A Heart of Gold (Part 1)
Updated: Nov 23
When I first began expressing a deeper interest in and expanding my knowledge of classic musicals, gravitating toward the work of Judy Garland, Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire, in particular, I tended to actively pursue titles from the 1940s and 1950s, two decades that I considered to be the pinnacle of the genre's existence. Right around the same time, and by what I consider to be a twist of fate, I came across much earlier works from the Golden Age of Hollywood that I would never have considered watching before. I knew then that Classics in Wonderland, once it became a reality in the near future, would never be the same again.
My curiosity was piqued almost immediately after I caught a showing of 42nd Street with a good friend during the annual Paramount Summer Classic Film Series presentation and allowed myself to be a willing participant in a retelling of cinematic history that took place on the big screen. The magic of the historic marquee-style theatre, which has become an iconic Austin landmark since first opening its doors to vaudevillians in 1915, may have had something to do with the change of heart I experienced that night, for it gave me a glimpse into the world of over-the-top glamor, highly extravagant choreography and refined production techniques the likes of which have become legendary in their own right.
The second entry in a series of five movies, beginning with the rare 1929 version, Gold Diggers of 1933 is as innovative as it is traditional, taking a distinct approach to storytelling while staying true to the style and vision of contemporaries such as Dames and Footlight Parade. Released during the devastating period of the Great Depression, the lighthearted film, first and foremost, offers plenty of tongue-in-cheek laughs and spot-on comedic delivery. But lurking underneath the surface is a much darker overtone, a force of nature unafraid to be released long enough to paint a portrait of difficult times already endured, though not yet left behind, and marked by a bittersweet faith that seeks to maintain its resilience in the face of adversity.
As much as I was looking forward to watching Gold Diggers of 1933 when I rented a copy of the movie at my local library, I still felt hesitant in seeing it for the first time. I wasn't sure what to expect in terms of technical quality or overall ability to hold up in a modern context, and the only creative comparison I could make was to 42nd Street itself.
Looking back now, I am happy to report that all of my doubts vanished into thin air a few minutes into the opening credits; though I certainly didn't know it at the time, I
was about to experience world-class entertainment at its best — a musical that is so spectacular, so memorable and so thrilling, that it deserves to be watched over and over again. And while all films in the Gold Diggers collection are just as worthy of notice and admiration, the 1933 installment can (and should) become anyone's all-time favorite.
Having carved out a name for himself at several prominent Hollywood studios throughout the early twentieth century, former vaudevillian, technician, producer and director Mervyn LeRoy seemed destined to tackle the remake of the 1919 play and 1923 silent comedy. When the majority of Americans struggled to find work, big-studio releases like Gold Diggers of 1933 asked for very little from the average filmgoers — a few cents to pay for the price of a movie ticket — but gave back tenfold in terms of offering a form of escapism. With a robust cast of leading actors, all household names back in their heyday,
it seemed like performers who were fortunate enough to find themselves in the film industry, which offered some sort of job security, had it made. But their on-screen personas, dealing with their own share of bitter disappointments and making ends meet during the ultimate economic downturn, would probably agree to disagree.
In "We're in the Money," the film's opening number, the illusion that entertainers are rich
and prosperous is quickly shattered with the flipping of a giant coin. Symbolically, a headline becomes a breadline, angry landlords are out to collect past-due rent, and creditors are merciless in shutting down rehearsals of shows that lack adequate funding.
While certainly an entertaining and well-produced piece, "We're in the Money" is only the beginning in the glorious Gold Diggers experience, offering a sneak peek at what's to come and paving the way for an introduction of its four aspiring actresses to escape the financial confines of the Great Depression and take Broadway by storm.
At the heart of the 1933 story is the bright-eyed and endearing Polly Parker, played by the charming Ruby Keeler, a tap-dancing star whose on-screen career in 42nd Street and several other Hollywood musicals was short-lived but still remembered. The wisecracking and intriguing Joan Blondell breathes life into torch singer Carol King, whose delivery of heart-wrenching melodies comes handy later in the film, and seasoned performer Aline MacMahon rounds out the trio as Trixie Lorraine, a comedienne who's willing to go to great lengths to get what she wants. While technically a member of the group, Ginger Rogers' appearance as glamour girl Fay Fortune, following the integral role she plays in the opening number, is fairly limited. Though certainly disappointing for Fay, the loss doesn't feel so great for Ginger herself when compared to the impressive legacy she, most notably in the arms of dancing partner Fred Astaire, left behind over the course of a multifaceted career.
Just when the dire straits of an economic downtown can't get any worse, Lady Luck appears in the form of producer Barney Hopkins (played distinctly by Canadian-born character actor Ned Sparks) visits the three women to discuss an all-star revue, he is struck by the golden voice and songwriting stylings of Brad Roberts, Polly's boyfriend. Refusing Barney's offer to showcase his talents in the show, the young composer agrees to fund the production as a financial backer and commits to a generous cash sum that is as welcome as it is desperately needed.
Brad's character, as to be expected in the hands of beloved performer Dick Powell, is as charming, handsome and charismatic as ever — an ideal fit for his role in not only Gold Diggers of 1933 but in the 1935 and 1937 installments that follow. Acting as Polly's love interest also seems to come naturally to him after being romantically paired with Ruby Keeler in several other musicals. But while Ruby was a shoo-in to play Dick's love interest on the screen, it was Joan Blondell who had stolen his heart in real life, officially becoming the second of three Mrs. Powells after the couple tied the knot in 1936.
Thanks to a series of fortunate and serendipitous events, Brad finds himself performing alongside Polly during Barney's opening night; oblivious to the fact that he is now suspected of being a criminal as the source of his generous investment comes into question, he takes the lead in introducing an eager theatre audience to the iconic "Pettin' in the Park." Dick Powell's signature vocals are complemented by Ruby Keeler's tap-dancing routine, a talent that is not quite as polished as that of her partner but nevertheless a welcome addition to the opening scene, while comedic actor Billy Barty, playing the part of a bonnet-clad baby, escapes the familiar comfort of his stroller to take the audience on a whimsical adventure...and wreak a bit of havoc on unsuspecting passersby along the way.
Roller-skating policemen, life-sized snowballs and scantily dressed women on the verge of being indecently exposed round out the unforgettable and risqué number, which not only managed to evade the soon-to-be imposed censorship of the Hays Code and future influence of the National Legion of Decency, but also found a new calling as a cartoon short when it was released to the general public, soundtrack intact, the following year.
From the standpoint of political correctness, modern viewers who watch Gold Diggers of 1933 for the first time may be quite surprised — even offended — by what they see and hear. As they have every right to be. There are many elements, in fact, that make "Pettin' in the Park" quite controversial, and there's no doubt that the liberties taken by Mervyn LeRoy and Warner Bros. would have been harshly judged, if not downright banned, after the Motion Picture Production Code went into effect. Fortunately, this is a prime example of where historical context comes into play and positions the film as a time capsule that simply reflects the norms and values of a bygone era. And history, no matter how uncomfortable and disagreeable it may seem, should never be altered or erased.
As essential as Mervyn LeRoy's involvement in the film was, it is the uncompromising vision of director and choreographer Busby Berkeley that forever shaped the way musicals could and should be experienced. Difficult to work with at times, he sought the type of perfection that could bring performers to tears out of sheer frustration or physical exhaustion. In the case of an overworked Judy Garland, who passed out on the set of 1943's Girl Crazy, a disagreeable Busby was removed from picture before the production could continue. But the lavish "I've Got Rhythm" number was a smashing success, serving as a testament to the director's later work at Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios (MGM). Gold Diggers of 1933 was certainly no exception to that rule, bearing the unique stamp of Busby's original vision of kaleidoscopic formations and striking cinematic effects that have been studied and treasured by movie scholars and college-level students ever since.
Adhering to an unspoken tradition, most of Busby's films tend to contain a fantastical number that, simply put, takes one's breath away. Using a top-shot camera technique of showcasing dynamically staged, ever-evolving geometrical patterns, Busby almost always ends his pictures with solid showstoppers. In Gold Diggers of 1933, that honor goes to none other than "The Shadow Waltz."
A lavish theatrical production that is presented by Barney and company to an audience on the stage but, in reality, couldn't have been created outside of a studio lot, the sequence consists of 60 singing and dancing girls, all impeccably costumed, while violins of various shapes and sizes come to neon life against a tiered backdrop — made all the more striking by the black and white film on which the entire movie was shot. A noteworthy masterpiece that resembles an artist's canvas coming to life, the waltz stands out in a class of its own.
Like any good fairytale ever told, the story of Gold Diggers of 1933 wouldn't be complete without a little romance. And luckily, Brad and Polly aren't the only ones who are struck by cupid's arrow. All three leading ladies get a chance at love and find their happily-ever-after endings in the arms of wealthy men. Even as Trixie relentlessly pursues and exploits bumbling lawyer Faneuil Peabody (Guy Kibbee), threatening to take down any woman, including Fay, who interferes with her gold-digging scheme, genuine feelings blossom between Carol and J. Lawrence Bradford, a couple that, despite a rocky start, ends up stealing the show. Through a series of small encounters and one major case of a mistaken identify, Brad's older sibling, intolerant of showgirls and unhappy about his well-to-do brother's involvement with Polly, finds himself proposing to the woman of his dreams.
While the current release of the film shows only one depiction of the final reconciliation between Carol and J. Lawrence, an alternate version was reported to exist when the film was edited to meet the varying demands of state censorship boards. The version that modern audiences will see today ends with the haunting and devastating "Remember My Forgotten Man," a sequence inspired by the military experience of Busby Berkeley (a former serviceman), a profound speech made by President Franklin D. Roosevelt — who was respected and supported by the majority of Hollywood studios at the time of the Great Depression — and a World War I veterans' march that took place in Washington, DC in 1932.
Power-charged, profound and highly emotional, the overall sequence is expertly shot, distinct styled and artistically expressive; in short, an absolutely marvel considering the technologically limited time period in which Gold Diggers of 1933 was filmed. While patriotic at its core, especially during a heartwarming scene of joy and celebration, the number is also marked by a demand for recognition of the country's current state of affairs, an expression of respect for those who have made life-altering sacrifices and a call for meaningful change that is necessary in order to move forward. In the final marching sequence, women and men are no longer separated by loss but collectively brought together under the umbrella of a shared sentiment — hope.
If the 1933 film had ended on a lighter note, as was Warner Bros.' original intent, "Pettin' in the Park" would have emerged as the primary contender for the closing number. But the grim portrait of the forgotten man had made such an impression on the studio executives, that even the bright neon lights of "The Shadow Waltz," a flawless contender for any finale, in my opinion, couldn't hold a candle to it.
Through meticulous restoration and preservation efforts that are constantly being made to save older films from physical deterioration, titles dating back to the earlier days of Hollywood musicals can finally be saved for posterity to stand the test of time. In the case of the Gold Diggers series, audiences are fortunate enough to have access to not one but four wonderful films, plus surviving reels and a complete Vitaphone audio recording from the lost 1929 version, which showcases the two-strip color process that was invented (but not widely used) as early as 1917.
Though it's fair to say that almost all of the installments in the collection are strong contenders, Gold Diggers in Paris feeling like the weakling of the group, it is the 1933 release that sets the tone, leaves the most lasting impression on a curious and willing musical viewer and creates the perfect transition for Classics in Wonderland to revisit and explore the series in future blog posts. Stay tuned!