Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935)

"Gold Diggers of 1935." Detail from movie poster.

Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935).  98 minutes.  Directed by Busby Berkeley.  Starring Dick Powell (as Dick Curtis), Adolphe Menjou (as Nicolai Nicoleff), Gloria Stuart (as Ann Prentiss), Alice Brady (as Mathilda Prentiss), and Hugh Herbert (as T. Mosely Thorpe III).  Music and lyrics by Harry Warren and Al Dubin.

One might be tempted to say that the plot of this film exists mainly to support the lavish, geometrically obsessed Busby Berkeley musical numbers presented at the film’s conclusion.  Such a reading, however, would marginalize all of the lampooning of class and extravagance that takes place over the course of the majority of the film.  What happens before the musical numbers is truly wonderful, a great showcase of scheming and greed that is delivered from an entirely playful perspective. 

Nearly everyone in Gold Diggers of 1935 is after someone else’s money.  Almost all of the characters scheme to enrich their wallets and widen their pockets—some maliciously (for example, Mosely’s stenographer blackmails him for her own financial benefit), others more benignly (Dick Curtis pounces on a lucrative job to pay for his medical school expenses). Perhaps the one exception is the miserly Mrs. Prentiss, who reminds me of the Margaret Dumont characters from the Marx Brothers movies: she is a wealthy old dowager who dresses in evening wear at all times, is decked out with long necklaces and spectacles on a chain, and is often shocked by news, events, and other people yet is oblivious to the schemes being conducted in her presence.  Mrs. Prentiss hopes that her daughter, Ann, will marry T. Mosely Thorpe III, a millionaire who is obsessively crafting a three-part history of the snuff box; and Mrs. Prentiss similarly hopes that her son, Humbolt, who has been divorced multiple times, will curb his affections and marry no one.  The Prentiss family and Mosely arrive at a lavish hotel in upstate New York with plans to summer there, and Mrs. Prentiss embarks on her annual project to organize a summertime milk fund benefit extravaganza, enlisting the help of Nicolai Nicoleff and his partner Schultz to design the sets and choreograph the elaborate musical numbers.  Mrs. Prentiss, ever pinching pennies, has plans for a meagerly funded show, but Nicoleff and Schultz envision large commissions for themselves.  Mrs. Prentiss’s plans for her children’s romantic futures are also thwarted inadvertently by two hotel staff members, Dick Curtis and Arline Davis, with whom the Prentiss siblings fall in love.  The machinations of these characters as they attempt to con each other out of money and into love take up most of the film.

The milk fund extravaganza consists of two musical numbers starring some of the characters from the hotel and directed in Busby Berkeley’s characteristic style.  When combined, both numbers, in spite of their seeming fluffiness, actually convey a cohesive worldview.  The first sequence features the song “The Words Are in My Heart,” sung by Dick Curtis to Ann Prentiss as they both wear nineteenth-century costumes while reclining under an elaborate cherry blossom tree.  We are given to believe that Curtis is singing this song to Prentiss on stage at the charity event, and yet after he is through, the camera pulls back, and the figures of Curtis and Prentiss are transformed into miniature figures in a sculpture sitting on a piano, behind which are three full-sized women singing in enormous evening gowns.  Eventually, the camera cuts from this trio to a gargantuan, warehouse-sized set filled with over fifty white grand pianos with female pianists who are bobbing to the left and right as they pick out the notes of the same song on the keys.  The pianos eventually move around the set in complex geometric patterns, guided nearly (but not wholly) invisibly by crouching men in all-black clothes.  When the grand piano sequence is done, the camera cuts back to the three women in ball gowns.  As a clock chimes midnight, they ascend a staircase, the camera returns its focus to the model of the cherry blossom tree on the piano, it zooms in, and we return to the stage set with Curtis and Prentiss resuming the song.  The relationship between Curtis and Prentiss’s performance on the stage, which the milk fund audience can see, and the other portions of the sequence, which the milk fund audience presumably cannot see, is unclear and lends a surreal air to the sequence.

Overall, the atmosphere of this first sequence is wholesome and chaste.  The many female musicians helming the grand pianos are tastefully dressed, and their forms are largely hidden by their instruments (this is not always the case in Berkeley musical numbers, which often use the female form more suggestively).  The three women singing together seem to be sisters, and they seem to be going to bed at the song’s conclusion—no late night for them.  Curtis’s song to Prentiss expresses restrained affection for the most part, and the two wear cumbersome, old-fashioned clothes. This is all important to realize when we compare it with what follows—the “Lullaby of Broadway” sequence.  With this second sequence, Berkeley juxtaposes the former’s abstract model of temperate romance with the narrative of the life of a New York nightclub socialite (played by Wini Shaw), whom at first we see only as a spotlighted head against a completely black background.  Shaw’s anonymous character, who begins eerily in the shadows, comes home at seven in the morning and sleeps until seven at night, when she emerges from her apartment for another night on the town.  She takes on the evening with her beau (played by Dick Powell), drinking at club after club, until finally she arrives at an enormous nightclub where she gets caught up in an elaborate and massive dance.  She playfully dances with other men in the performance, until Powell chases her to the club’s windows.  She sneaks out on the balcony, but Powell and the other dancers press against the glass doors and upon opening them, accidentally push her off of the building to her death.

There is a weird sense in which the film is punishing the Shaw character with this horrifying conclusion.  The song “Lullaby of Broadway” itself seems to underscore the idea that she leads a charmed life, and the characters who interact with her as she stumbles home in the morning seem amused by her wild ways, but at the end we are left with a shot of her empty bedroom and the poor, pathetic feline whom she feeds and cares for, sitting in front of an empty bowl.  There is a suggestion of a moral here, of the consequences of partying too much in this sequence—perhaps the consequences of not living the life that the “The Words Are in My Heart” sequence seems to embody—and yet it is quite bizarre to think that the society matrons who pay to see the milk fund charity show that “Lullaby of Broadway” is part of need to hear this message.  Overall, the two numbers taken together seem to suggest that there is a significant and implicit morality at work in the ornate Berkeley musical numbers, which is both delightful and absurd.

This film falls in the middle of the Gold Diggers series, which features some of the most lavish musical numbers ever produced in Hollywood films.  The “Lullaby of Broadway” piece is really more of a film-within-a-film than a mere musical number, so complete and independent does it seem, and its titular song is beyond catchy.  The film as a whole certainly captures a strange exuberance that is unique to the period.  If you have never seen a Busby Berkeley musical, Gold Diggers of 1935 is a good place to start.