The classic Depression era musical, Gold Diggers of 1933, will be on TCM Thursday February 9th at 10:15PM (eastern). Directed by Mervyn LeRoy, with a little help from Busby Berkeley, the film stars Joan Blondell, Ruby Keeler and Aline McMahon as three out of work chorus girls sharing a cheap apartment all looking for work, love and money. Work comes with the help of rival Ginger Rogers who tells the ladies about a new show being readied for Broadway by producer Ned Sparks.
Down below is an excerpt from my e-book, Lessons in the Dark, where you can read more about Gold Diggers of 1933 and other classic films. Available at Amazon.
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.