Directed by Mervyn LeRoy with songs by Al Rubin and Harry Warren and choreographed by Busby Berkeley (in the credits he is listed as dance director), Gold Diggers of 1933 was the second of Warner Brothers three 1933 backstage musicals, all reflecting the depression though none as directly and straight forward as this one.
The film opens during a rehearsal of the ironic and iconic song, We’re in the Money. It’s sung by Ginger Rogers (Fay) in a full face close up dressed in an outfit lined with silver dollars and a strategically placed large silver dollar covering her “private parts.” Along with a chorus of scantily dressed showgirls, Rogers sings the Al Dubin/Harry Warren standard. Rogers even does one amazing verse of the song in Pig Latin. It’s a brilliant start to what is, arguably, the grittiest musical ever made. The musical number comes to an unexpected end when the sheriff and his boys come in and seize all the property and costumes including snatching Ginger’s most personal piece. This opening scene sets up the tone for the rest of the story, with Fay sarcastically informing the three leading ladies, as they talk about being out of work again, “it’s the Depression, dearie.”
The story focuses on Carol (Joan Blondell), Polly (Ruby Keeler) and Trixie (Aline MacMahon). Unlike Warner’s two other depression themed musical’s, 42nd Street (1933) and Footlight’s Parade (1933), it is the ladies who carry this film with the male characters all pretty much relegated to supporting roles. Financially, the three chorus girls are forced to share the same apartment, the same bed and the same clothes. Broke enough, they even resort to stealing a bottle of milk from a neighbor for breakfast. Their luck soon changes when Fay informs them producer Barney Hopkins (Ned Sparks) is putting on a new show and wants the girls in it. He has everything he needs; a script, a theater, the girls, everything that is, except the money. Help comes from an unexpected source when Polly’s boyfriend, Brad Roberts (Dick Powell), an aspiring songwriter who lives in an apartment building conveniently located just across the courtyard from the girls, is overheard playing his own composition. Barney likes the kid’s stuff and wants him to write the music for the show as soon as he can raise the money. Brad surprisingly offers to put in $15,000 for the show, but no one believes him. After all, where is a young out of work songwriter going to get that kind of money? When he inexplicably shows up with the dough, the girls believe he turned to crime to get the cash. When the show opens, Brad’s past appears in the form of his snobbish blue-blooded brother, J. Lawrence Bradford (Warren William), and the family lawyer, Faneul H. Peabody (Guy Kibbee). Both have plans to derail Brad’s show business aspirations and his interest in chorus girl Polly by threatening to cut off his inheritance.
Mistaken identities and shenanigans between Carol, Trixie, the snobby older brother, Lawrence, and the lawyer, Peabody, lead to various mishaps, unexpected love and of course a happy conclusion. That is, until the final extraordinary Busby Berkeley depression drenched extravaganza featuring Joan Blondell performing, Remember My Forgotten Man. This is one of Busby Berkeley’s most stunning, and certainly his most somber production number. It begins with Blondell, as a streetwalker, singing the story of her forgotten man. We cut to a homeless man walking the street. We then hear Etta Moten begin a powerful bluesy version of Forgotten Man. The camera pans upward from the man to Moten and then over to other war widows all sitting mournfully by their tenement windows. We next cut to another homeless man lying on a street corner. As Blondell walks by, a cop taps the homeless man with his night stick nudging him to move on. Blondell gives the police officer a dirty look and steps in between the two. She points out a war ribbon hanging on the inside of the man’s jacket which we see in close up. She sends the veteran on his way as the police officer grudgingly moves on. This three-minute introduction segues into a spectacular musical montage of marching soldiers returning home to parades and loved ones. It then turns to a darker vision of those same soldiers at war, marching in a drenching rain. We next see the men, still marching, some wounded with blood on their faces and other with bandages, carrying the most severely wounded as they continue marching, marching and marching. Berkeley cuts to a row of men now standing in soup kitchens and breadlines and still hopelessly marching. He comes full circle by returning to Blondell in a spectacular shot encompassing all the marching soldiers, the poor, the downtrodden homeless men and women, all who are now the forgotten masses as the film comes to a quick and stunning end. Berkeley leaves us with one of the strongest political indictments to come from, not just a musical film, but from any film.
I described in detail this approximately seven minute sequence because its impact is so strong and is as relevant today as it was more than seventy years ago. Author, Matthew Kennedy, states in his biography, Joan Blondell: A Life Between Takes, My Forgotten Man has never gone out of date. Questions about the government’s responsibility to the dispossessed? What are the effects of war on our soldiers and on the neglect of their wives and families?” We still argue about all this today. More than seventy years later and what has changed? Kennedy also states Jack Warner did not envision the My Forgotten Man number as the finale, however, it was so powerful and so emotional, it could not be inserted anywhere else.
Gold Diggers of 1933, according to the Motion Picture Herald, was one of the top moneymakers of the year. It is easy to see why depression era audiences were attracted to the film and could easily identify with the three female leads; the thematic topicality and the swipes taken at the pretentious, snobbish rich characters. The cast is wonderful with special kudos going to Joan Blondell and Aline MacMahon. Blondell is particularly satisfying, coming across as sincere and real, especially in her scenes with Warren William where he tries to buy the girls off. Aline MacMahon is hardnosed as the opportunistic Trixie in her efforts to soak William and Kibbee’s characters for all they have. However, it is Blondell and that amazing closing number that really knocks you out.
The film was roughly based on a 1919 play called The Gold Diggers which according to the IBDB ran for 282 performances on Broadway. A silent film version was made in 1923. The first sound version came out in 1929. It was called Gold Diggers of Broadway. Directed by Roy Del Ruth, the film starred Nancy Welford and Winnie Lightner. Gold Digger of Broadway has the distinction of being one of the earliest sound films and additionally one of the earliest Technicolor films.
Though the film is credited, as being directed by Mervyn LeRoy, it really had two directors. There was LeRoy for the straight story and Berkeley for the musical numbers. Mervyn LeRoy was no stranger to making films with depression era themes having made some of his best work during that period. Along with I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (1932) and Little Caesar (1931), he also did Three on a Match (1932), Five Star Final (1931) and Hard to Handle (1933). After leaving Warner Brothers, Leroy eventually made his way to MGM where he lost that gritty streetwise Warners look as his films took on more of the MGM gloss. Warner Brothers was so high on Busby Berkeley and 42nd Street he was given a blank check for Gold Diggers. In doing so he created some of the most creative expressionist like musical numbers of its time.
Throughout the movie, Gold Diggers of 1933 pushes the buttons of the pre-code limits. There are plenty of scantily dressed chorus girls in the opening number. The girls are seen in various stages of undress in the dressing room, as are the three roommates in their apartment. Joan Blondell especially provides sexy views of her many attributes. The Pettin’ in the Park musical sequence is notable for silhouetted shots of the chorus girls who are definitely naked behind the curtain that is slowly raised by a smirking Billy Barty. In this production number, Barty plays a leering baby who is up to no good. In addition to the curtain raiser, he manages to look up a chorus girl’s dress and hands Dick Powell a can opener during the number so he can “open up” the metal type swimsuit Ruby Keeler is wearing.
Of the three backstage musicals Warner Brothers released in 1933, it is arguable which is the best. Many feel its 42nd Street, for others it’s Footlights Parade and for still others it is Gold Diggers of 1933. For me, it is Gold Diggers, which stands out in its uniqueness from the others for a few reasons. The film is the most socially conscious of the three. Unlike the other two, Gold Diggers remains significant to what we are going through today. Second, as previously mentioned, the finale is a powerful indictment on the treatment of returning veterans. I also like the idea of the women in the leading roles. Blondell’s and MacMahon’s characters are strongly defined intelligent parts. Finally, Gold Diggers of 1933 has resonated with filmmakers over the years including Arthur Penn who used a clip in his 1967 film, Bonnie and Clyde, when Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow duck into a theater hiding from the law.