The Silver Lining (Part 3)
Updated: 3 hours ago
Whoever said that third time's the charm clearly hasn't experienced Gold Diggers. Fresh, innovative and memorable, each unique installment in the series, beloved by some and unheard of by others, has brought its own brand of distinct musical magic to the turntable time and time again, managing to not only meet its predecessors' expectations but also set the bar even higher for the next set of contenders. Gold Diggers of 1937, released in 1936, transformed Richard Maibaum's "Sweet Mystery of Life" play into a piece of Hollywood history, made all the more spectacular with the help of a star-studded cast, a soundtrack for the ages and a set of Busby Berkeley-penned production numbers that have often been imitated but never duplicated. Though not as highly rated as its counterparts, the 1936 entry doesn't miss the mark; on the contrary, it leaves the audience with a swan song by which to remember the trilogy in the face of 1938's Gold Diggers in Paris, a rather feeble attempt to recapture the cinematic magic for the last time.
Drawing upon familiar themes, everyday settings and relationship developments, Gold Diggers of 1937 gives a creative nod to both of its forerunners but within the context of a brand-new storyline that travels at lightning speed from the Sea Breeze Hotel in Atlantic City to the theater stage. For most of the employees of the Good Life Insurance Company, a little motivation and a pep talk about exceeding sales goals is all it takes when it comes to individuals embarking on a traditional path of self-realization and professional success. For others, things are not as simple as they seem, and an unexpected meeting of the minds on a convention-bound train is only the beginning of a journey that promises a more worthwhile destination.
The appearance of leading man Dick Powell is as inviting as it is bittersweet, for it is the actor's last and final performance in Gold Diggers before the baton is officially handed over to crooner Rudy Vallée. After defining the on-screen personas of Brad Roberts in 1933 and Dick Curtis in 1935, Dick reinvents the wheel as a somewhat foolish but well-meaning insurance salesman named Rosmer Peek. Once again, he doesn't miss a beat, lending his rich vocals to the catchy and upbeat "With Plenty of Money and You," an unusual opening theme that gives the audience a glimpse of what's to come and sets the tone for the film's intended musical direction.
The captivating Joan Blondell, who was absent from the 1935 film, also makes a Gold Diggers comeback (albeit her last) as Norma Perry, an upbeat chorus girl who is seeking a job but finds an unexpected calling as Rosmer's love interest. Glenda Farrell, yet another familiar face in the franchise, trades in the scheming ways of her former character, Betty Hawes, with a more sympathetic and well-rounded portrayal of Genevieve Larkin. And even with the welcome addition of southern charmer Sally LaVerne, played by the stunning Rosalind Marquis, it's the two blondes who seem to have the most fun, giving the audience a double dose of all that is fair in love and war in the 1936 installment.
The first of several full-length musical numbers in Gold Diggers of 1937 conveniently coincides with the depiction of one of three romantic relationships that develop over the course of the film. Though certainly a catchy and upbeat tune, the original "Speaking of the Weather" sequence is not particularly memorable or noteworthy in terms of production values, but it does serve as a prime example of the artistry popular music composer Harold Arlen and renowned lyricist E.Y. (Yip) Harburg brought to life on the silver screen (and in cartoon form) throughout the twentieth century. But despite its rather dull and unimaginative setting, the confines of a dreary office are transformed with a little enthusiasm, plenty of imagination and a whole lot of affection between Rosmer and Norma — made genuine thanks to the undeniable chemistry and affection between Dick Powell and Joan Blondell, who got married a few months into the film's production.
Even with the presence of on-screen legends like Dick and Joan, who have become synonymous with the Gold Diggers name, the most intriguing and captivating individual in the 1936 film is that of down-on-his-luck stage producer J.J. Hobart. In the expert hands of stage and screen actor Victor Moore, J.J. experiences every type of emotion that's humanly possible and becomes an unwilling and unsuspecting participant in a plot met with life-threatening situations, duplicitous intentions and one serious case of female seduction.
In the golden days of Hollywood productions, when the advent of talkies was nothing more than a pipe dream, Victor starred in over 30 silent films and shorts. Though I can honestly say that I haven't yet come across his earlier works, I did catch his performances as Pop Cardetti in 1936's Swing Time, an unnamed lawyer's client in 1945's Ziegfeld Follies and homeless man Aloysius T. McKeever in 1947's It Happened on Fifth Avenue, one of my go-to Christmas classics. Regardless of how and when viewers may experience Victor's easygoing approach to acting, sympathizing with or admiring the characters he portrays — especially when they are put through the ringer like J.J. Hobart — is not entirely difficult.
As a result of Norma's support and encouragement as the insurance company's new secretary, Rosmer lands the deal of a lifetime. With a million-dollar policy at stake, the easygoing agent begins to see J.J. in a new light: an asset that must be protected at all costs, especially when other gold diggers are afoot. Claiming a financial victory against J.J's crooked financial backer, Monty Wethered (Osgood Perkins), and his reckless stock market investor, Tom Hugo (Charles D. Brown), becomes Rosmer's priority. Add Genevieve to the mix, and nail-biting hilarity ensues as one party keeps the producer alive for the benefit of a lucrative life insurance sale while the other schemes to bring about his untimely demise and claim the money needed to resuscitate a depleted bank account.
Although generally applauded for its distinct approach to comedy and music, the Gold Diggers series also deserves recognition for its depiction of secondary romances, bringing together couples who may not have ended up together under normal circumstances. Inspired by the unlikely lovers who found their happily-ever-after endings in the two previous films — specifically Carol King and J. Lawrence Bradford in 1933 and Humbolt Prentiss and Arline Davis in 1935 — the 1936 film rewards J.J. with a gift of companionship that makes his years of solitude seem like a distant memory. In a heartfelt sentiment expressed to Genevieve, who ends up reconsidering her involvement with Monty and Tom, 59-year-old J.J. begins to feel younger and more optimistic about the future. And it is this heartwarming scene, when he makes a lonely man's confession, that brings much-needed depth to the otherwise lighthearted franchise.
Rosmer's colleague Boop Oglethorpe (Lee Dixon), whose relationship with Sally is less of a focal point than J.J. and Genevieve's, is only briefly touched upon and underdeveloped beyond a few brief encounters. Instead, all eyes are on Lee and his standout performance at a nighttime soiree. Enhanced by poolside cabanas, hanging garden lanterns and one enthusiastic crowd of spectators, the unforgettable song-and-dance sequence stands the test of time as one of the most unique moments ever captured on film.
Not widely known among general movie audiences, especially today, Lee could tap dance with the best of Hollywood legends. And that includes Fred Astaire. A Broadway performer credited as the creator of the Will Parker role in Oklahoma!, Lee established his multi-faceted career on and off the stage but never quite found the stardom he deserved. In Gold Diggers of 1937, the performer took his repertoire to a whole new level, embellishing the musical sequence with a series of leaps, jumps and arm crawls, but made only a handful of other films before passing away at the age of 42.
The slower and leisurely pace of the 1936 movie begins to rely on showstopping performances, which are synonymous with the Gold Diggers name, following the more visually appealing version of "Speaking of the Weather" that is reprised with the help of Lee Dixon's stellar footwork. Simpler numbers like "Let's Put Our Heads Together" and the "Life Insurance Song" appear to amuse but fade away quickly, failing to give the audience the one thing it demands: a burst of world-class entertainment that's more closely aligned with the styles and presentations of the 1933 and 1935 films. Fortunately, with Busby Berkeley at the helm, disappointment is not an option, and only the grandest of productions will do.
When compared to "Remember My Forgotten Man," the politically charged finale that ended the 1933 film on a bittersweet note with its devastating portrayal of World War I veterans struggling to make ends meet, "All's Fair in Love and War" depicts an entirely different battle that ends in reconciliation. Set to the melodious stylings of Harry Warren and tongue-in-cheek lyrics of Al Dubin, the staged production miraculously comes together after Rosmer rallies the troops, so to speak, in a dual effort to save a theatrical enterprise and the life of a man whose failing heartbeat lives at its core. The result is a not-to-be-missed number that is best summarized in, well, numbers: one Academy Award® nomination for Best Dance Direction, 10 minutes of uninterrupted footage and 104 uniform-clad, flag-waving women who march to the beats of their own drums.
The fact that the Gold Diggers series was slowly coming to an end, Paris entry aside, makes this triumphant effort even more deserving of an opportunity to go out with a bang. The neon-studded violins of 1933's "The Shadow Waltz" and the revolving grand pianos of 1935's "The Words Are in My Heart" are consequently replaced by rocking chairs that grow to unrealistic proportions, strategically placed cannon balls directed at unsuspecting victims and human-sized bombs that are slated to go off without a warning. The so-called No Woman's Land, as depicted by Busby, is a territory that men dare not cross, and a wedding ring is the only acceptable peace offering that can bring about a desired truce.
Busby's resolute adherence to an inspired style of presentation and established camera techniques — key elements in what should be considered a very consistent creative execution — make "All's Fair in Love and War" as original and one-of-a-kind as the showstoppers that came before it. The bold contrast between black and white tones is as stark as ever, the orchestrated movements are as painstakingly choreographed as before, and the geometrical patterns that emerge in the renowned kaleidoscopic formation, Busby's signature offering, never cease to amaze.
Once the end credits start rolling, concluding yet another Gold Diggers story on a high note, there's a sense of knowing, of finality, that a viewer can't help but feel or even explain. For even though the beloved franchise has yet another installment up its sleeve, there is something different about 1938's Paris release that brought it below par. To say that the remaining film lacked the superb qualities of its predecessors would be an overstatement; on the contrary; the Warner Bros. release has all the right elements in place to make it into a formidable musical. So what exactly is missing?
The generally likable Rudy Vallée, a legendary star in his own right, is certainly not to blame for any of Paris' shortcomings, but compared to the highly charismatic Dick Powell, who effortlessly croons his way into our hearts, Rudy fails to live up to the high standard set by Gold Diggers' designated leading man. His companions in various supporting roles don't fare too well either, failing to incite the same level of admiration that audiences held, ever so effortlessly, for Aline MacMahon as Trixie Lorraine, Alice Brady as Matilda Prentiss and Adolphe Menjou as Nicolai Nicoleff. And then there's the music — well-scored, entertaining and fun in its essence but, at the end of the day, highly forgettable. Even Busby Berkeley himself, in directing the somewhat odd "I Wanna Go to Bali" finale, almost fell short of showcasing the level of pure genius most audiences have come to expect from his painstaking and lavish productions. And that's saying something.
While Gold Diggers in Paris is worth watching at least once, if just for the sake of experiencing the musical series in its entirety, it's not necessarily a title that a casual moviegoer will care to revisit again. Even an exotic location such as France doesn't hold a candle to the pure and simple joy one feels when standing in the spotlight of a Broadway stage (1933), taking in the breathtaking views of a lakeside resort (1935) or tap-dancing the night away at a garden party (1936) that brings together the best of all worlds but somehow manages to stay remarkably close to home.