Gold Diggers of 1933

"Gold Diggers of 1933." Detail from original movie poster.

Gold Diggers of 1933. 96 minutes.  Directed by Mervyn LeRoy; musical numbers directed by Busby Berkeley.  Starring Warren William (as Lawrence Bradford), Joan Blondell (as Carol King), Aline MacMahon (as Trixie Lorraine), Ruby Keeler (as Polly Parker), Dick Powell (as Brad Roberts), Guy Kibbee (as Fanuel H. Peabody), and Ginger Rogers (as Fay Fortune).  Music and lyrics by Harry Warren and Al Dubin.

In the depths of the American Depression, movie attendance sank considerably and movie theaters, mostly owned by the studios, were going out of business.  Theaters struggled to persuade people to part with the little money they had for the sake of entertainment.  Studios were forced to adopt new strategies to ensure their survival.  Many strove to offer theater-goers an experience that could not be reproduced outside of a movie theater—something unique and outlandish that made the price of admission worth it.  Gold Diggers of 1933 is a great example of this strategy as it was put into practice at Warner Bros.  The movie’s lavish musical numbers could not have been experienced in a conventional live theater; many of its dazzling effects could only be seen through the bird’s eye view of a mounted and hovering camera.

Unlike Gold Diggers of 1935, which I have written about in a previous post, Gold Diggers of 1933 labors to convey something weighty about Depression-era life.  The movie follows a group of actresses who lose their parts in an extravagant stage musical when the bank seizes the sets and costumes.  Fortune smiles on them in the person of the appropriately named Fay Fortune (played by Ginger Rogers), a fellow actress who has learned that a new musical is being put together with parts aplenty for all concerned.  Actress Polly Parker (played by Ruby Keeler) brings in her beau Brad Roberts (Dick Powell) to write the songs, and soon the cast is on its way to debuting the production on opening night. A mishap with the male lead results in Brad taking over the role, in spite of his protestations.

The next day, all learn that Brad is really Robert Treat Bradford, a society scion who is at odds with his family.  When his brother, Lawrence, hears of Brad’s repugnant debut in a lowly, albeit opulent, stage musical, Lawrence and his acquaintance Fanuel resolve to persuade Brad to drop girlfriend Polly, leave the show, and come back to the clan.  When Lawrence and Fanuel arrive at the actresses’ shared apartment, they mistake actress Carol for Polly and fall under the wiles of Carol and another actress, Trixie, who mine these two men for flowers, furs, hats, and jewelry in a fashion worthy of the movie’s title.  In the end, all is resolved, couples are married off, and the show continues on as a big success, presumably ameliorating the financial concerns of all involved.

The show that these characters put on, and that we see glimpses of throughout the movie, is a musical revue, and it features several stunning numbers, including “Pettin’ in the Park” and “The Forgotten Man.”  But before we get to the successful musical revue that the film focuses on, we see the actresses/singers perform in their original show at the beginning of the film, before it is cancelled.  While rehearsing this first revue, they sing the now famous Depression-era song, “We’re in the Money.”  Dancing around a set decorated with gigantic U.S. coins, the showgirls in question shake their skimpy costumes, which are embellished with their own shiny coins; I recall many of them also wearing something along the groin constructed out of money as well.  Beautiful and provocative, the ladies sing lyrics that not only seem to extol new-found prosperity but also to worship the idea of wealth.  And yet before any of this begins to seem too serious, Ginger Rogers (as Fay Fortune) emerges in close-up, singing the lyrics in Pig Latin.  Yes, Pig Latin—and quickly, too (I was impressed by how easily it seemed to come to her).  That moment when Rogers switches over to Pig Latin is one of the reasons that I love this movie: it does not merely attempt to lift the audience up and out of economic gloom by planting the seeds of happy thoughts; it actually seems to revel in silliness in a way that is characteristic of so many films of the 1930s, which seem to positively value goofiness and screwball behavior as things that are attractive, even sexy.

Speaking of sexy, I should point out that this movie belongs to the Pre-Code era, which means that it was made and released before the internal Hollywood censorship code was officially enforced by what came to be known as the Hays Office, or the Production Code Administration.  As a result, there is quite a bit of flirtatiousness and titillation, especially in the revue number “Pettin’ in the Park,” whose title alone points to naughty behavior.  In “Pettin’ in the Park,” we see many couples on a large, park-like set, smooching and cuddling throughout different seasons.  At one point there is rain (this is supposed to be a stage show that an actual audience is watching—don’t ask me how it is really supposed to be raining), and the women escape to a shaded platform where they all begin to undress on the other side of the shade.  We see silhouettes of the women that clearly reveal they are stripping down to their nude selves with visible (but again, shaded) breasts, until a baby from earlier in the sequence (who is played by an adult dwarf) lewdly pulls on the shade to reveal—ah, but the actresses have managed to fully clothe themselves in time.  They are wearing no less than metal armor, and when they return to their lovers in the park, the rain has cleared up, and the men are perplexed as to how to resume cuddling.  The baby approaches Dick Powell (as Brad), who is partnered with Ruby Keeler (as Polly), and hands Powell a metal can opener, which Powell proceeds to use to cut open the back of Keeler’s top.  The performance ends there.  If this film had been made only a few years later, I do not think there is any way that this would have gotten past the Hays Office without major modification.  The suggestive sequence is completely reflective of the Warner Bros. strategy to offer something out of the ordinary to an audience that was skeptical of the thrills that an expensive movie theater ticket promised to offer.

Lest you think that Gold Diggers of 1933 is all about silliness and sexual playfulness, I should direct your attention again to the film’s final sequence, “The Forgotten Man” musical number.  Part torch song, part lament for the downtrodden, “The Forgotten Man” combines the world-weary song of the abused female lover with a call for sympathy for the “forgotten” men of World War I.  Here rather than kaleidoscopic images of women twirling into infinity (I’m thinking of yet another musical number from this movie, “The Shadow Waltz”), we see the endless lines of veterans marching, many wounded, and standing in the same bread lines that the opening song, “We’re in the Money,” promised to banish from our thoughts.  But rather than negating that earlier number, and all of the upbeat performances that followed it, I think “The Forgotten Man” actually makes a claim for the legitimacy of the presentation of those numbers.  The technique of the very beautiful but potentially (to some) frivolous musical sequences from earlier in the film are shown via this more somber presentation to have utter legitimacy.  The thoughtful “Forgotten Man” blends into the ornate fabric of the movie’s musical pieces surprisingly smoothly.

Gold Diggers of 1933 was an extremely successful movie in its year of release, and it was followed by three additional Gold Diggers films, including the aforementioned Gold Diggers of 1935.  They are all characterized by a certain amount of warmth and loveliness, but I must warn you, there is something fundamentally eerie about the musical numbers; here I find that eeriness especially present in the “We’re in the Money” sequence.  Its high-pitched choral singing seems otherworldly.  Then again, perhaps my reaction to it comes of having first seen this sequence via the 1967 film Bonnie and Clyde, where the doomed Bonnie first sees Gold Diggers of 1933 in the theater and later sings the song in question to herself in the mirror while arranging a necklace of gold coins around her neck.  Bonnie and Clyde makes the sentiment of the song seem both true for its character, because Bonnie’s new-found wealth has enabled her to purchase such jewelry and see such movies, and pitiful, as Bonnie’s many sorrows do not diminish as she embarks on her new and financially lucrative outlaw life.  In fact, she seems self-conscious as she sings to herself; she can’t even seem to get in key.  It is not a very hopeful image, but then the world of the film-goer, whether that film-goer is the movie version of Bonnie Parker or one of the many other Americans who saw Gold Diggers of 1933, should never be confused with the world of the film.