The Gold Diggers of 1933

On the surface, Gold Diggers is fluffy musical fare with Busby Berkeley's delightfully surreal production numbers, but the Great Depression left its mark on the film.

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D: Mervyn LeRoy (1933); with Warren William, Ginger Rogers, Joan Blondell, Guy Kibbee, Aline MacMahon, Dick Powell, Ruby Keeler.

Things were about as bad in 1933 as they'd ever get during the Great Depression. FDR's New Deal was helping to instill hope in people, but there was an awfully long way to go. Audiences were looking for escapist fare, and studios like Warner Bros., feeling the pinch as much as anyone, were ready to respond. On the surface, Gold Diggers is fluffy musical fare with contemporary favorite stars and, of course, Busby Berkeley's delightfully surreal production numbers. A Broadway production is shut down due to delinquent bills when Brad Roberts (Powell), a millionaire-cum-composer, steps in and finances a new show. Raised in an upper-crust Boston family, Roberts is very publicity-shy. When his family gets wind of his doings, they step in to end his relationship with Polly (Keeler), a chorus girl, rather than see the family name sullied by associating with showbiz types. His brother Lawrence (William) tries to annul their marriage, but in the process falls for Carol (Blondell), another chorus girl. It's all very featherweight musical-comedy stuff. Berkeley's production numbers wind up driving much of the movie; the opening segment, set to "The Gold Diggers Song (We're in the Money)," features girls dressed as coins of various denominations, and one verse is rendered in Pig Latin. "The Shadow Waltz" number features girls in hoop skirts playing neon violins, eventually lining up to make the outline of a violin with their instruments. Plenty has been written about Berkeley's production numbers and his use of the chorus line; it's very interesting how his segments would simply leave the rest of the film behind in a flight of fancy. In the Thirties, directors and producers were just beginning to explore what could actually be done with the medium of film itself. Berkeley's celebrated style was to create a separate little dimension that would forget all about the story and setting of the movie for a few minutes. His ideas, complete with art deco sets and outlandish costumes, couldn't have been cheap to execute; the fact that budget-conscious producers would give him such free rein is a testament to how popular his movies were. Berkeley himself appears toward the film's end as a stage manager banging on doors and hustling the dancers out for the "Remember My Forgotten Man" segment. And what a segment it is; Blondell (looking very sexy in a tight skirt and blouse) croons a bluesy song which she hands off to black torch singer Etta Moten. Berkeley cuts away to a montage of returning WWI veterans, wounded doughboys slogging miserably in the rain and Thirties-era bread lines, before a climax of silhouetted soldiers marching in huge arches above the stage. It's about as downbeat and serious as the rest of the movie is goofy and light-headed; it's hard to imagine that as the last image that audiences would take home with them. Being a pre-Hays Code film, there's plenty of racy dialogue and situations and a sort of gleeful, innocent carnality throughout the whole film. Roommates Trixie, Polly, and Carol lounge casually in skimpy lingerie, while another plot point has the girls taking a drunken William, disrobing him, and putting him in bed with Carol! Director Mervyn LeRoy, who had plenty of experience with low-budget films and short running times, advances the plot briskly throughout the movie. William (an underrated actor) turned up plenty of times playing curmudgeons, heavies, and snobs and certainly rises to the occasion in Gold Diggers as well. It may be fun and escapist, but Gold Diggers never forgets that the wolves were right outside the door either. Keep an eye (and ear) out for Sterling Holloway as a messenger boy.

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The Gold Diggers of 1933, Mervyn LeRoy, Warren William, Ginger Rogers

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