Gold Diggers in Paris (1938)

Gold Diggers in Paris (1938)

Gold Diggers in Paris (1938). 97 minutes. Directed by Ray Enright. Starring Rudy Vallee (as Terry Moore), Rosemary Lane (as Kay Morrow), Hugh Herbert (as Maurice Giraud), Allen Jenkins (as Duke Dennis), Gloria Dickson (as Mona), Fritz Feld (as Luis Leoni), Curt Bois (as Padrinsky), Edward Brophy (as Mike Coogan), Melville Cooper (as Pierre Le Brec), and the Schnickelfritz Band (as themselves). Musical sequences directed by Busby Berkeley. Music by Harry Warren, Al Dubin, Johnny Mercer, and Freddie Fisher.

For a movie whose title so blatantly alludes to financial schemers, Gold Diggers in Paris is surprisingly free of gold-digging characters. In fact, as I was watching, it occurred to me that the primary gold diggers involved in this production were probably the producers, directors, and cast, who must have seen this sixth installment in the series as easy money, given how popular its predecessors were. In addition to lacking actual characters who are gold diggers, Gold Diggers in Paris is devoid of the charming and clever music, the rich class humor, and the striking visual beauty of the rest of the franchise. Insofar as it is relatively gold-digger free, Gold Diggers of Paris reminds me of movies like Troll 2 (1990)—and yes, I really do mean that. Troll 2, one of the worst movies ever made, is not really a sequel to Troll (1986) but used the name of that better and more successful movie to attract an audience. Thus Gold Diggers in Paris—whose only resemblance to the Gold Digger franchise is its title, the actor Hugh Herbert, and the tepid involvement of Busby Berkeley—uses its name to attach itself to an accomplished franchise but underwhelms us at every turn. It is a big disappointment.

The plot is fairly ludicrous. A cultural ambassador from Paris named Maurice Giraud arrives in Manhattan looking for the American Academy of Ballet but is taken by a cab driver to the failing Club Ballé instead. Apparently, Giraud, although French, does not know the difference between the words “ballet” and “Ballé” (even when he see the latter on a sign) because he goes right inside, where the club’s chorus and star, Terry Moore, have just finished performing “I Want to Go Back to Bali”; then it is our turn to be confused, as it is never clear if this tropical song is meant to be a play on the Club Ballé’s name or just incidentally a song about a place whose name sounds identical to it. Giraud recruits Moore, his partner Duke Dennis, and the chorus, whom he presumes to be ballet dancers, to come perform at an exposition in Paris. Moore and Dennis enlist the help of an actual ballerina, Kay Morrow, and her instructor, Luis Leoni, before leaving the country. Then they all board an ocean liner for Europe, with Moore’s ex-wife Mona inexplicably tagging along. The group runs into a snag when the real American Academy of Ballet, led by the flamboyant director Padrinsky, learns that these impostors are going to dance in place of his company at the exposition. Padrinsky, his gangster friend Mike Coogan, and the Academy catch up with Moore and Dennis in Paris. There are some shenanigans as the real American Academy tries to expose Moore and Dennis as frauds, and as the Club Ballé tries to fool the authorities into thinking that the American Academy is the impostor group. None of this is very interesting. In the end, the Club Ballé triumphantly performs at the exposition in a Busby Berkeley number that is decidedly bathetic.

The music in Gold Diggers in Paris is not up to the standards of the other movies in the series. To give you an idea of what we are dealing with here, one of the songs in the finale, “Latin Quarter,” later becomes associated with the Warner Bros. cartoon character Pepé Le Pew, perhaps rightly so. After watching this and other musical sequences in Gold Diggers in Paris, I began to wonder if perhaps all songs with lyrics about “Gay Par-ee” pronounced that way in English should be avoided. The unaccomplished musical numbers, which are spread throughout the film, come to a nominal climax in the final montage as the Club Ballé performs at the Paris exhibition. This finale harkens back to an earlier routine, during which the singers, dancers, and house band pass around a military hat that Moore puts on as he begins to sing. It is not a very meaningful or interesting device, yet in the finale the big climax consists of (I am not making this up) a giant version of the hat descending clunkily from the ceiling and encompassing all of the performers within it. It reminded me of the chandelier descending in the stage version of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Phantom of the Opera—another production that I am not fond of that relies on a labored and unimpressive display to wow its audience.

Not helping the matter is the truly loathsome Schnickelfritz band, a group that star Rudy Vallee unfortunately unleashed on Hollywood in the 1930s and that performs along with the Club Ballé troupe. They are a sort of proto-Spike Jones ensemble, the difference being that Spike Jones could actually be funny. They spend a great deal of time making outrageous faces and comical gestures as they play, which I suspect are intended to disguise a lack of talent. Additionally, the man who plays the upright bass has a tendency to stick out his tongue while he performs in a not very wholesome way; I was sort of wondering if he was going to flash the camera at some point.

I felt uncomfortable watching the scenes with Mike Coogan, the mafioso friend of Padrinsky. Coogan beats up the ballet instructor Leoni in a case of mistaken identity in one scene, with the result that Leoni must be hospitalized. This act of thuggish violence seems inappropriate in such a light film. Then there is the scene where Coogan, who is working with Padrinsky to track down the Club Ballé performers in Paris, realizes who Moore and Dennis are, and in the office of French exposition director Pierre Le Brec shoots at both of the American fraudsters. No one does anything to stop Coogan as he pursues the two men out of the office with a gun; Le Brec merely turns and makes an administrative phone call. It feels cartoonish. I do not know what the filmmakers were thinking.

The first Gold Diggers movie was simply called The Gold Diggers (1923). It was silent and is now lost. All but the last twenty minutes of the second Gold Diggers movie, a sound production entitled The Gold Diggers of Broadway (1929), has been lost as well. I have often fantasized to myself about those two movies, about whether they were as wonderful as their 1930s incarnations. I wish I could trade Gold Diggers in Paris for even a few minutes of either of those lost films. For anyone interested in seeing a truly accomplished specimen of the series, I recommend starting with Gold Diggers of 1935, one of the finest movies of its decade.