Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Gold Diggers of 1933 (1933)

Ginger in steampunk mail armor from a game
convention.
5 out of 5 Fresh Salmon for Gold Diggers of 1933. A conventional plot is enriched by surprising social commentary about the depression's forgotten men. Busby Berkeley numbers that range from the demented to a surprising finale that is gritty, full of heart, and genuinely moving.

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
Hughes' date on the red carpet of 42nd Street's opening. Despite Hughes' notoriety for sleeping with actresses, 1940 would find the pair engaged. Hughes employed elaborate methods to keep his affairs secret from the other women, but Ginger was informed about 16-year-old Faith Domergue.

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
"Pettin' the Park," on the other hand, is pure fluff. Aside from the naughty baby scampering about like a monkey,  a sudden shower has its predictable pre-Code effect in the chorus girls' wardrobe. The the audience is treated to a silhouette strip tease. When the girls come out, they are wearing ridiculous metal outfits that stymie the boys. Enter the baby with a can opener, which is immediately put to use. Make of that what you will.

"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.
                 

Pre-Code Silhouette strip tease from "Pettin' in the Park"

Conclusion

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.

19 comments:

  1. Bear, I've written to you before. I find your blog wonderful and entertaining. Not a bad idea about having two blogs, one for issues concerning the slow disembowelment of the Church,(and I don't say that with some kind of warped sense of humor, but with an extreme sense of interior pain and sorrow), and another for your other musings. What I most enjoy is the psychological balance you display as a man of great faith, a true Catholic according to the best centuries old traditional manner possible, along with your core identity as a man, without any excuse or compromise for being so in this crazy and sick pc world we're living in. Too often I see traditional Catholic men and entire families caving in on a xenophobic outlook to their lives. Nothing is joyful, nothing is beautiful, only a severe judgemental approach to everything and everyone with the looming chastisement that the Lord will justly hurl down upon the Church and the world. Perhaps that is true, but taking that to the extreme or living in that constant dread of an apocalyptic end to our lives, could lead many to despair or worse. Our Lord has already won the fight against evil and the forces of the devil. We should never forget that. No pope, world governments, or Islam can ever change the outcome to salvation history. The pangs may have begun, but we are not even close to what is about to occur if we read the Book of Revelation. Having said all that, I too enjoy the old movies of the 30's and 40's. Yes. Ginger was beautiful and so was Ruby, and I enjoy the movie, "You Can't Take it with You" or "The Quiet Man", "Song of Bernadette" and so on. God bless!

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  2. Thank you Fr. Michael (one of my twins' name) but I am afraid I do not recognize the person you describe. If I am a model of psychological balance or faith things are worse than I thought!

    I am practical and have a sense of humor. God has blessed my family (starting with my mother) with a zest and talent for writing. I am not a traddie, and have pretty low expectations. The problem is, even those are not being met. Maybe because of the traddies (a functional nickname meaning no disrespect) here, I consider them friends and comrades and they seem to have a good sense of humor. I think everybody is trying to deal with the cognitive dissonance in their own way. I frankly recognize serious deficiencies with Francis. Am I A sedevacantist, or a traditionalist? Do I feel the need to declare Francis a heretic? I honestly don't know the answers. I don't think I need to declare anything in order to recognize that he is a serious danger to the faith. In fact, I suspect I believe Francis to be more dangerous than nearly anyone else does, and, frankly, I get annoyed with the "we've had bad popes before" argument. But I am pretty tolerant of others' opinions because, like I said, none of us should be having to deal with the attacks on the Faith we are sustaining from Francis. I am not a big fan of "we deserve Divine judgment," either. No doubt, but, perhaps because my legal mind, I tend to look at the evidence and conclude Francis is wrong the very same way the rest of the West's institutions are wrong, at the very same time. He's one of a piece with any Leftists, and that is the real problem. We have a horrible pope. (I have a piece about this coming up.)

    I am an admitted Gingerphile, complete with a gorgeous autographed photo. Having one actress (no matter how much it annoys Red Death) as a focus, along with one period of film, gives me something manageable to devote my viewing and writing about. I can forget myself in an old Warner Bros. movie in a way I cannot with modern stuff. In fact, I just watch B&W!

    Please, Father, pray for me that I may be one-tenth of the man of psychological balance and faith you described.

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    1. My favorite expression of yours for Francis: crackpot.

      And yes, it stands against reason that this is some type Divine judgement. This creep is weakening the faith of Catholics, and leading them into sin.

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    2. Yes, divine judgment usually includes a clear indication about what someone is being punished for, and a remedy ("repent!").

      "Crackpot" is indeed the perfect word for Francis. If the word did not exist, I would have to invent it.

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  3. Great reviews on 42nd and Gold Diggers, I got the two confused. Seem to recall Primrose Path was good.

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    1. Thanks. I thought you were saying Primrose Path was a number. I am glad I did not black out on an entire piece! You can be forgiven for confusing 42nd Street and Gold Diggers of 1933. Both are excellent. I read where both were made at the same time. But I also just read Ruby Keeler's recollection that one was made after the other. I am learning there is a lot of different information about even basic stuff like that.

      Although Ruby Keeler had tap danced in a speakeasy under the watchful eye of her mother from 13 to 16, she was scarfed up almost immediately upon her arrival in Hollywood by none other than Al Jolson. He was, I think, 46, to her 19 when they wed. It was Jolson who got Keeler the starring roles in the two movies, even though she was not an actress. She really was the dewey eyed ingenue she portrayed. Jolson refused to see her work, however, because he did not want to see his young bride in the arms of another actor.

      The reviews just let a Bear stretch his wings a bit, maybe mix a metaphor or two. And if it brings a smile to someone who has seen these great movies, or convinces someone they're worth watching despite being old b&w movies like with people I never heard of, then so much the better. I am very happy you enjoyed them.

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    2. You might check out some of Clark Gable's movies from the early '30s, when he was just starting out (Blood Sport comes to mind). They weren't always that great, but wow, could that man act from the get go. He would've met his match in Ginger.

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    3. Another brilliant Jack Warner call. When someone pointed out Gable as a potentially huge leading man, J.L. scoffed that Gable's ears stuck out. Such a ridiculous-looking man would never make a star. Well, Louis B. Mayer at MGM snapped him up. Some makeup artist pinned his ears back with adhesive and a star was born!

      I just read The Brothers Warner by Harry Warner's granddaughter Cass Warner Sperling. It was so fascinating I missed a night's sleep to scarf it up in one session. Even accounting for bias, it is filled with details you could probably only get with the kind of access she had. It's especially good on the brothers' beginning and the legal obstacles that kept being thrown up as mostly Russian Jewish immigrants literally invented an industry.

      Gable and Ginger. Hm. It just don't sound right. Just as hard to imagine Ginger as an MGM star. L.B. Mayer would have considered Gold Diggers of 1933 vulgar.


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    4. Wow you know your stuff, bear.

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  4. I don't even remember Primrose Path! I only remember the ones I mentioned. They are easy to get confused. I remember a "Young and Healthy" number, but I couldn't tell you what film it was from.

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  5. I don't even remember Primrose Path! I only remember the ones I mentioned. They are easy to get confused. I remember a "Young and Healthy" number, but I couldn't tell you what film it was from. There are certain numbers that get stuck in your head (currently "42nd Street" & "We're in the Money") and others that are forgotten as soon as I hear them. I suppose I should keep notes during if I'm gonna be a reel movie reviewer in my own personal black and white time warp.

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  6. Bear,

    I think having articles like this mixed in with the others is a good thing.

    Though it isn't a dancing movie, I'd like to mention "Star of Midnight". If William Powell is in a movie, I generally hope to see Myrna Loy at his side, but this pairing with Ginger Rogers was a real treat.

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    1. I don't know that he ever paired with Ginger. In 42nd Street & 1933 he played against Ruby Keeler's lead. As I continue my investigations into Gingerology, perhaps I will learn differently. Powell had a funny career, starting out as the boyish juvenile, and ending as the first hard-boiled Phillip Marlowe!

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  7. Interesting perspective. I know when I used to listen to Rush Limbaugh it irritated me when he devoted half his program to football, because I don't care for the sport. This blog is eclectic, but I imagine people saying, "Darn, looks like another review of some dumb black and white movie." Perhaps I should put it to a plebiscite. The change ups keep me from getting too burned out and let me exercise whatever talent I have on something that doesn't make me want to jump from my garret window.

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  8. You could review every movie that Ginger ever made and I'd be happy. I once read a foreigner saying that the movies that came out of America then made you love the country, the movies that come out of it now make you want to run and hide. I pretty much stick to TCM these days, though I will watch them even if they're in color. By the way, if you ever want to take a look at the Serious Ginger, Primrose Path, I'll Be Seeing You and, yes, Storm Warning are all terrific movies.

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    1. Storm Warning is pretty dire for Ginger. In order to master one facet of Hollywood classic movies, I am focusing on Ginger's movies with Warner Brothers and RKO in just the 30s. The 30s was such a transformational period, and Ginger did some of her finest work. (And some schlocky stuff, too, like A Scream in the Night which is worth watching just to remind you what makes a good movie!)

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    2. We are down to sports, EWTN (occasionally), and PBS or TCM when they are not be too political. TCM has, tragically, become aggressively politically correct. As soon as it starts, we switch stations or turn it off. It's going to take ten years for these geniuses to realize people are sick of being "instructed" on the contributions of women, blacks, latinos, and next, homosexuals. Enough already.

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  9. I don't think you need a separate blog to talk about other than the Catholic Church. Besides, I like movies from cinema's Golden Age, which we're not currently in -- although, when it comes to musicals, I'd rather read about them than watch them. Plus, I'm a fan of one-stop shopping for Bear content.

    Speaking of cinema's Golden Age: one day, the little girl cutting my hair at the beauty salon asked me if I liked movies. I said I like old movies. She said: "You mean like from the '80s???"

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    Replies
    1. That's just sad. Ugh. Hardly the best decade anyway.

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