Busby Berkeley

Gold Diggers of 1935

Gold Diggers of 1935 (1935)

During the summer months, the Wentworth Plaza is a popular destination for wealthy people to beat the heat. Among them is Mrs. Prentice (Alice Brady) and her daughter Ann (Gloria Stuart). Although Mrs. Prentice has more money than most people could ever dream of having, she’s notorious for being an absurdly cheap penny-pincher. She also wants Ann to marry T. Mosley Thorpe (Hugh Herbert), an older but very rich man who is an expert on snuffboxes. Thorpe is not Ann’s type at all and she desperately wants to have some fun.

Finally, Mrs. Prentice agrees to let her have some fun by hiring Dick Curtis (Dick Powell) to be her escort for the summer. Although Dick is engaged to Arline (Dorothy Dare), she approves of the idea since the money is good. Dick and Ann have a lot of fun together (and enjoy running up Mrs. Prentice’s bills), and it isn’t long before they fall in love with each other.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Prentice is at work organizing her annual show to raise money for the Milk Fund. She ends up hiring Nicoleff (Adolphe Menjou) to direct the show, but she doesn’t realize that he’s working with other people to make the show as lavish and extravagant as possible so they can get more money out of Mrs. Prentice.

Simply put, Gold Diggers of 1935 pales in comparison to 42nd Street, Footlight Parade, or Gold Diggers of 1933. It’s not like the basic plotlines of those movies are anything complex, but the plot of Gold Diggers of 1935 feels paper-thin in comparison. I also really missed stars like Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler, and Ginger Rogers; although Alice Brady clearly has a field day hamming it up as the wealthy cheapskate.

But, since this is a Busby Berkeley movie, Gold Diggers of 1935 features some truly stunning musical numbers. Although 1935, on the whole, is really weak compared to his big hits of 1933, Busby Berkeley was still bringing his “A” game to the musical numbers. In terms of ambition and creative vision, he really outdid himself. No one is expecting anyone to honestly believe these numbers could actually be done on a real stage, but they’re an extravagant feast for the eyes. “The Words Are in My Heart” number with all those pianos is simply breathtaking and calling “The Lullaby of Broadway” a musical number almost feels like it’s selling it short; it’s more like a short film unto itself.

Pre-Code Essentials: Footlight Parade (1933)

Footlight Parade By a Waterfall


When talkie pictures come into popularity, it starts cutting into business for Broadway musical producer Chester Kent (James Cagney). He’s in dire need of a hit show, but everyone keeps flocking to these newfangled talking pictures instead. He’s convinced this is just a fad, but when his business partners take him to the theater to see one for himself, he becomes fascinated with the musical stage show the theater puts on before each movie. Chester decides he needs to get into the prologue game and convinces his business partners what a brilliant plan it is.

Chester gets right to work on his prologues with help from his faithful secretary Nan (Joan Blondell). Nan is deeply in love with Chester, but Chester is so busy, he doesn’t even realize it. He’s got all these prologues to produce, which is anything but a smooth process. He’s going through a divorce and now finds himself getting caught up with gold diggers. Everything that can go wrong does, but when a huge opportunity comes along, he has no other choice but to pull himself and his team together and get three prologues ready to perform in three days.

My Thoughts

Sometimes, an actor or director gets on a big streak of hit movies that when we look back, we say, “Wow, that was a great year for them!” For Busby Berkeley, that year was 1933. In 1933, his distinct brand of choreography made 42nd Street a huge hit, and then he topped himself by following it up with Gold Diggers of 1933. Last, but certainly not least, he one-upped himself again with Footlight Parade. These three movies are some of the most iconic movie musicals ever produced and the fact that they all came out in the same year is absolutely astonishing. With Footlight Parade, Berkeley really pushed himself and came up with some of the most imaginative and whimsical numbers of his career. (For years before I’d even seen any Busby Berkeley musical, I’d see pictures of the chorus girls standing on that fountain as part of the “By a Waterfall” number and know it was a Busby Berkeley scene. That’s how emblematic that scene is for Busby Berkeley.) By this point, he was pretty much done even pretending that these musical numbers could ever be produced on a real stage. But they are so witty, clever, saucy, and imaginative, it’s really easy to just go along with it.

For me, Footlight Parade is also one of James Cagney’s best movies. He is truly a force of nature in it; he truly leaves me in awe. Actors who can do gangster movies and musicals equally well are a rare breed and Cagney certainly falls into that category. He absolutely nails its rapid-fire dialogue and excels at working in such a fast-paced environment. And his dancing…oh, my.  Some of the dance moves he does in this movie look like early precursors to some of Michael Jackson’s dance moves. And like Michael Jackson, he makes all that dancing look so incredibly easy and effortless. But if you ever try some of those moves yourself, you’ll quickly realize how hard it really is.

However, out of Berkeley’s big three hits of 1933, Footlight Parade is the one whose plot now seems the most dated. 42nd Street is the classic backstage musical and people have no problem understanding Gold Diggers of 1933 deals heavily with the Great Depression.  But the fact that many movie theaters used to put on these musical prologues before movies during the early talkie era is now largely forgotten, except by film history buffs.

The Definitive Pre-Code Moments

All of the musical numbers.

“Outside, Countess! As long as they’ve got sidewalks, you’ve got a job!”

Why It’s an Essential Pre-Code

Each of Busby Berkeley’s three big musical hits of 1933 are full of pre-code material, but Footlight Parade easily tops them all. Innuendo, adultery, references to prostitution, tons and tons of chorus girls in skimpy outfits, bawdy musical numbers…Footlight Parade spends many of its 104 minutes openly thumbing its nose at censors. I love how there are several instances of Chester being told that censors either will or do object to content in his prologues. These are clearly jabs at movie censorship boards and the movie is essentially acknowledging and making fun of its own pre-code-ness, which is something I have never seen happen in any other pre-code movie.

A Tribute to “The Shadow Waltz” from Gold Diggers of 1933

Shadow Waltz Gold Diggers of 1933

It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Busby Berkeley musical numbers.  “42nd Street,” “We’re in the Money,” “By a Waterfall,” “Lullaby of Broadway,” I just can’t tear myself away from the TV if one of his numbers is playing.  Picking just one to call my favorite is definitely a challenge, but “The Shadow Waltz” from Gold Diggers of 1933 is certainly very close to the top of the list.

I’ve heard people say that all Busby Berkeley had to do for inspiration is look into a kaleidoscope, but I think that really does a disservice to Busby Berkeley’s creativity.  A musical number like “The Shadow Waltz” would have required a lot more thought than that.  And to be able to translate that vision into what we see on screen would have required a great deal of creativity, precision, and persistence, not just from Busby, but from the dancers as well.

Shadow Waltz Skirt Gold Diggers of 1933One thing that sets “The Shadow Waltz” apart from other Busby Berkeley musical numbers is how heavily it relies on the movement of the skirts worn by the chorus girls.  These aren’t skirts that were designed to be particularly pretty or fashionable, their main purpose is to move in a very specific way.  If one person’s skirt didn’t spin just right or got caught on something, the whole shot wouldn’t look right and they’d have to do another take. There’s even a couple moments when two circles of dancers move back and forth between each other, their skirts sort of meshing together as they pass.  It must have taken a lot of practice to get those skirts to move between each other like that.

The big thing I love about “The Shadow Waltz” is that it’s fantasy for the sake of fantasy.  This isn’t the kind of musical number that furthers the story or offers any kind of commentary.  “The Shadow Waltz” is supposed to be part of a show taking place on a stage in front of a live audience, but Busby Berkeley seems totally aware of the fact that this number could never actually happen on a stage. Dissolves, sideways shots with mirrors, that bit where all the dancers stand in the shape of a violin and a bow comes out and moves across them, he knows how unbelievable this all is. But he’s trusting the audience to put aside their disbelief and let themselves get lost in the moment and enjoy it for what it is.

The only thing “The Shadow Waltz” was ever meant to be was a few minutes of pure escapism.  Gold Diggers of 1933 was released in the midst of the Great Depression and these are the kind of moments audiences loved. And even though it isn’t 1933 anymore, isn’t it nice to lose yourself in the moment like that every now and then?

Gold Diggers of 1933: The Ultimate Early 1930s Film

Gold Diggers of 1933 Ginger RogersWhen a movie is described as being a product its time, it’s often meant in a sort of apologetic way.  It’s the sort of thing I say about creaky early talkies like The Broadway Melody or The Hollywood Revue of 1929.  It’s basically a nicer way of saying, “Look, I know this isn’t particularly good by today’s standards, but you’ve gotta remember…”

However, a movie being a product of its time isn’t necessarily a one-way ticket to being dubbed a cinematic fossil just a few years down the road.  Movies such as Saturday Night Fever and Since You Went Away completely embraced the eras they were made in but are still loved by audiences today.  Gold Diggers of 1933 is another product of its time that remains as entertaining as it was eighty-one years ago.

Trixie Lorraine: “Isn’t there going to be any comedy in the show?

Barney Hopkins: “Oh, plenty!  The gay side, the hard-boiled side, the cynical and funny side of the Depression!  I’ll make ’em laugh at you starving to death, honey!”

Gold Diggers of 1933 is a perfect reflection of so many things that were happening in the film industry at the time.  First and foremost, it dealt with the Great Depression during the Great Depression.  Even though times were tough, audiences were still flocking to movie theaters for a little bit of cheap escapism.  Gold Diggers of 1933 managed to directly address the Depression while still offering the fun and escapist qualities audiences craved.  When the character Barney Hopkins declares the show he’s producing is going to be a comedy about the Depression, it’s more like a mission statement for the movie because that’s exactly what it ends up being — funny but with a hard-boiled side.

Gold Diggers of 1933

When we first meet the main characters, they’re all struggling just like everybody else was at the time.  They lose their jobs in the first scene; they have to steal milk and avoid the landlady because they can’t pay their rent.  When they find out a new show being produced, the ladies play a game to decide which one of them goes to find out about it because they don’t have enough nice clothes for everyone to go.  Even though the name of the movie has the phrase “gold diggers” in it, the main characters aren’t heartless mantraps; they’re very likable characters who are mistakenly stereotyped as gold diggers.  It’s not hard to want these characters to come out on top.

The film’s escapist elements come from the extravagant Busby Berkeley musical numbers.  The musical numbers have nothing to do with the overall story of the movie, but they’re the most memorable scenes of the movie.  These numbers could never be done on a real stage, but it sure is fun to suspend disbelief and just enjoy them for what they are.  The opening number, “We’re in the Money,” is fun to watch although it sets an ironic tone for the movie.  “The Shadow Waltz” is a moment of pure whimsy.

Gold Diggers of 1933 Forgotten Man

Because Gold Diggers of 1933 was made in the pre-code era, it gets away with being more risqué and political than many people think of older films as being. “Pettin’ in the Park” is risqué comedy for risqué comedy’s sake.  For a movie that offers so much escapism, it ends on a very political and haunting note with the “Remember My Forgotten Man” number.  “Remember My Forgotten Man” is a scathing indictment of the way World War I veterans were being treated at the time.  Both gritty and extravagant, it’s a stunning finale.

42nd Street (1933)

42nd Street 1933When word gets out that producers Jones and Barry are putting on a new show, it’s the talk of the theater world.  Since the nation is in the midst of the Great Depression, a lot of people are depending on this show; everyone from electricians and set builders to chorus girls and the show’s director need it to be a hit.  Julian Marsh (Warner Baxter) agrees to direct the show despite his doctor’s advice.  Julian has recently suffered a nervous breakdown and was advised to find a less stressful profession.  But Julian can’t afford to retire, so he needs it to be a hit so he can afford to get out of the business.

One person who is living comfortably, despite the Depression, is Dorothy Brock (Bebe Daniels).  She’s the girlfriend of Abner Dillon (Guy Kibbee), the show’s financial backer, which means she has no problem securing a position as the show’s leading lady. Other ladies clamor for the chance to be in the chorus, including Peggy Sawyer (Ruby Keeler), who is new to the theater world.  But Peggy has no problem fitting in and quickly makes friends with fellow chorines Annie (Ginger Rogers) and Lorraine (Una Merkel) and catches the eye of Billy Lawler (Dick Powell).

After rehearsals get underway, the producers find out that Dorothy has been seeing her former vaudeville partner Pat Denning (George Brent) on the side.  Not wanting to endanger the show, they try to put a stop to it.  But just before the show is set to open, Abner finds out about Dorothy’s two-timing, they get into a fight, and he wants her out of the show.  The producers protest, but when Dorothy injures her ankle, they have no choice but to re-cast the lead.  Abner wants Annie to take the lead, but she knows she isn’t up to the task.  However, she believes Peggy is.

When 42nd Street was released in 1933, the concept of the backstage musical had already been done before in movies like The Broadway Melody.  But when 42nd Street came along, it not only became the ultimate backstage musical, it revolutionized the entire genre of musicals.  Everyone wanted to mimic Busby Berkley’s style of choreography.  But unlike many early musicals, 42nd Street can hardly be described as creaky or dull.  Its slick production values, catchy songs, memorable choreography, and witty banter keep it fresh even after eighty years.

What’s on TCM: May 2013

Humphrey Bogart in High SierraHappy May, everyone!

Rather than have just one Star of the Month for may, there will actually be several.  Every Tuesday night this month, TCM will be spotlighting some of cinema’s greatest tough guys, so that includes people like Bogart, Cagney, McQueen, and Robinson, just to name a few.

Friday Night Spotlight will be back with Illeana Douglas as the guest co-host.  Illeana has chosen the theme of “Second Looks.”  All of the movies she’s chosen weren’t particularly well-received when they were first released, but she thinks they’re deserving of a second chance.  I agree with several of her selections and since I’m all about those hidden gems, I’m really looking forward to seeing some of her other choices.

If you’re a Harold Lloyd fan, mark May 23rd on your calendar because TCM will be playing his feature movies and short films all night long, the vast majority of which have never been shown on TCM before.


Bird of Paradise (1932)

While sailing on a yacht in the South Seas, Johnny Baker (Joel McCrea) and his friends meet a bunch of natives while sailing close to their island.  But when Johnny sees a shark swimming nearby, he tries to catch it, and is pulled overboard.  Luckily for him, a beautiful native girl named Luana (Dolores del Rio) dives in to save him.  There is an immediate attraction between them, but when Johnny and his friends spend an evening with the natives, he’s told that she’s supposed to marry a prince on a nearby island.

That doesn’t stop Johnny from pursing her, though, and she feels the same way toward him.  They sneak away to see each other during the night, but when Luana’s father finds out what’s going on, he forces her to marry that prince immediately.  When Johnny finds out what’s happening, he crashes the wedding and whisks her away to a nearby island.  They build some shelter and spend weeks basking in their own, private tropical paradise.

Even though they are blissfully happy on the island, Johnny would like to bring Luana home with him.  Before he can do that, though, the volcano Pele begins to erupt and Luana knows that she will soon have to be sacrificed to appease the volcano god.  Sure enough, it isn’t long before Luana is dragged back to her island for the sacrifice.  Johnny follows, but he’s captured and is set to be sacrificed alongside Luana.  Johnny’s friends arrive to rescue them just in the nick of time.  He still wants Luana to come home with him, but Luana believes it would be best if she allowed herself to be sacrificed to the volcano god.

Bird of Paradise is likeable, but it just didn’t grab my attention enough for me to get terribly invested in it.  However, it’s a very beautifully shot movie.  Even though it’s filmed in black and white so we don’t get to see any lush, tropical colors, King Vidor really captured the essence of this tropical paradise.  There’s one scene where Luana and Johnny go swimming together and Luana isn’t wearing anything.  At first, I thought it was very reminiscent of the infamous swimming scene from Tarzan and His Mate, but then I realized that Bird of Paradise actually pre-dates Tarzan and His Mate by two years.

Joel McCrea and Dolores del Rio are both certainly fun to watch, but the movie also has a some other noteworthy names working behind the scenes.  Bird of Paradise has the distinction of being the first sound film to have a full symphonic musical score, which was created by none other than Max Steiner.  Busby Berkeley, who was still an up-and-coming choreographer at the time, choreographed the film’s jungle dance scenes.  Less than a year after working on Bird of Paradise, Berkeley would move on to bigger and better things when he went to Warner Brothers and made 42nd Street.