Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936)

Gold Diggers of 1937

Gold Diggers of 1937 (1936). 101 minutes. Directed by Lloyd Bacon. Starring Dick Powell (as Rosmer Peck), Joan Blondell (as Norma Perry), Glenda Farrell (as Genevieve Larkin), Victor Moore (as J. J. Hobart), Lee Dixon (as Boop Oglethorpe), Osgood Perkins (as Morty Wethered), and Charles D. Brown (as Tom Hugo). Musical sequences directed by Busby Berkeley. Music and lyrics by Harry Warren, Al Dubin, Harold Arlen, and E. Y. Harburg.

Generally speaking, it is hard not to like a Gold Diggers movie. Even though this is the fifth iteration of the franchise, stars Dick Powell and Joan Blondell remain cute and perky throughout, and the music, in particular the songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin, is first rate. Much like the other Gold Diggers movies, Gold Diggers of 1937 (released in 1936) makes a special appeal to Depression-weary cinema-goers by explicitly referring to the economic circumstances of the times and to the individual characters’ financial predicaments; but its transportive musical finale is full of ethereal men and women who seem untouched by the reality of hard times.

This time around, Joan Blondell plays Norma Perry, a chorus girl who decides to find more stable work during the Great Depression by taking a job at an insurance firm. Rosmer Peck (played by Dick Powell) happens to work at this firm, and he loves Norma. Although not very good at selling insurance, and much more interested in music, Peck manages to sell a million-dollar insurance policy to Broadway producer and hypochondriac J. J. Hobart. Hobart has been convinced by his colleagues Morty Wethered and Tom Hugo to sign the policy, as they believe he is at death’s door. They plan to funnel the policy money collected after his death into a musical that they are producing, but Powell is committed to protecting the old man’s health and thereby the health of the insurance company. Everyone is looking to get rich, even Genevieve, a chorus girl friend of Norma’s whom Wethered and Hugo enlist to keep an eye on Hobart but who ends up falling in love with him. In the end, Hobart marries her, he regains his health, and the show goes on with Peck and Norma in starring roles.

The first gold diggers we see in this movie are Norma and her fellow chorus girls, who are boarding a train in Florida after their show has closed and are headed for New York. As luck would have it, an insurance convention has just concluded nearby, and now a gaggle of single salesmen are boarding the same train for New York. Norma’s acquaintances quickly put two-and-two together and conspire to trap and confine the salesmen in various cars so that they can get to know them better; the Depression is still raging, and they see easy meal tickets in these unmarried men. The hijinks involved in male-female pursuit across a crowded train remind me of other clever train-related sequences in  Twentieth Century (1934) and Some Like It Hot (1959). One of the things that is striking about this particular train sequence is how desirable the mostly average-looking salesmen are to the chorus girls in question. This is a different universe from Gold Diggers of 1933, where chorus girls ingratiated themselves with producers and backers in order to improve their status and boost their material possessions, or Gold Diggers of 1935, where the organizers of a Milk Fund benefit try to take advantage of a wealthy dowager. In this part of Gold Diggers of 1937, the gold being mined is decidedly more modest. The chorus girls in question are looking specifically for stability, not wealth, and their attempts to win over humble insurance salesmen are probably more reflective of the kind of gold digging that actually transpired during the 1930s.

There is another instance of gold digging that takes place in this movie, and that instance takes the form of the insurance policy plot. Wethered and Hugo’s insurance scheme contributes a delightful but, I must say, distasteful tinge that the other Gold Diggers movies for the most part lack. Because the insurance scam is paired with the bubbly songs and tap dancing that fill up the rest of the movie, the atmosphere grows uneasy at times. Mercifully, the movie does its best to move along and not dwell too deeply on the nefarious intentions of Wethered and Hugo. The wonderful Warren and Dubin song “With Plenty of Money and You (The Gold Diggers’ Lullaby),” sung by Dick Powell, sheds light on the weird dynamic of this film:

Oh baby, what I couldn’t do
With plenty of money and you.
In spite of the worry that money brings,
Just a little filthy lucre buys a lot of things.
And I could take you to places you’d like to go,
But outside of that, I’ve no use for dough.
It’s the root of all evil, of strife and upheaval,
But I’m certain, honey, that life could be sunny
With plenty of money and you.

Roughly half of the lyrics are about how wonderful wealth is, and the other half are an indictment of it in the strongest terms (“the root of all evil”). This is a far cry from the ebullient “We’re in the Money” that opened Gold Diggers of 1933; that song was a wonderful early-Depression-era celebration of financial plenitude that sought to fill us vicariously with the spirit of prosperity. The decision to use “With Plenty of Money and You” as the opening song in this film is evidence that the earlier films’ adulation of money has given way to a somewhat more conflicted view.

Still enthusiastic and upbeat, however, is the extravagant Busby Berkeley musical number that concludes the film, “All’s Fair in Love and War”—set to another Warren and Dubin song. The sequence is the only oversized musical production in the movie. It begins with four characters singing, including Peck and Norma, then segues into a sequence with many couples in rocking chairs. These eventually morph into one enormous white chair, on which a miniature version of the character Boop Oglethorpe tap-dances around. The multiplying, expanding, and shrinking processes are decidedly “trippy.” Next male and female chorus members don military costumes and shoot stage weapons at each other in a literal battle of the sexes. The pseudo-gunfire is a light pastiche of war that recalls Gold Diggers of 1933’s “Forgotten Man” sequence (a tribute to World War I veterans). But “All’s Fair in Love and War” lacks the more serious contours of that song and staging, which might seem at first to be a sign of how far removed Gold Diggers of 1937 is from its earlier incarnation. Yet while this number lacks its predecessor’s somber context and minor-key tone, it nevertheless shows people firing at each other at close range in a way that is morbid and strange. The playful brutality of “All’s Fair in Love and War” underscores the complex and sinister territory that Gold Diggers of 1937 can sometimes inhabit.

One thing that is missing from this movie is Ruby Keeler, the tap-dancing heroine of other Busby Berkeley movies such as Gold Diggers of 193342nd Street, Dames, and Footlight Parade. Tap-dancing here instead is Lee Dixon who plays Boop Oglethorpe. I like Dixon’s style—his dancing is joyous, and his body seems very limber. Keeler’s dancing, by contrast, is much more labored, but I have to admit, I love the awkwardness that she contributes to the splendor of Berkeley’s musical sequences. In her funkiness, she serves as a nice counterpoint to the productions’ extravagance. It is true that Keeler was a mainstay of Busby Berkeley pictures but not particularly Gold Diggers movies, yet I must observe that in general a Berkeley movie without Keeler seems a bit more polished, a bit less accessible.

In spite of Keeler’s absence, the movie manages to remain fairly grounded. For example, although Berkeley’s musical numbers tend to be collectivist celebrations of what many people pulling together can accomplish on one large sound stage, in “All’s Fair in Love and War” he departs from the broader images of chorus members moving in sequence and several times inserts a close-up of a specific face. These shots, when combined with the less glamorous gold digging plots, slightly darker subject matter, and more conflicted attitude towards money to be found elsewhere in the film, suggest a focus on the more human and plausible side of Depression-era life. The fact that this movie is somewhat scaled down from its predecessors underscores the point. Unlike the earlier Gold Diggers movies, Gold Diggers of 1937 only has one lavish musical production. Berkeley’s movies are often held up as examples of how Hollywood attempted to dazzle movie-goers and in some regards distract them from the realities of the Depression while underscoring in the chorus productions much of the idealized rhetoric of New Deal leaders. It is interesting that in the case of Gold Diggers of 1937, subtle alterations in focus and tone suggest a different approach to storytelling: one that overall emphasizes the darker side of the Depression and the banality of survival.