|Ginger in steampunk mail armor from a game|
PROGRAMMING NOTE: Very soon, articles like this, as well as my official author blog for Judging Angels and other fiction (?!) will have a different home. SCB will be about Church matters, and a new blog will be for everything else the Bear writes about.
Gold Diggers of 1933 was made at the very same time (or immediately after, according to Ruby Keeler) as 42nd Street. In fact 1933 was a busy year for the dog we last saw being held by Monocle Ginger, a.k.a. "Anytime Annie." Guy Kibbe plays the same portly, comic rich guy whose head can still be turned by a pretty girl, and Dick Powell the same boyishly good-looking juvenile crooner. Both films star Ruby Keeler. Here, Warren William is Powell's controlling older brother.
A lot was going on in 1933. It is remarkable to recall that the Warner Brothers had only ushered in the talkie in 1927. The technology had to be refined and theaters wired for sound. Clearly films like 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933 were already making full use of sound a mere six years after its introduction. Risk-taking studio heads like Harry and Jack Warner were overcoming a skeptical public, and industry experts who predicted talkies would never catch on.
1933 was the year of RKO's King Kong. (Ginger Rogers was considered for Faye Wray's role. Fred Astaire was probably the better partner.) The 30's was a decade of explosive creativity, and bigger-than-life personalities: both in front of and behind the camera.
The film opens with the well-known song, "We're in the Money," sung by Ginger Rogers wearing what is less a costume than a contraption, literally made of money. Then, as the camera dollies in until her face mercilessly fills the screen, she doesn't so much as blink as she delivers the same lines in pig Latin!
Ironically, the rehearsal ends with the show being closed down because the producer doesn't have any money. New Deal optimism is not putting money in people's pockets. Ginger is seldom seen after that, even though she remains one of the gold diggers. They are four now-unemployed actresses. Ruby Keeler, Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, and Ginger.
Howard Hughes and Ginger Rogers
In a life-imitates-art coincidence, Ginger is seen as Howard
|Ginger & Howard 1933|
Ginger angrily threw all the jewelry Hughes had given her into a sack. Then she drove to the hospital where Hughes was recovering from a head injury sustained in an auto crash, and shoved it all into the pit of his stomach.
Ginger also had reservations about Hughes' mental illness, and believed he would try to control her life. Perhaps the weirdness was enhanced by his purchase of property next to the "H" in the Hollywood sign, on which he intended to build a castle for his bride. (It's still for sale, by the way, if you have an extra $300 million or so.)
The Gold Diggers of 1933
A young man across from the four girls' apartment - Dick Powell - is playing a song he composed. It is heard by the producer, who loves the music. The producer (Ned Sparks) wants to make a tribute to the "forgotten man" of the depression, and believes the kid has the talent. In exchange for a leading role for Ruby Keeler, Powell makes the improbable promise to finance the production.
In a familiar trope, the lead is incapacitated, and Dick Powell has to step in at the last minute. Of course, the show is a hit. It blows his cover, however, and brings in his older brother (Warner William) and family lawyer (Guy Kibbe) to save the family from scandal. Particularly from marrying a showgirl.
Taking advantage of mistaken identities, the three girls - minus Ginger, who remains a mostly unseen, circling menace, like a shark - play an elaborate scheme with older brother and the family lawyer. By the end, Aline MacMahon has wound up with Guy Kibbe's family lawyer (The Monopoly Banker from 42nd Street). Joan Blondell gets the older brother. And, of course, Ruby Keeler weds Dick Powell.
Depression Era audiences must have enjoyed watching the jobless, but plucky gals put one over on the rich stiffs. The Busby Berkeley numbers are technically impressive, one involving electrically-lit violins carrying the added thrill of potential immolation. However, it is really the bookend numbers of the film that you'll remember. Ginger gives a fearless performance of "We're In the Money," and Joan Blondell sings over the massive production number, "Remember My Forgotten Man," at the end.
Remember My Forgotten Man
The final number does indeed embody Sparks' producer character's vision of the forgotten men of the Depression, "marching, marching!" The Busby Berkeley number is not in the least hokey, but surprisingly affecting. WWI soldiers are remembered, too, despite the end of the Great War being well over a decade in the past. It is a surprise to see a choreographer known for fluff and titillation to create real social commentary. It is far removed from the bizarre number "Pettin' the the Park," which includes a mischievous dwarf (Billy Barty) dressed as a baby.
|150 extras were used in Busby Berkeley's unusual and powerful finishing number,|
"Remember My Forgotten Man."
Of course, Berkeley's numbers are impossible fantasies as theater productions. One has only to see one of his trademark overhead camera numbers with a kaleidoscope of legs. They are cinematic visualizations of stage productions. But here we get a glimpse behind the scenes as the soldiers are marching with the aid of a treadmill. It plays with our perception by flipping us back into theater mode. It is suddenly more real, and grittier. At another place, a cop is telling a bum to move along, and a woman grabs the "bum's" lapel to thrust a medal in the cop's face.
The previous year, there had been a march by veterans, known as "The Bonus March." Tens of thousands of veterans and supporters gathered in Washington D.C. to demand payment of "bonus certificates" that were not due until 1945. (Ironically, the year the Second World War would end.) There was gunfire from police, and one of the marchers was killed. In "Remember My Forgotten Man" Blondell transcends herself, and Berkeley unexpectedly demonstrates the subversive potential for elaborate musical productions in popular film. These are sore issues he is giving expression to.
"We're in the Money," as the very beginning of the show no doubt generated some hoots and sardonic chuckles from depression era audiences. They were not in the money. The "Forgotten Man" number at the end no doubt left few dry eyes. The film is not escapism at all, but a conventional musical comedy that socks the audience at the end with gritty realism in the service of social issues by none other than Busby Berkeley. The film recognizes the reality the audience has stepped out of for a short time, and to which they will still be returning. It is brilliant.
Pettin' in the Park & Shadow Waltz
|Billy Barty, Founded "Little|
People of America" 1957
"The Shadow Waltz" features chorus girls pretending to play violins with neon-lit instruments and bows. The number includes the trademark Berkeley overhead camera. The Long Beach Earthquake struck during filming, playing havoc with some of the neon props, and blacking out the lights. Berkeley was nearly thrown from a camera boom, and some of the actresses were caught 30 feet up on a totally dark set. 130 people died in the earthquake, but none on the set.
Perhaps in no other film is - what shall we say... Busby Berkeley's excess creativity? - more on display than in Gold Diggers of 1933. "We're In the Money" is almost a self-parody, if Berkeley could be parodied. He turns a conventional story into social commentary. Powell is always likable as the juvenile. All of the "gold diggers" pull their weight. Aline MacMahon is funny as "Trixie,;" Joan Blondell is great as "Carol," the singer (and puts her soul into "Remember My Forgotten Man"); and Ruby Keeler is likable as the young actress vaulted into the lead. For whatever reason, Ginger is not much used after the memorable beginning, but singing "We're In the Money" in skimpy chainmail armor made of coins - in pig Latin, no less - should be enough for any actress.
This was another hit for Warner Brothers and its relatively new asset of Busby Berkeley. It remains as entertaining, and moving today as it did on opening night in 1933. Funny, though. Might not one fairly call the girls "gold diggers" after all? It started as a game of mistaken identities, but ended in three actresses getting married to three rich men, one of whom - Guy Kibbe's portly, comic lawyer - seems to have little to offer other than his money.
Gold Diggers of 1933 indeed.