audience members in the club. “Come and dance!” cry the floor-show participants to Shaw, perched on a balcony overlooking the floor. “My sweetie may not let me … Why don’t you come and get me?” she sings back — and they do, pushing her farther and farther back towards a set of French windows until they push her onto an outdoor balcony, and then out of the club altogether and down to her death in the street, many stories below (this nightclub must have been patterned on the Rainbow Room, “sixty-five stories nearer the stars”), as the chorus sings the chorus of “Lullaby of Broadway” as a requiem — and Shaw returns, magically restored, to sing the final chorus of the song and become a pinprick on the screen again as the number fades out. It’s a surprisingly sinister number for Berkeley (well, maybe not so surprisingly — he did at least two other big numbers, the title tune of 42nd Street and “Night Over Shanghai” from The Singing Marine, which had sinister atmospheres and ended with the deaths of their heroines), one of the closest approaches anyone has come to musical noir. — 1/30/98


The film I picked out was the next in the Warner Bros. “Gold Diggers” series, Gold Diggers of 1935, a bit of a comedown after Gold Diggers of 1933 — by this time the Zeitgeist had shifted again and while the economy was still depressed, Franklin Roosevelt had been president for over two years and the country’s mood was considerably more optimistic. This was the first film in the series that jettisoned Avery Hopwood’s rather shopworn (by then) Gold Diggers of Broadway plot — though Robert Lord, who’d written the 1929 Gold Diggers of Broadway movie, was one of the screenwriters here, along with Manuel Seff and Peter Milne — and though Dick Powell played the male lead, Ruby Keeler sat this one out and Gloria Stuart played the female lead. The movie was also noteworthy for Busby Berkeley’s career in that he got to direct the entire film, not just the production numbers (and he gets two credits, one for direction and one for dance direction, in the opening roll) and for a marvelous opening in which he builds a production number out of the preparations being made to open the swanky Wentworth Plaza resort hotel for the summer season, in which floors are being polished, shoes shined, curtains cleaned and waiters dressed for duty in a long silent sequence in strict time to the rhythm of the intro music. Indeed, the sequence begins with a shot of a magazine about horse breeding — which it turns out is being read by a homeless man in a park! — and Berkeley’s camera dollies down the magazine’s page to an ad for the Wentworth Plaza, and the picture of its entrance in the ad dissolves to the real thing. While the whole idea of the resort as a plaything for the rich is one the Soviet censors would have considered unconscionably decadent and thereby horrendously politically incorrect, the number ironically mirrors the practice of Soviet musical directors that, since the government regarded depicting popular dancing as an example of bourgeois social decadence, they would build their production numbers out of the musical depiction of work itself.

Alas, the movie becomes considerably less creative once the plot gets underway — an all too typical pattern for Berkeley but one his best movies, Gold Diggers of 1933 and Footlight Parade, avoided (Gold Diggers of 1933 through a compelling Depression-era story and Mervyn LeRoy’s nervy direction, and Footlight Parade largely through the galvanic energy James Cagney brought to the otherwise pretty standard plot) and we meet the key characters: wealthy widow Mrs. Mathilda Prentiss (Alice Brady, carrying over from the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers movie The Gay Divorcée in which she’d played a similar but more charming and much less oppressive character) and her daughter Ann (Gloria Stuart) and son Humboldt (Frank McHugh, getting a little more to do this time around and playing befuddled rather than whiny). Mathilda is a New Englander who’s outrageously cheap (one wonders if the writers were patterning her on the real-life New England widow Hetty Green); Humboldt has married and divorced four showgirls, forcing mom to cough up $100,000 each time; and Ann is about to be plunged into an arranged (by Mathilda) marriage with T. Mosley Thorpe (Hugh Herbert at his most Hugh Herbertiest), who’s got $15 million to the Prentisses’ $10 million but is an asexual doofus whose only passion in life is collecting snuff boxes (he’s got his collection in two exhibit cases which he won’t let the hotel porters handle). Naturally Ann is revolted by him and the whole idea of having to marry him, and in order to meet her demand that she be allowed one summer to do what she likes and have fun, mom hires desk clerk Dick Curtis (Dick Powell, top-billed) for $500 to take her daughter on dates. Dick’s initially reluctant to take the job because it makes him seem too much like a gigolo, but his level-headed fiancée Arlene Davis (Dorothy Dare) talks him into it because Dick’s studying to go to medical school and $500 will pay his first year’s tuition, books and expenses. (My, how times have changed.) There follows yet another Berkeley not-quite-production number to the Harry Warren-Al Dubin song “I’m Going Shopping with You,” as Dick squires Ann through all the shops inside the Wentworth Plaza and ends up buying her — on her mom’s dime, of course! — modish dresses and hats, a beauty makeover (not that Gloria Stuart really needs one!) and, as the capstone, a $12,000 diamond bracelet, all while Dick Powell is crooning and Gloria Stuart is occasionally supplying a line of almost-singing.

The next plot issue is an attempt by non-paying guest Nicolai Nicoleff (Adolphe Menjou — a Frenchman cast as a comic Russian, once again proving that in this era, as far as Hollywood was concerned, one foreign accent was as good as another), a former theatrical producer/director, to earn enough money to pay his hotel bill by conning Mrs. Prentiss out of a large sum of money to stage her annual benefit for the Milk Fund at the hotel. Joining the con are his set designer, Schultz (Joseph Cawthorn) — a Jewish-dialect role (some of the most delicious moments of the movie are the gags about Nicoleff and Schultz being unable to understand each other’s English) — and Betty Hawes (Glenda Farrell), who got into Mosley Thorpe’s life when he requested a stenographer to help him write his definitive monograph on snuff boxes but who decided it would be more lucrative to trick him into signing a love letter to her (he thinks it’s just the lyric of a song) and then sue him for breach of promise. Indeed, one of the most annoying things of Gold Diggers of 1935 is the sheer amount of greed on which its plot is built: the hotel workers aren’t getting paid salaries on the ground that they’ll earn their keep in tips, but the head of each department is getting a kickback and the manager of the whole hotel, Louis Lamson (Grant Mitchell), is getting a share of everybody else’s share. Nicoleff and Schultz hatch a Producers-like plot to get Mrs. Prentiss and Mosley Thorpe each to put up two-thirds of the cost of doing the milk fund show — and Betty threatens to report them unless they give her one-third of the extra third. One gets the impression that Dick Powell’s and Gloria Stuart’s characters are meant for each other if only because they’re the only people in the movie who aren’t either greedy or creepy! Eventually, of course, Dick and Ann do end up together, Dick’s former fiancée Arlene ends up with Humboldt Prentiss, Mosley is disgraced and becomes tabloid fodder, and Mrs. Prentiss is ultimately reconciled to her daughter marrying Dick because “think of all the money I’ll save on medical bills” with a doctor in the family.

Of course, the main attraction of a Busby Berkeley movie is the big production numbers, though after Gold Diggers of 1933 did a good job of spacing them throughout the film, this one gives us two sort-of production numbers in the early going but then holds off on the full-dress ones until the end. One is “The Words Are In My Heart,” which begins with Dick Powell and Gloria Stuart in a waterfront park on a moonlit night (tying in to an earlier performance of the song, a “straight” rendition in which Dick is singing it to her in a speedboat which he’s parked on the shore of the lake where the Wentworth Plaza is located), then dollies back to three women sitting in front of an ornate antique piano — the scene with Dick and Ann is supposedly a corsage atop the piano, and also atop it is a candelabrum with three lit candles (13 years before the film A Song to Remember, which inspired Liberace to make the candelabrum-on-top-of-the-piano his trademark!) — and then to the famous sequence in which Berkeley had over 40 pianos animated and put them through a production number. Each piano had a chorus girl supposedly playing it (the “pianos” were actually dummy shells so they could be pushed around the soundstage in the pattern Berkeley wanted, and the black velvet-clad stagehands under them pushing them around can clearly be seen in some shots) and they form into a typical undulating Berkeley chorus line, then into the shape of a huge piano, and finally a rectangular dance floor on which a single girl does a solo dance. (The number is indicative of the way the Berkeley musicals and the Fred Astaire-Ginger Rogers films were cross-influencing each other; the first Astaire-Rogers film, Flying Down to Rio, had featured them dancing to “The Carioca” on a dance floor made up of six rotating pianos, and it had also featured long wordless sequences of a hotel being made ready for its tourist season.) It’s a wonderful number but also an indication of how desperate Berkeley was becoming for new, fresh ideas — for the film Stars Over Broadway he wanted to do a chorus line of dancing trees, but Jack Warner decided that would have been too expensive and refused to green-light the sequence, which inspired Berkeley to give MGM a call and see if they might want him when his Warners’ contract expired — but the next number, “Lullaby of Broadway,” is enough in itself to make the whole film worth watching.

It’s the entire fantasy of “Broadway babies,” gold-diggers and the men who date (and finance) them wrapped up into one number, beginning with a shot that would become a Berkeley trademark: a white speck of light in an otherwise pitch-black screen, gradually swelling in size until it’s revealed to be the head of featured singer Winifred Shaw (called “Winny” in the cast list, identified as “Miss Shaw” in the dialogue and later billed as “Wini” in other films) crooning the song in a haunting contralto about midway between Helen Morgan’s and Ivie Anderson’s. As Berkeley’s camera dollies towards her (remember that Berkeley made it a professional fetish never to use more than one camera to shoot his elaborate productions), Shaw’s face gradually fills the screen, then turns as she lights a cigarette, then her face disappears and becomes a cut-out through which we see an overhead vision of New York City. Then follows a montage of ordinary New Yorkers (most of them young and female, of course!) getting dressed and going to work at ordinary jobs, only while the rest of the city is waking up Wini Shaw is being driven home in a taxi by her beau (Dick Powell) and let off in front of her apartment, because according to Al Dubin’s lyrics “Manhattan babies don’t sleep tight until the dawn.” The day progresses for everyone else, and then shortly after 7 p.m. Wini’s alarm clock goes off and she readies herself for a night on the town. This time Dick takes her to the “Club Casino,” a surrealistic establishment that’s all Deco, looks like it’s the size of two airplane hangars and has a floor show featuring tango dancer Ramon (his usual partner Rosita sued Warners because she was billed in the film but the girl he danced with in it was someone else) and then enough chorus people of both genders to mount an invasion of a small Caribbean country. (Critics wondered how it stayed in business and met its gigantic payroll when Dick Powell and Wini Shaw appeared to be its only paying customers.) What’s more, the choruses in this film are actually doing some hard-core dancing instead of just being marched through one of Berkeley’s quasi-military formations — and the thunder of their tap shoes hitting art director Anton Grot’s Deco floors itself becomes surprisingly intimidating. The choristers call on Wini to “come and dance!” “My sweetie may not let me … why don’t you come and get me?” she cries out, and they do, driving her to the club’s balcony, charging her and ultimately pushing her to her death when the doors give way and she takes a tumble off the balcony to the ground many floors below — only to revive magically when it’s time for Berkeley to take the number out again and reverse the opening shot, a close-up of Shaw crooning the last line of the song (“Listen to the lullaby of old Broadway”) as her face dwindles in size to become a pinprick on the screen again.

“Lullaby of Broadway” was Berkeley’s favorite of his numbers, and though (as Charles pointed out) it doesn’t have the emotional impact of “Remember My Forgotten Man” it’s a dazzling piece of imaginative filmmaking — and when, in a miscarriage of justice that probably helped sink the Academy’s short-lived award for dance direction, it lost in that category, the man who won, Dave Gould (for the spectacular but hardly as audacious “straw hat” number Maurice Chevalier performed in Folies Bergère), gave Berkeley the award because even he thought Berkeley should have won. (Ironically, “Lullaby of Broadway” itself won the Best Song Oscar for Harry Warren and Al Dubin, Berkeley’s favorite songwriters.) It’s also amazing that it didn’t launch Wini Shaw on a superstar career; it’s the sort of introductory showcase newcomers dream of (though she’d actually made nine films before it, including Gift of Gab, the elusive 1934 Universal musical that starred Edmund Lowe, Gloria Stuart and Ruth Etting, and featured Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi in a guest scene as themselves) but Warners kept her mostly in undistinguished “B”’s (including a villainess role in the first Torchy Blane movie, Smart Blonde) and she retired in 1939 even though she lived into the 1980’s. Gold Diggers of 1935 is a bit of a comedown from its predecessors but the “Lullaby of Broadway” number is a work of cinematic genius and stands apart from the rest of the movie much the way “Let’s Face the Music and Dance” soars above the rest of the Astaire-Rogers musical Follow the Fleet — and though you might not guess it from this film, Berkeley was actually a surprisingly accomplished non-musical director (he’d made his debut as full director in a quite good pre-Code melodrama called She Had to Say Yes, starring Loretta Young, in 1932, and shortly before he left Warners for MGM in 1939 he did They Made Me a Criminal, an exciting and suspenseful thriller with John Garfield) who could make great movies even without platoons of chorus girls and dances with (normally) inanimate objects. — 8/27/12