Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

Director: Mervyn LeRoy                                  Writers: Irwin S. Gelsey & James Seymour
Music: Harry Warren & Al Dubin                      Cinematography: Sol Polito
Starring: Warren William, Joan Blondell, Ginger Rogers and Dick Powell

The success of Warner Brothers’ musical 42nd Street happened before the film had even been released. The final production numbers choreographed by Busbey Berkeley were so distinctive and exciting that the studio held up release of the film until a sequel could be put into the works. These films paved the way for a string of backstage musicals featuring the work of their star choreographer. The sequel was called Gold Diggers of 1933, featuring nearly the same cast and crew as the original. In many ways, however, this is a more satisfying musical than the previous film. The opening number is a full dress performance, while rehearsal numbers are integrated into the film much more naturally, and the production numbers spread throughout the film. And where the first film labored under the overdone performance of Warner Baxter, this film benefits from the more subdued style of Warren William. And yet this was not a new story. Avery Hopwood’s play, The Gold Diggers, had been used for a silent film in 1923 and the musical Gold Diggers of Broadway in 1929, and would inspire several more films in the franchise.

The film begins with a musical number, “We’re In the Money,” with Ginger Rogers singing lead and chorus girls dressed in coins backing her up. But soon the cops come in and close the show on account of unpaid bills. It’s a situation mirrored by theaters all across New York: no money, no show. The out of work chorus girls, Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler and Aline MacMahon are desperate for a job. When Rogers comes to their apartment and gives them a lead, Blondell heads out while Keeler hears Dick Powell across the way writing songs. When Blondell comes back with producer Ned Sparks, he tells them that he doesn’t have the money to put on the show. But when he hears Powell’s songs and wants to put them in the show, the wealthy Powell agrees to bankroll the production. During rehearsals it’s clear that the juvenile lead, Clarence Nordstrom, is not very good but Powell refuses to take his place for reasons that are very mysterious. When Nordstrom’s back goes out, however, Powell does the right thing and the show goes on.

The numbers follow the set pattern for production numbers in the Berkeley films. The first is a sexually suggestive song called “Pettin’ in the Park” that features Powell and Keeler with dancers on roller skates and Billy Barty as a baby. The background goes through the seasons of the year with some pre-code elements like the chorus girls undressing behind a backlit shade. The second song is “The Shadow Waltz,” with Powell and Keeler, female vocals, and the chorus girls in hoop skirts playing neon violins. The big finale is always a march, this one called “Remember My Forgotten Man.” The number begins with Blondell talking her way through the lyrics about the men who went off to World War I and were promised bonuses in the form of a savings bond redeemable in 1945. But with the Depression hitting so hard thousands of veterans marched on Washington demanding their money immediately. The scene then shifts to a tickertape parade for the men coming home segueing into those same men in bread lines before the men and women gather onstage for the ending.

Dick Powell and Joan Blondell are the standout performers. Though Ginger Rogers is featured in the opening number, she has a relatively small part. Ruby Keeler has always been a puzzler for me, a goofy actress with a nasal singing voice and an awkward style of dancing, I’ve never been able to figure out why she was so popular. Aline MacMahon is the comedian, though I actually prefer Una Merkel from 42nd Street. Warren William doesn’t show up until halfway through the film as Powell’s brother, as does Guy Kibbee as the family’s lawyer. Sterling Holloway has a bit part as a delivery boy and there’s also an early appearance by the distinctive Charles Lane as a reporter. Director Mervyn LeRoy with the great Sol Polito behind the camera do some excellent work with close-ups in the office scene while the troupe is waiting to get the money, as well as some nice moving camera work in the hallway of the apartment building. The songs by Harry Warren and Al Dubin in the production numbers, like those in 42nd Street, are instantly forgettable, but the opening “We’re In the Money” has become a standard for good reason. Gold Diggers of 1933 is a terrific follow up to Busbey Berkeley’s first film and one of the best in the series of musicals Warners produced in the 1930s. Well worth the price of admission.

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