One of the most astonishing things about having a blog is that I'm still finding movies all the time that amaze me. Enter, The Gold Diggers of 1933. Wow. What a picture. It's funny, sexy, the songs as catchy as a virus on an airplane and the choreography is something you really have to see to quite believe. To top it off, the closing number, Remember my Forgotten Man is socially relevant and still genuinely moving 76 years after it was recorded.
The reassuringly predictable plot follows the ups and downs of a group of showgirls who've been put out of work by the Great Depression. Joan Blondell, Aline MacMahon, Ruby Keeler and Ginger Rogers get cast in a Ned Spark's musical revue about the Depression"Forgotten Melody" which lacks only a bankroll to get off the ground. Miraculously fresh music, voice talent and a fat wad of cash are be found in a neighboring tenement apartment where "Boston blue blood" is masquerading as a starving composer (Dick Powell). After Powell makes his Broadway debut, the papers leak his identity and his brother (Warrren William) scoots down to Manhattan to cut off his income and try to block his engagement to showgirl, Polly Perkins (Ruby Keeler). He brings along the family lawyer Fanuel "Fanny" Peabody (Guy Kibbee) for moral support. The pair get side-tracked in the man trap that is the Polly's apartment, and after being pelted with lingerie for a few hours, they begin their own daliances with two of the three remaining "gold diggers." Farcical mix-ups, drunken misbehavior and more "fanny" jokes than I can possibly relate in one blog post ensue.
Warren William and Joan Blondell have some fun scenes that are far more about sex than romance. Even when he's playing a nice guy he comes off a bit as a bit of a wolf, though one that Blondell's Carol the "Cheap and Vulgar" showgirl is gaga over. William's comedy is made all the better by his method of playing everything entirely straight. In one scene he rants that he and Fanny have to stay in New York, because he's "this close" to figuring out what makes this Polly Perkins tick.
Powell and Keeler do the bulk of the singing and dancing but whenever Ginger Rogers is on screen, she is so completely head and shoulders above the other performers, that you wonder why director Mervyn LeRoy bother to feature Keeler to such a great degree. Keeler's singing and dancing aren't bad, but she's no Ginger. Sadly, Ginger's big number, "Sing You a Torch Song" got cut and is put in the film as a fairly weak performance by Powell at the Piano.
Now, I have a confession to make. I'd never actually watched a Busby Berkeley musical all the way through before . I had only seen clips of his human kaleidoscope numbers, which is like judging It Happened One Night from the hitchiking scene that always gets shown on TV. To think that until yesterday, I only thought of Busby Berkley in terms of his signature moves. He is so much more, a mad genius whose numbers move like stream of consciousness through one surreal sight gag to the next. Take Pettin in the Park, for example. The action begins with the principal couple and moves out to see a whole range of diverse couples from the very young to the very old, black, white, rich and poor enjoying love in the great outdoors. One couple have a baby in a baby carriage and as the camera zooms in we see that he is actually little person actor Billy Barty who jumps from the perambulator to wreak havoc on the set. It begins to rain on the couples and the women run behind a backlit scrim to change. Midway through Barty pulls the curtain up exposing them. Their new costume is a metallic body suit that acts as chastity belt much to the disappointment of the male dancers in the number. Luckily Barty provides Dick Powell with a can-opener at the end of the song. And that's just one minute in one song. Oh, to be Busby Berkeley and to be able to realize your every fever dream so completely on screen.
Bonus Eye Candy of the Day: Ginger Rogers in a money bikini!We're in the Money is probably the best-known sequence from the movie. The film opens with this wonderfully ironic comment on the Great Depression. Just as Busby Berkeley's choreography starts to hit his stride with the surreal weirdness, in this case Ginger Rogers singing in pig latin, while the coin that covers her, um, bikini area rotates in time to the music, the Sheriff bursts in and shuts down the show due to bankruptcy.
There is something a little bit "Springtime for Hitler" about the play within the movie, "Forgotten Melody" and its difficult to tell whether Ned Sparks description of the penultimate number, in which he shouts, "The Wailing! The Wailing" is meant to be funny or serious. It's mindboggling to imagine the narrative structure of a play that could support both "Pettin in the Park" and the expressionistic masterpiece, "Remember my Forgotten Man" which features striking vignettes of women in poverty. One image of a woman holding a baby is eerily similar to Dorothea Lange's famous Migrant Mother taken in 1936. Of course, it's no more wonderful than a movie that's been as breathlessly silly as this one has up to this point that can suddenly switch gears and deliver the tone of dignity that "Remember my Forgotten Man" deserves.