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  • Diana Balakirov

Dig a Little Deeper (Part 2)

Whenever movie remakes or sequels are brought to the public's attention, there tends to be a sense of uncertainty and anticipation that follows shortly after. Does the new installment have what it takes to stand all on its own, or will the original retain its sense of superiority? While some series have certainly left their audiences wary and disappointed, others have proved themselves worthy of recognition. In the case of Gold Diggers of 1935, following closely in the footsteps of the highly praised 1933 film, long-term success was eminent. Just as lively, equally as exciting and relentlessly amusing, the series entry served as a prime example of everything done right and nothing left to chance when it comes to making — or continuing — a musical. And it did so in a fresh and exciting way with an original story, source material aside, just waiting to be told.

An out-of-print entry in the Busby Berkeley box set

When I first came across Gold Diggers of 1935 at a used bookstore and decided to make it a part of my vast collection, I was on vacation in Anchorage, Alaska, a destination I try to add to the top of my travel list every year. I knew I was in for something special when I purchased a collectible set of Busby Berkeley films that included not only the 1933 and 1937 versions of the film but other legendary classics such as Dames, Footlight Parade and 42nd Street. A few minutes into the film, I was hooked.


While certainly reminiscent of its counterpart in terms of style and overall production, the 1935 installment seemed more lighthearted in its sentiment, the narrative remaining joyous throughout the story while staying away from the darker and time-sensitive undertones the 1933 movie conveyed so well. The result was pure entertainment, plain and simple, delivered without any hidden motives and with the intent of making its own impression on an eager first-time viewer like myself.

 

*Contains spoilers*


As the bright lights of Broadway fade away, replaced by the sunshine-clad setting of Lake Waxapahachie, Gold Diggers of 1935 welcomes its viewers — who have now become esteemed guests — to the very exclusive and upscale Wentworth Plaza. Here, the promise of trying to make it big in showbusiness is no longer a concern, at least for the rich and well-to-do visitors who flock to the hotel for the summer, but compensation for a job well done is somehow out of reach. As the hotel prepares for its grand opening, offering the finest in recreation and luxurious living to its patrons, the staff has its hands full in making all the necessary preparations.


Cleverly orchestrated and staged, the opening sequence reveals a kaleidoscope of activities that are expertly timed and choreographed to the rhythm and pace of those who whistle, hum and take great pride in serving their employer. Floors are mopped to glowing perfection, statues are painted to look their outmost best, pieces of furniture are meticulously arranged, and spotless drinking glasses sparkle and shine. Wentworth employees are taught to go above and beyond in servicing guests, a privilege that is so great, that a paid salary is not a necessity. So-called honorariums (tips) are the ultimate reward for those who are fortunate enough to get their hands on them, but wallets remain empty as scheming department heads attempt to pocket most of the profits.


Though he is certainly a participating player in the clever game of workplace deception, leading character Dick Curtis is also busy making other plans. Played by the highly charismatic Dick Powell, Dick is no longer the stage-bound tycoon Brad Roberts, his role in the 1933 film, but a humble desk clerk who is working his way through medical school. His fiancé, the glamorous Arline Davis (Dorothy Dare), is a great source of strength and support — and the first of many strong-willed and dynamic women who give Wentworth Plaza and Gold Diggers of 1935 a run for its money.


With funds being hard to come by, it is of little surprise that Dick sets his sights on a more promising gig, purse strings and all. What he doesn't know, however, is that his life isn't the only one about to be turned upside down. Following the arrival of Matilda Prentiss, who's played with just the right touch of theatrical flair by Alice Brady, Dick is presented with an offer he can't refuse — a chance to escort her daughter, Ann, around town before she is forced to settled down with aging millionaire and snuff tycoon T. Mosley Thorpe (Hugh Herbert).


While Gold Diggers of 1933 holds nothing back when it comes to delivering showstopping musical numbers from the get-go, the 1935 film takes a more conservative approach. Songs like "I'm Going Shopping with You" feel practical and simple, focusing more on the impeccable vocal delivery of Dick Powell and the cinematography of George Barnes to tell a story. As the camera follows Ann and her new companion through a vast department store, the young heiress is jubilant and delighted. Endless opportunities for personal discovery are presented to her at every corner, and as she slowly begins reinventing herself, the new and improved Ann manages to settle her demanding mother with a long-overdue bill.

Vibrant and lively, young Gloria Stuart brought the character of Ann to life in a way that was both familiar, in true Gold Diggers fashion, that is, and refreshing. Having gained theatrical experience on the stage, Gloria had begun carving a name for herself when she made her way to Hollywood and ultimately became an integral part of the Screen Actors Guild formation. Although Gloria eventually left the film industry to pursue a career in art —specializing in painting, bonsai and découpage — her desire to act never left her. Recognition for her career and accomplishments, even as she continued to hone her on-screen craft for the next few decades, was out of reach. When Gloria received an offer to play Rose Dawson Calvert in James Cameron's Titanic in 1996, the stars finally aligned to bring her the accolades she deserved; the heartbreaking and haunting portrayal of an elderly shipwreck survivor, with deeply held memories of loss and resilience, helped Gloria, finally a Best Supporting Actress nominee, make her own story just as timeless as Rose's.

 

Though the theme of Gold Diggers of 1935 deviates from its 1933 predecessor, it never veers too far off course. A golden opportunity for the film to return to its showbusiness roots, all without leaving Wentworth Plaza, presents itself when Mrs. Prentiss decides to produce a charity show for the Milk Fund. All hands are on deck, and stakes are high to ensure everything goes off without a hitch. The vision of a highly skilled dance director — brought to life by a legendary Hollywood actor with impeccable comedic timing — is just what the production needs to make a splash at the lake. While the eccentric character of Nicolai Nicoleff and his motives are highly suspicious, no one can question or doubt the perfect casting of screen legend Adolphe Menjou. From silent pictures to talkies and everything in-between, Adolphe, an industry icon thanks to his renowned moustache, has never failed to impress his audience or embellish the countless roles credited to him over the course of a 40-year career that have become synonymous with his name.


When the fictional director sets his money-making scheme in motion, poor Mrs. Prentiss is in for more than she bargained. Thanks to a series of plot twists that emerge in the wake of the unorthodox production, tensions start running high among the parties involved. All eyes are on the prize as set designer August Schultz (Joseph Cawthorn), stenographer Betty Hawes (Glenda Farrell) and hotel manager Louis Lamson (Grant Mitchell) demand a cut of the profits, willing to go to great lengths — using tactics such as blackmail and manipulation — to get what they want. But when the first act makes its debut on the Wentworth Plaza stage, the company's need for greed is temporarily forgiven.


In "The Words Are in My Heart," the iconic violins from the 1933 film have been replaced with 56 grand pianos — graceful, pristine and captivating against a subtle yet sophisticated black backdrop — all showcased in a cascade of movement as staged elements are separated and effortlessly brought back together. One's sense of spatial awareness is put to the ultimate test as distances between objects and characters become vast and endless; yet, no scene has ever felt more intimate. Accompanied by a stunning melody that's easy to remember and hard to forget, the number is just as much of a cinematic masterpiece as it is a reminder of what a Busby Berkeley musical looks and feels like.

While the themes of money and greed always remain at the forefront of the Gold Diggers franchise, interspersed with whimsical productions like "The Words Are in My Heart," romance never falls by the wayside. Often dramatic, almost always comedic and sometimes a bit controversial, love is depicted in many facets, its charms never lost on the viewer. The leading man always gets the girl, as he very well should, while the underdog also gets a chance at a happily-ever-after ending that is just as satisfying. In the 1933 film, the unlikely couple of Carol King and J. Lawrence Bradford steals the show even as Polly Parker and Brad Roberts put on their own under the bright lights of a Broadway stage. In 1935, Ann's brother, Humbolt (Frank McHugh), a former divorcé who's experienced a fair share of personal disappointments over the years, finds the woman of his dreams in Arline. While the two easily fall in love, upsetting an anxiety-ridden Mrs. Prentiss, Dick and Ann follow suit with a heartwarming scene that tugs at one's heartstrings long before the violins play. Serenading his date by the light of the silvery moon, Dick delivers a more tender rendition of the same melody with the outmost sincerity and a sense of enthusiasm that is quite infectious. Ann responds accordingly, mesmerized and enchanted by her companion's earnest revelation, making the memorable and swoon-worthy boat ride a highlight of the film.

 

Despite a few setbacks and financial disagreements, the show must go on. And in the final musical number, the bar is set high. With all of the tension that's been building between the investors, production crew and performers throughout the film, the ultimate prize is a production that must top all productions. Luckily, in the expert hands of Busby Berkeley, the result — which he considered to be a career highlight — is definitive. A popular song written by composer Harry Warren and lyricist Al Dubin, "Lullaby of Broadway" has forever earned its place in popular history. A natural chart-topper, the beloved tune became a staple of Warner Bros. films following its 1935 debut and received recognition from the American Film Institute as one of the greatest musical movie entries ever made several decades later.


Presented as a film within a film, the sequence, set to the tone of Winifred Shaw's unforgettable vocals, tells the story of Broadway-struck Winny who drinks and dances the night away and comes home to sleep all day — even as everyday life begins for the rest of the city at the crack of dawn. The tantalizing draw of New York City is too hard to resist; accompanied by Dick Powell, who plays her eager partner, Winny is relentless in her passionate pursuit of taking a bite out of the Big Apple and claiming all that it offers.

The first half of "Lullaby" serves as a narrative, telling Winny's story in a similar way to Ann's but hinting at an illusion that is waiting to be shattered, seemingly too good to be true. The momentum continues to build as a series of choreographed routines, the magnitude of which can be experienced only from an aerial view, begin to echo Winny's impending downfall, literally and figuratively. At a crucial turning point in the presentation, the intensity builds, the pressure mounts, and Winny's fate is forever sealed. Or is it?

While Busby Berkeley's favorite number could have easily ended Gold Diggers of 1935 on a high note, the same way that "Remember My Forgotten Man" did in the 1933 film, the concluding scene — consisting of a brief exchange between Dick, Ann and Mrs. Prentiss —leaves much to be desired. In the case of a non-musical comedy film, this may be acceptable, expected even; for a Gold Diggers series entry, however, such an abruption simply won't do. And in that, perhaps, is where the 1935 movie's sole criticism lies.

 

Casual musical viewers will always be drawn to big-budget titles that are heavily promoted, readily available to the general public and easily marketable with the potential of becoming a popular cultural phenomenon. Some audiences who aren't necessarily fond of the genre may even give certain movies a try for the sake of being entertained. Not that there is anything wrong with this, of course, for films such as Cabaret, Grease, Moulin Rouge! and Chicago — to name a few — are noteworthy for a reason and offer something for everyone. For a classic film lover like myself, a musical journey begins with two steps taken back before moving forward. With that sentiment, the Gold Diggers series is a unique opportunity to look into the heart of past film productions, even when some may feel outdated and out of sorts with present-day standards.


Although some Gold Diggers installments are superior to their counterparts, there's no denying that this entry is a surefire winner. While both original and inventive with its storyline, it manages to stay true to the franchise and remain consistent in maintaining the vision of its creators, particularly that of director Busby Berkeley, while also revealing new paths for the 1937 and 1938 sequels to follow. Gaining newfound appreciation for something that is not just historically significant but culturally relevant may not come naturally to all of us, but Gold Diggers of 1935 certainly makes that job easier. All it takes is an open mind, a bit of curiosity and the willingness to dig a little deeper.




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