Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): Gold Diggers of 1933

Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Gold Diggers of 1933

Like rules and perhaps promises, general assumptions were made to be broken. I'd never seen a Busby Berkeley movie, except in excerpts, until recently and had always held a certain conception of them. The choreography was flashy, to be sure, with those infamous overhead patterns but it all seemed more an abstract, almost intellectual concept than something flesh-and-blood. Accordingly, I was absolutely knocked out by the end of 42nd Street. I must have seen glimpses before, but taken in its totality, the final sequence of the movie - ostensibly the climax of a stage revue but quickly turning in directions more attuned to a movie camera than a theatrical proscenium - served as a complete revelation. This is visceral filmmaking, as much as Kong swatting airplanes or Cagney falling down in the rain; more so because the kinetic energy of the roving camera and cascading figures gooses the already naturalistic flow of the medium, spilling over the boundaries of narrative to create a glorious overflow of pure cinema (to a tune, of course, which - tellingly - I can't recall). And today I saw my second Berkeley, Gold Diggers of 1933.

Gold Diggers of 1933, which I just finished watching, does not quite reach the orgiastic highs of 42nd Street. Its choreography/cinematography is grander, more ambitious, but a bit closer to what I thought Berkeley was supposed to be: impressive geometries and imaginative stagings without the same impulsive thrill. This is especially true of the final two show-stoppers: one sees many life-size glow-in-the-dark violins form one giant glow-in-the-dark violin, and another pays tribute to the "Forgotten Man" of the 30s, complete with troops marching through mud and rain (supposedly onstage) and an army of bums, fedoras slanted, emerging from behind a rise in the theater as Joan Blondell urges them on. Both are innovative and entertaining, but my favorite sequence was the giddy "Petting in the Park," which comes closest to mirroring the borderline anarchy (if anarchy can be so highly planned) of 42nd Street.

Despite my preference for the dynamic showstopper of the earlier film, Gold Diggers may be the more enjoyable picture overall. Its screenplay sparkles with energy, invention, and a touch-and-go relationship to the economic realities of the time. On the one hand, the infamous "We're in the Money" number, which opens the picture and is usually held up as an example of Depression escapism, turns out to be anything but. In fact, as Ginger Rogers leads a squad of coin-clad chorus girls in enthusiastic celebration of Depression-defying extravagance, a fleet of debt collectors descends on the rehearsal and literally rips the glittery costumes off the dancers' bodies. "Depression, honey," Ginger grumbles to one of her fellow showgirls.

The irony of Gold Diggers of 1933 can be found in its quite clever structure, which inverts the relationship between the musical numbers and the outside story (and the relationship of both to the Great D.) over the course of the film. In the beginning, actresses huddle in their flea-bitten (well, by Hollywood standards) apartment to dream of lavish revues, a return to "We're in the Money" fantasies where they can forget their real troubles. By the end, they've all found their various sugar daddies and easily overcome the plot's challenge to their happiness, laughing uproariously before the curtain rises on "The Forgotten Man," a poignant peon to the dismal times. Friend of the blog (fellow traveler, if you will, to borrow the contemporary lingo of that beleaguered era) Jon Lanthier recently criticized the structure of Slumdog Millionaire for falling on its socio-economic face: it's a rag-to-riches story which sets itself up as a political expose only to abandon this thread and sublimate its protagonist's social consciousness into a love story and eventually even a non sequitur Bollywood dance.

Gold Diggers, on the other hand, performs a kind of narrative alchemy, transposing the fantasy of its early musical numbers into the ostensible reality, while finding a vessel for the painful realities of its era in a lavish musical number - its characters, in rising to fame and fortune, abandon escapism to shine a light on their origins, on the conditions from which they rose. How much of this is in the original play, written by Avery Hopwood, I couldn't tell you, but Hopwood deserves credit for the script's simultaneous ingenuity and quick-witted, fleet-footed hilarity, he along with credited writers David Boehm, Erwin S. Gelsey, Ben Markson, and James Seymour (as well as all the other scribes who doubtlessly toiled away on the story without receiving attribution, as per the studios' arbitrary arbitration system of the time).

One could criticize the movie for being stingy with its musical numbers - supposedly the main attraction and deservedly so, since Berkeley may have been the greatest film genius of the thirties. After all, we get the opening number (interrupted by cutaways to the stogie-chomping impresario and the arriving army of money men, to remind us that this parade of woman-sized coins is situated in the very real world), another number thirty minutes in, and then we have to wait until the final twenty minutes for the rest. Yet because the performances are so lively, the dialogue so biting, the story so engaging that it winks at its cliches and turns them into a kind of pop art, and because Mervyn LeRoy keeps it moving at a brisk pace, we go along with it. And when Busby arrives with his infamous spreading and constricting circles, his little shapes forming big shapes, his (don't ask) perverted infant climbing out of its stroller to peep at several levels of chorus girls changing behind a gigantic screen, we trip with pleasure into this new universe.

It's at once part of and apart from the rest of the film, gliding alongside it to comment, darting in and out of the characters' lives, illuminating (and by the end, resuscitating) the themes and emotions the narrative has provided, all this time completely and utterly transcending the limits of contemporary talking picture to reach for something more sublime. In this sense, the army of hobos which descends upon us at picture's end may be biting off more than it can chew (hardly an apt metaphor for a breadline but you get the idea) - asking us to be wowed and contemplative at the same time. But by matching a desperate grasping for the stars - not wan romantic pinpoints lodged in the inky black, but pulsating balls of energy yanking us into the giddy freefloat of zero gravity - with a feverish yearning to reach the real world concerns of its audience, to make them feel that this work is not apart from them but divined from the fruits of their very existence, by fusing these two divergent impulses "The Forgotten Man" and the rest of Berkeley's numbers (which, no matter how fanciful, find the source of their abstraction in human figures and behavior) serve as a sample of the larger picture and, perhaps, of Hollywood's ambitions at the time.

May it find such ambitions again.

15 comments:

David Fiore said...

Amen!

I think the final number of 42nd Street (and it is an amazing number), although I could be wrong about that...

I like your take on Gold Diggers of 1933, and its final Berkeley blast, which does indeed constitute a kind of declaration of big entertainment principles that Warners actually managed to live up to, on occasion (especially in Leroy's Five Star Final, I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang and They Won't Forget...

the later Berkeley films, unfortunately, tend to associate themselves more unambiguously with the worldview of the successful chiseler, although even that less radical position can generate some pretty damning critique (i.e. the amazing convention speech that opens Gold Diggers of 1937, as well as Glenda Farrell's smirking lament that "it's so hard to be good under the capitalistic system" from later in that same film (whose musical numbers, by contrast, take up very retrograde themes indeed, unfortunately)

Dave

David Fiore said...

yikes--that should read: "I think the final number of 42nd Street IS THE TITLE SONG (and it is an amazing number), although I could be wrong about that...

Erich Kuersten said...

Great post and you are correct, Mr. Fiore, I think -- the ending on that surreal "42nd St" stuff--the party girls all waking up at night and going to bed as if working the night shift in the pleasure factory, is totally transcendent and decadent - the film just spills out of the projector like--say--the surrealist moments in Bergman's PERSONA, or the endings of L'ECLISSE and IRMA VEP. Very gutsy, and its mix of sadness, death, life and dancing reminds me always of that great Duke Ellington short from the era, was it Black & Tan Fantasy or something like that? With the dancer exhausting herself and the band singing a funeral dirge-- around her death bed?

MovieMan0283 said...

David,

Thanks (recalling the imagery of the sweltering city-block, I'm amazed I could forget) & welcome to the blog. Your comment on Warners is astute - that the outlook I ascribe to Berkeley and somewhat to Hollywood is also specifically attuned to that particular studio's sensibility.

Erich,

Yes, I think the quality I loved in 42nd Street (and missed a bit in Gold Diggers) was that surrealism. It reminded me also of Entr'acte.

Tony D'Ambra said...

I agree that Golddigger is the more satisfying. Both movies are also a celebration of the erotic feminine. Sex is joyous and fun, woman are sassy and hot. Of course this was before the Hays Code shackled such freedom of expression when it began to be effectively enforced in 1934...

MovieMan0283 said...

Tony, every week or so - as TCM brings more pre-Code goodies to my doorstep - I'm amazed by how brazen yet clever these early talkies were. It strikes me that the pre-Code pics strike the perfect balance between watered-down post-34 and the unexciting obviousness of contemporary cinema.

Tony D'Ambra said...

MM, if you haven't seen it yet, get hold of Lubitsch's Trouble In Paradise (1932). After 1935,due to Hays it was withdrawn from circulation and was not seen again until 1968. The film was never available on videocassette and only became available on DVD in 2003.

manwithoutastar said...

Hi there Movieman,

I love this film and I like your reading of the opposition between the 'happy' resolution of the script and the developing darkness of the songs/performance-spectacles - interesting!

I wrote an essay on this film as an undergrad - actually I'll put a link here to it, I had it published years ago now on the Canadian site Offscreen:
http://www.offscreen.com/biblio/phile/essays/comedy_class/
On that first song I remember that I commented that it could be considered to show the media presentation of the Depression at its very start. There was a long while when the media denied the very existence of a Depression and the interrupting of the song could be seen as suggesting the reality of the Depression pushing through, against this. I found this film fascinating on the whole for the fact that it drives towards the revelation of 'reality' that has been hidden (remember my forgotten man.) The polar opposite of the usual musical the drive of which tends to be rather towards more and more fantasy..

Always a fan of your site! Keep up the good work!

manwithoutastar said...

Ah that link doesn't seem to have gone fully through. Here it is:
www.offscreen.com/biblio/phile/essays/comedy_class

Hoping that will work!

Ben.

C. Jerry Kutner said...

Berkeley was a great avant-garde filmmaker. His masterpiece in this regard is the "Lullaby of Broadway" number from the otherwise forgettable Gold Diggers of 1935. Pure cinema.

But his madness wasn't limited to the Warner era. Check out the Technicolor delirium of The Gang's All Here made for Fox in the '40s.

MovieMan0283 said...

Tony, I have seen Trouble in Paradise, but a few years back. It deserves a reviewing along with many other Lubitschs (I tried to make room on my DVR for Ninotchka but it was crowded out by all the classics I HAVEN'T seen - it's even harder to keep a handle on my TCM queue than my blogroll. Where's the time, damnit?!).

For the moment I think my favorite Lubitsch might be The Shop Around the Corner.

Man Without, I will check out that article when I get the chance - looks like we see eye to eye on the musical's relationship to the era and its own presentation of that relationship. Glad to hear from you; hope your blog resumes activity again soon (unless it has since I last checked; see above comment on blogroll).

Jerry, after 42nd & Gold Diggers much more Berkeley will probably be on the way; hopefully TCM makes it easy for me and schedules some more. It's funny; a year ago, the thirties was probably one of my weakest decades in terms of films seen but that's changed since purchasing a DVR...

C. Jerry Kutner said...

Some of these Berkeley movies are pretty lousy - apart from their musical numbers - and even the musical numbers are enfeebled during his MGM period (apart from a few inspired moments with Esther Williams). So I wouldn't recommend trying to sit through them all.

Having said that, the films that work best for me as a whole are 42nd Street, Gold Diggers of 1933, and Footlight Parade (all from Warner), and The Gang's All Here. As the latter film is from Fox, it is not likely to show up on TCM - try the DVD.

jpb said...

Like the others, I'm here to say: "great post." I just finished a stint of films set in the Depression (Bonnie and Clyde; They Shoot Horses, Don't They?) and I might re-open that line of inquiry to see Gold Diggers of 1933 (a film which actually makes a brief appearance in Bonnie and Clyde.

MovieMan0283 said...

Thanks, jpb. As I remember it, Bonnie & Clyde also uses the film to demonstrate the discrepancy between the glitzy world onscreen and the rough real world, and perhaps also the discrepancy between Golden Age Hollywood and the New Hollywood just being born (not to mention the irony of Ginger Rogers singing, "We're in the Money" as the Barrow gang takes a breather after robbing a bank).

You should definitely watch it, as the Depression is not just the setting but the subject - and it would be interesting to compare with the films which conjure the Depression across the distance of decades and in the midst of another tumultuous time.

jpb said...

As I remember it, Bonnie & Clyde also uses the film to demonstrate the discrepancy between the glitzy world onscreen and the rough real world

Feasibly, although this would be ironic twice-over: once because (as you mention) the wealth championed in "We're In The Money" is illusory, a facade which falls apart at the end of the number; and a second time because the "rough real world" in Bonnie and Clyde is in and of itself an escapist fantasy (it has its grim moments, but mostly the movie is seductive and fun).

Curious...