Gold Diggers of 1933: A classic musical relevant today

posted 6/1/2009 on 2009: A Blog Odyssey

You know what’s sad? So many American youths think musicals are lame. True, there are plenty of generic ones out there — people breaking into song out of nowhere with second-rate music and yawn-worthy lyrics.

But I’m here to take a stand for musicals — and for Hollywood. The golden age of Hollywood, that is: the 1930s. The economic mess we’re in now has politicians, pundits, and academics alike looking to the Great Depression, trying to take lessons from history to get us out of this mess. Today’s Hollywood producers and directors should do the same, because there’s a wealth of knowledge they could gain from revisiting classics like Busby Berkeley and Mervyn LeRoy’s daring Gold Diggers of 1933.


THE FILM

Gold Diggers opens with an over-the-top sequence of stage dancers (including Ginger Rogers) draped in gold, private parts concealed by huge coins, singing “We’re In the Money.” It’s ironic, of course, what with the Depression raging, and that irony is played out with the actresses beaming directly at us in close-up, breaking the fourth wall convention with glitzy confidence:

“We’re in the money, we’re in the money;
We’ve got a lot of what it takes to get along!
We’re in the money, that sky is sunny,
Old Man Depression you are through, you done us wrong.

We never see a headline about breadlines today.
And when we see the landlord we can look that guy right in the eye.

We’re in the money, come on, my honey,
Let’s lend it, spend it, send it rolling along!”

Police break up the rehearsal, barging in to repossess the set and props, and the girls find themselves out of a job yet again. The down-and-out director (Ned Sparks) has an idea to strike up a new production — one that faces the reality of the times: the everyman in the breadline — but where to get the money? The actresses’ loverboy neighbor (Dick Powell) emerges out of nowhere, impressing the director with the stark honesty of his piano tunes and promising to get them started with $15,000. Despite some qualms about his source (is he a gangster? a bank robber?), the show goes on.

The actual plot is decent, but mostly a framing device for Berkeley’s magnificent numbers. My favorite is “Pettin’ in the Park,” a delightfully naughty song that must have tested the meddle of Hollywood censors. “Pettin’” begins with a single flirtatious couple and explodes into a full-out production of tap-dancers, monkeys, a tiny trickster, a choreographed snowball fight, and cops on rollerskates — all captured lovingly by elegant camerawork that sews together little pieces of the big picture. Like most Berkeley numbers, the conceit is that all of this is happening onstage — a near impossibility, especially then. It’s a stage musical made for the silver screen, and it works without a hitch.

I dare you to not laugh or be awestruck at Berkeley’s artistic feat in the clip below.

Like most American movies of the era (and this), the characters persist despite adversity and finally succeed. But that’s not the end. Having taken us through the traditional cycle of introduction, conflict, and resolution, Gold Diggers back pedals with the musical’s closing song: “Forgotten Man” (title inspired by FDR’s famous speech). Whereas most songs in the film are peppy distractions from the Depression, celebrating the joy of life and love, this one hammers home the tragedy of men who sacrificed years of their life in the First World War only to starve after the ‘29 stock market crash.

So you see the film’s resonance in 2009 — and why this summer is a great time to watch it. Though the War on Terror hasn’t taken as many lives as WWI and the current recession doesn’t hold a candle to the Great Depression, I think it would benefit Hollywood to take a good look at Depression-era films and spend the big bucks on meaningful, well-produced pictures instead of junk sequels of movies that weren’t good in the first place.


SPECIAL FEATURES

  • Trailers for six Berkeley films
  • Vintage film shorts
  • Vintage cartoons based on the songs “We’re in the Money,” “I’ve Got to Sing a Torch Song,” and “Petting in the Park.” They’re inventive and hilarious, though also quite racist and sexist.
  • A history of Berkeley’s 42nd Street’s adaptation from novel to movie to Broadway play. Historians discuss how the film single-handedly revived the dead genre of the musical with its risque subject matter and dazzling artistic vision.
  • A feature similar to the above, but about Gold Diggers. Critics praise Berkeley’s blending of the individual with the mass; his fight against the Hays Code of censorship; his progressive sociopolitical outlook; and his ability to make audiences forget their troubles with stunning visuals.
  • An old clip presenting the 42nd Street Special, the General Electric-sponsored train made of silver and gold Warner Brothers sent from California to New York to promote the upcoming release of 42nd Street and celebrate Franklin Roosevelt’s first inauguration.


STATS

  • Nominated for the Best Sound, Recording Oscar; placed on the National Film Registry in 2003
  • Rated 100% on RottenTomatoes
  • Running time: 96 minutes
  • Unrated


COMING TO A BLOG NEAR YOU

A second classic film to add to your summer movie rental list — this time from the second half of the last century.