Right now, I’m kind of obsessed with Busby Berkeley musicals. 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, Dames, I love them all. I can’t watch one of his musical numbers without wondering what on Earth was going through Berkeley’s mind when he came up with these kaleidoscopic extravaganzas. As much as I love 42nd Street and Footlight Parade, if I had to take one Busby Berkeley musical with me to that deserted island, I think I’d go with Gold Diggers of 1933.
I consider Gold Diggers of 1933 to be the epitome of Great Depression era musicals. Not only do the characters deal with life during the Depression, but it’s also got plenty of great, lighthearted moments that helped movie audiences forget their woes. The movie opens with the legendary We’re in the Money number:
What a great way to kick off a movie, even if that extreme close-up of Ginger Rogers singing in pig Latin is kind of…bizarre. I love how it kind of makes you think that this is going to be a movie full of glamor and that all these characters have got it made, and then come the bill collectors to shut down the show because the bills aren’t being paid. The reality is that all these “glamorous” showgirls share an apartment, can’t pay their rent, have to steal milk for breakfast, and when they hear about a new show and want to impress the producer, they realize they only have one nice outfit between all of them.
When the girls find out that there is, indeed, a new show in the works, they also find out that the producer needs money to put on the show. Conveniently, Polly’s (Ruby Keeler) boyfriend, Brad (Dick Powell), is willing to put up the money! And even more conveniently, he’s a songwriter who has some songs that would be great in the show! Only problem is, Brad doesn’t want to actually perform in the show, so they hire somebody else to play the male lead in the show. But you can’t have a backstage musical without a little drama on opening night, so of course that would be the night when the male lead has problems with lumbago and can’t perform. Luckily Brad is also a wonderful singer and can fill in:
What an incredibly pre-code musical number, so very typically Busby Berkeley. Of course, Brad is a big sensation in the show and gets written up in the newspaper. Then we find out that Brad comes from a wealthy family that disapproves of him working in showbiz. When Brad tells his family that he plans to marry Polly, Brad’s brother, J. Lawrence Bradford, and the family lawyer, Fanuel, (correctly) assume that all these showgirls are gold diggers and set out to stop Brad from marrying Polly. Lawrence and Fanuel go to New York to meet with Polly to try to pay her off. When they arrive at the girls’ apartment, Carol (Joan Blondell) and Trixie (Aline MacMahon) have some fun with them. First, Carol is mistaken for Polly and Carol decides to go along with it to see what she can get out of Lawrence. Meanwhile, Trixie goes to work on charming Fanuel, and of course, Carol and Trixie start to fall in love with Lawrence and Fanuel.
Lawrence and Fanuel aren’t idiots though, and they eventually find out the truth that Carol isn’t Polly. Lawrence still loves Carol and wants to marry her, but she won’t unless he lets Brad and Polly be married. After their argument, Carol runs out because it’s time to do the show and it’s time for us to see the lavish Shadow Waltz number (skip to the 03:00 mark):
Before the show’s big finale, we find out that Trixie and Fanuel are now married and Lawrence wants to have Polly and Brad’s marriage annulled. However, he quickly has a change of heart just in time for Carol to go on stage for the Forgotten Man number:
So in the end, everyone’s happy. Trixie has Fanuel, Carol has Lawrence, and Polly has Brad. Now they really are in the money. Well, except for Ginger Rogers’ character, Fay. Her character just sort of faded away as the movie went on.
When people think of Busby Berkeley, I think most people tend to think of the By a Waterfall number from Footlight Parade, but I think the musical numbers from Gold Diggers of 1933 do a better job of representing his all-around style. There’s the fun glitz and glamor of We’re in the Money. 1933 was the height of the pre-code era and I don’t think anyone hated production codes more than Busby Berkeley, which clearly seen in Petting in the Park. The Shadow Waltz number is just classic Berkeley; it’s lavish and full of his signature geometric movements. And then there’s Remember My Forgotten Man, which I think is the grittiest (but still extravagant) musical number I have ever seen. At the time, Warner Bros. was known for their hard-hitting, realistic movies and the Forgotten Man number is so very Warner Bros. Before getting into the film industry, Berkeley fought in WWI so the treatment of WWI veterans was something very close to his heart. Forgotten Man has a very distinct military influence. It also kind of takes on a German expressionist influence at the very end. If Metropolis had musical numbers, I imagine they would look something like that. Every single number in this movie is absolutely magnificent.
Of course, there is more to this movie than the musical numbers. I found the movie as a whole to be extremely entertaining, well acted, and well written. It dealt with the depression in the funnest way possible. It’s just a delight to watch, I could watch it a hundred times and not get tired of it. If you’d like to see it for yourself, it will be on TCM on Friday, February 5 at 10:45 AM EST.